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Top 12 free agents to watch as NBA free agency opens

NBC Sports

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Article Summary:

Things are about to get wild.

At 6 p.m. Eastern tonight, NBA free agency starts, the flood gates open, and there is always a rush of deals by 6:01 (but there is no tampering in the NBA, why would you even think that?). Other big ones will follow quickly, but there are always a few surprises, too.

Here are the top 12 players to watch during the early hours of NBA free agency. Some of these deals will get done quickly, but expect a few to drag out a while.

1) Kawhi Leonard

He is the best player to hit free agency this offseason, an All-NBA player last season and a two-time Finals MVP — we know he can lead a team to a championship. Despite the fact he will miss most or all of next season following ACL surgery, teams will line up to pay the man — and he apparently will listen. Sources have told NBC Sports for months — and it’s been the conventional wisdom around the league — that Leonard would re-sign with the Clippers, and the only question was years. He’s a clear max player, with his first year starting at $39.3 million and a four-year deal worth $176.2 million. Now comes word Leonard will listen to other team’s pitches. Probably. Good luck reading what Leonard is thinking.

Is Leonard frustrated enough with the Clippers to bolt and head to New York or Dallas or Miami? Probably not. But if he’s willing to even listen to offers, that has to worry Clipper fans and their front office.

2) Chris Paul

Paul opted out of the $44.2 million he was owed for this season, but don’t mistake that for a desire to leave the team he just led to the NBA Finals. Because of what he brings as a floor general and leader, teams with cap space have called (*cough* Knicks *cough*), but they are all getting shot down. Paul is expected to re-sign with the Suns for three years, $90-$100 million. It is as close to a lock as things get in free agency.

3) Kyle Lowry

The best player likely to switch teams this postseason, there were a lot of teams that have made their push to land the 35-year-old point guard — and it looks like Miami has won the race.

Lowry and Jimmy Butler are tight — which gave the Heat an upper hand from the start — and combine those two with Bam Adebayo, and you have a serious contender in Miami. What the Heat can offer (besides a three-year contract) is a sign-and-trade that works for Toronto, sending point guard Goran Dragic and promising young big man Precious Achiuwa back north of the border.

Since it would be tampering to work out this kind of deal before free agency officially opens — and we know there is no tampering in the NBA, nope, nothing to see here move along — other teams are still trying to sway Lowry. Dallas has a strong pitch and there was buzz around the league they were the frontrunners at first (looking to pair Lowry with Luka Doncic), the Knicks had the money to go big, and New Orleans created cap space to go after Lowry as they look to put together a roster that can make the playoffs (and ease the frustration of Zion Williamson). But it looks like Lowry is taking his talents to South Beach.

4) DeMar DeRozan

The second DeRozan said in a recent interview that winning a championship was the most important thing, the speculation started: Would he take a lot less money to come back home join the Lakers? Or, maybe the Clippers Don’t bet on it. With the Lakers trading for Russell Westbrook they have their secondary playmaker, and besides, both L.A. teams can only offer DeRozan $5.9 million a season — a guy who made $27.7 million and scored 21.6 points per game last season, one who will get much bigger offers than that. (Neither the Lakers nor Clippers are in a position to sign-and-trade for DeRozan, either.)

The Knicks reportedly have interest, but a lot of the recent buzz around the league has been focused on DeRozan to Dallas, where he would be a secondary playmaker next to Doncic (assuming the Mavericks miss out on Lowry). DeRozan may be the Dallas Plan B but he is a good fit.

5) Mike Conley

The Utah Jazz didn’t have much of a backup plan at point guard if Conley left as a free agent, so they wooed the veteran to stay and have reportedly come in with a three-year, $75 million offer to keep him. That likely gets the job done. Conley — who averaged 16.2 points and 6 assists a game, and was a steadying influence on the court for Utah — will be back, and hopefully will be healthy come this postseason. There is not much if any talk of a team trying to poach him.

