The free agent class of 2022 isn’t as deep as other classes we’ve seen. But there’s certainly some intrigue at the top, with a pair of former teammates with lucrative player options for the 2022-23 season. And while restricted free agency can limit a player’s options, the situation between the best team of the regular season and No. 1 pick of the 2018 Draft has quickly become a lot more interesting than you’d expect.
Below are the 10 most intriguing free agents, though the list includes a lot more free agents (and potential free agents) than that. Some players are intriguing because of their own talent or development. Some are intriguing because of the team they played for this past season and how the player’s staying or going affects the franchise.
Left off the list were a few free agents where the exercising of an option (team or player) seems academic. Shake Milton in Philadelphia and Jae’Sean Tate in Houston are examples in that regard.
1. James Harden (Player option), Philadelphia
Harden has a player option for next season. If he exercises it, he’s under contract for one more season at $47.4 million and will be a free agent next year. If he declines it, he’s a free agent now. (Harden was supposed to exercise the option upon his trade from Brooklyn, but didn’t do it in time.)
Putting off new-contract negotiations for another year would be a risk for Harden — who will turn 33 in August — having seen a drop-off in his ability to get to (and finish at) the rim. His 7.1 points in the paint per 36 minutes (5.9 with the Sixers in the regular season, 5.1 in the playoffs) were down from 9.5 in 2020-21.
A compromise — a multi-year deal where Harden is paid less than $47 million next season but gets some long-term security — may be in order. And the Sixers may want to give this another go with the hope that Harden will have stronger legs under him next season.
Number to know: The Sixers scored 1.12 points per chance when Joel Embiid set a ball-screen for Harden in the regular season. That was the third-best mark among 93 pairs with at least 300 ball-screens, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
Related free agents: Kyrie Irving (BKN), Bradley Beal (WAS), John Wall (HOU), and Russell Westbrook (WAS) – Like Harden, all four of these guys have lucrative player options for 2022-23. And all four had issues (injury-related or otherwise) this season.
Wall and Westbrook seem very likely to exercise their player options and remain under contract for one more year. The question is whether their teams can trade them or if there’s a buyout in their future. Beal, the youngest of the group, is the most likely to get a new, max contract.
Irving’s situation is much like that of Harden, where his team should be wary of committing to a long-term deal. Irving has played just 117 games (including playoffs) over the last three seasons and while he’s a bucket-getter, he’s contributed to the Nets’ defensive issues.
2. Deandre Ayton (Restricted), Phoenix
It’s hard to imagine one of the best teams in the league letting one of its young stars walk in free agency. But the Suns and Ayton seemingly have a complicated relationship. Phoenix gave Mikal Bridges a rookie extension last summer but didn’t do the same with Ayton, who voiced his disappointment.
The 23-year-old (he turns 24 in July) is obviously the most talented of the Suns’ big men and was a big part of the team’s regular-season success, registering career-high marks in both true shooting percentage and defensive rebounding percentage. But the Suns also had success with other centers — JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo — in Ayton’s place. In fact, they outscored their opponents by 20.2 points per 100 possessions in 239 minutes with their other four starters on the floor without Ayton (compared to plus-7.4 per 100 in 754 minutes with the full starting lineup on the floor).
And the playoffs did not end well. As the Suns lost Game 7 of the conference semifinals by 33 points, Ayton was unable to take advantage of his size and played a little more than 17 minutes. Asked about his center’s lack of playing time afterward, Suns coach Monty Williams just said, “It’s internal.”
So we have a new layer of intrigue to Ayton’s free agency. He’s young, big and talented, a former No. 1 pick who hasn’t exactly been a disappointment. But centers that aren’t Kia MVP candidates have become the most replaceable players on most rosters.
Number to know: Ayton was one of six players who shot 70% or better on at least 200 shots in the restricted area and 50% or better on at least 100 shots elsewhere in the paint.
Related free agents: JaVale McGee (PHX) and Bismack Biyombo (PHX) – With both McGee and Biyombo unrestricted free agents, the Suns don’t have an alternative starting center under contract. Dario Saric should be returning from his knee injury and has another year left on his deal, but is better suited as a backup small-ball option.
More related free agents: Mo Bamba (ORL), Ivica Zubac (LAC – TO), Jusuf Nurkic (POR), Montrezl Harrell (CHA), Kevon Looney (GSW), Andre Drummond (BKN) and Mitchell Robinson (NYK) – Bamba, like Ayton, is restricted, though the Magic have a pretty crowded frontcourt. Zubac has a very reasonable team option that the Clippers will certainly exercise. The rest of this group is unrestricted free agents, with all but Harrell having been their team’s starting center. Of course, you can certainly make the case that Drummond (who was near unplayable in the postseason for a second straight year) and Robinson are better fit for backup roles.
3. Zach LaVine, Chicago
LaVine finally enjoyed some team success, reaching the playoffs for the first time in his eighth season. But he was dealing with a left knee injury for most of the season and the Bulls struggled against quality competition. LaVine has the profile of a high-dollar player, he’s still just 27 years old, and the Bulls could want to run it back, hoping for better health next season. But it’s certainly fair to question if he’s worth a max deal that would pay him more than $40 million in Years 3, 4 and 5.
Number to know: LaVine is one of only four players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid are the others — that have averaged at least 20 points per game (minimum 50 games played) on a true shooting percentage of 55% or better in each of the last four seasons.