7) Spencer Dinwiddie

There are a lot of teams searching for a point guard this offseason, which has kept demand for Dinwiddie high even though he is coming off an ACL surgery that caused him to miss almost all of last season in Brooklyn. However, that demand is not at the $20+ million a season Dinwiddie wants, most offers appear to be in the mid-teens ($15-17 million a year). There had been a lot of buzz about a Wizards sign-and-trade with the Nets to land Dinwiddie after Washington cleared out Russell Westbrook, but that has apparently cooled as Brooklyn reportedly is not that high on taking back Kyle Kuzma or Montrezl Harrell.

Teams that strike out in the Lowry sweepstakes — New York and New Orleans in particular — could turn their attention to Dinwiddie. In his last healthy season with the Nets (before KD/Irving/Harden took the floor), Dinwiddie averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists a game. He’s not a shooter (career 31.8% from 3), but he can get to the rim and knows how to set up teammates.

8) John Collins (restricted)

By far the best free agent power forward on the market, there was a lot of early buzz about teams trying to step in and poach the athletic restricted free agent from Atlanta. Two teams with cap space — San Antonio and Dallas — are reportedly still lurking around, but Jake Fischer at Bleacher Report and others have said that the likely outcome now is Collins re-signing with the Hawks for four years and around $120 million.

Collins averaged 17.6 points and 7.4 assists a game last season and is a shot blocker/rim protector on the other end, but it’s hard to imagine someone coming in and offering more for Collins than that. And even if they did, the Hawks might just match to keep him paired with Trae Young.

9) Dennis Schroder

He turned down a four-year, $84 million extension offer from the Lakers because he thought there was more money out there for him, and he could go somewhere and get a larger role (LeBron James has the ball in his hands in L.A.).

So far, it doesn’t look like more money is there. He is in the second tier of free agent point guards this offseason, but teams seem more interested in Lonzo Ball or Dinwiddie or Conley — both Washington and Sacramento reportedly didn’t want Schroder in sign-and-trades — and when the music stops Schroder might not have a chair. Or, at least the one he expected.

While there are teams that could sign him outright — the Knicks and Pelicans — the more likely outcome is a sign-and-trade that brings some depth back to the Lakers. At least that’s what Los Angeles is hoping for. Eventually, a team will land a solid point guard in Schroder — he averaged 15.4 points and 5.8 assists a game last season, although he’s not a great shooter — but he’s not generating the buzz of other guards in this class.

10) Tim Hardaway Jr.

From the start, Mark Cuban and everyone else in Dallas said re-signing Hardaway Jr. was a top priority this offseason. He averaged 16.6 points a game shooting 38.1% from 3 last season, and he brings the kind of floor spacing needed around Doncic. The price tag likely will be in the high teens to retain him, and after missing out on Lowry (apparently, that’s not finalized) keeping Hardaway seems more important. Detroit has its eyes on the sharpshooter, too. If Dallas moves slowly or lowballs him, and other teams that strike out on their Plan A could try to get into the mix.

11) Lonzo Ball (restricted)

Chicago needs a point guard and it looks like they found their man in Ball. Reportedly they are ready to make him a four-year, $80 million offer — one the Pelicans could match, now that they struck out on Lowry. This well could end up with a sign-and-trade that lands Ball in the Windy City.

Ball brings elite passing and play in transition, plus fantastic on-ball defense. He’s a smart player. He’s improved running the halfcourt offense and shooting 3s (38.8% on eight attempts a game last season), but it’s finding guys on look-ahead passes or in the corner on the break that is his specialty. That works well with Zion Williamson, and the Pelicans want to keep him happy. That said, they don’t seem to want to pay Lonzo starting point guard money, so Chicago seems his likely new home.

12) Kelly Oubre Jr.

The athletic wing — who had his best success last season as a small ball four — is drawing a lot of interest despite the fact he shot 31.6% from 3 last season. He may be 25, turning 26 next season, but a lot of teams think he has another big step to take and they can bring it out of him. There is a lot of buzz lately about Oubre ending up with the Spurs, there is mutual interest, and he could step into some of DeMar DeRozan’s role. However, the Mavericks, Knicks, and Heat are all rumored to be in the mix as well.

Oubre made $14 million last season and probably is in that ballpark again (maybe a little less). The Warriors would bring him back if Oubre was willing to take a paycut and accept a smaller bench role, but that seems highly unlikely (he said he felt he was put in “a box” last season and wants more freedom).

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