Related free agents: Pat Connaughton (MIL – PO), Donte DiVincenzo (SAC – R), Gary Harris (ORL), Danuel House Jr. (UTA), Jeremy Lamb (SAC), Damion Lee (GSW), Cody Martin (CHA – R), Wesley Matthews (MIL), Malik Monk (LAL), Victor Oladipo (MIA), Austin Rivers (DEN), Lonnie Walker (SAS – R) — These are the back-up wings (with apologies to Matthews, who started for the defending champs). Connaughton has an interesting decision to make regarding his $5.7 million player option. Martin and DiVincenzo are probably the best two-way players of the remaining group, while Walker might have the highest ceiling. But it will be interesting to see what happens with Monk, who had a promising season for the otherwise disappointing Lakers, averaging 13.8 points on an effective field goal percentage of 57.8%. The Lakers can only pay him $6.3 million in the first year of a new deal, but that’s a raise from the minimum salary that he got paid this past season and it might be the right amount for a one-way bucket-getter who’s best suited as a sixth man.
4. Jalen Brunson, Dallas
Early in the season, when Brunson was coming off the bench and the Mavs were a below-.500 team, he seemed like a free agent (unrestricted) likely to be poached by a team willing to give him a big raise and a bigger role. But Brunson was moved into the starting lineup in mid-December and, eventually, the Mavs became a title contender. Now, it’s hard to imagine them letting him walk. But either way, it will be interesting to see how much Brunson gets paid after earning just $6.1 million over his first four seasons in the league.
Number to know: Brunson scored 1.06 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in the regular season, the best mark among 99 players with at least 150 ball-handler possessions, according to Synergy tracking.
Related free agents: Tyus Jones (MEM) and Delon Wright (ATL), Aaron Holiday (PHX – R), Goran Dragic (BKN), Patty Mills (BKN), Dennis Schroder (HOU), Raul Neto (WAS) – There’s some quality in the back-up point guard market. Jones was critical in the Grizzlies going 21-7 (including playoffs) without Ja Morant, while Wright showed his value to the Hawks (playing alongside Trae Young for stretches) in the postseason. The Nets need to get bigger in the backcourt, but if Mills is happy in Brooklyn, he seems likely to exercise his $6.2 million player option.
5. Miles Bridges (Restricted), Charlotte
Bridges flourished in a larger role this season, seeing big jumps in minutes, usage rate and per-game numbers (see below). His efficiency (true shooting percentage) dropped, but not by much and he had improved efficiency after the All-Star break, despite missing only two games this season. He’s been pretty durable throughout his career and has become a multi-dimensional scorer, though he’s not yet the defender you’d hope to have at that 3/4 spot in your starting lineup.
Number to know: Bridges averaged 20.2 points per game, up from 12.7 in 2020-21. That was the fifth-biggest jump among 257 players who played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons.
Related free agents: Anfernee Simons (POR) – Simons (who saw the biggest jump in points per game) is another restricted free agent (from the draft class of 2018) who got some Most Improved recognition. At just 23 years old (in June), he can certainly be in the Blazers’ plans whether or not they can rebuild a contender around Damian Lillard.
6. Collin Sexton (Restricted), Cleveland
Sexton had a couple of big games as the Cavs started the season 7-4. But after he tore the meniscus in his left knee in Game 11, the Cavs continued their ascent and Darius Garland (eligible for a contract extension this summer) made it very clear that he was the young guard they would build around.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for Sexton on Cleveland’s roster, which needs off-the-dribble talent beyond Garland and the inconsistent Caris LeVert (under contract for just one more year). The question is if other teams value Sexton more than the one that drafted him four years ago.
Number to know: In Garland’s three seasons, the Cavs have been 7.6, 3.0 and 13.9 points per 100 possessions better with Garland on the floor without Sexton than they’ve been with the two on the floor together. That last number (’21-22) includes just 173 both-on-the-floor minutes.
Related free agents: Ricky Rubio (IND), T.J. Warren (IND) and Joe Ingles (POR) – This is the injured list. When free agency opens, it will be 18 months since Warren (who turns 29 in September) last played. And having suffered torn ACLs at the end of December and January, respectively, Rubio and Ingles shouldn’t be expected to contribute until (at least) late in the ’22-23 season. But they could look to Oladipo, who signed a minimum deal with Miami in a similar situation last year, for inspiration.
7. Luguentz Dort (Team option), Oklahoma City
Exercising the $1.9 team option on Dort’s contract seems academic on the surface for the Thunder, but if they choose to decline it, he would be a restricted free agent, making it easier for them to re-sign him. If they exercise the option and keep him under contract for another season, he would be an unrestricted free agent next year. Their abundance of cap space begins drying up when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie extension kicks in on July 1, so it will be much more interesting to see how they spend their money going forward.
Number to know: Dort is a stout defender, but not a disruptive one. His 1.9 deflections per 36 minutes ranked just 146th among 272 players who played at least 1,000 minutes.
Related free agents: P.J. Tucker (MIA), Kyle Anderson (MEM), Jeff Green (DEN – PO), Otto Porter Jr. (GSW) and Taurean Prince (MIN) – It seems safe to assume that Tucker will exercise his player option and stay in Miami for another year. Anderson (29 in September) and Porter (29 in June) have different skill sets, but both can defend at a high level and toggle between the two forward spots to unlock small-ball lineups for teams seeking versatility.
8. Marvin Bagley III, Detroit
After 3 1/2 seasons in Sacramento, Bagley got a test drive in Detroit, averaging 14.6 points (on 56% shooting) and 7.8 rebounds in 18 games. He just turned 23 and is remarkably skilled offensively, but has had issues on the other end of the floor. The Pistons may want more return on their investment, but it will be fascinating to see what kind of contract the former No. 2 pick gets after four years of ups and downs.
Number to know: The Pistons (who ranked 28th offensively overall) scored 110.4 points per 100 possessions with Cade Cunningham and Bagley on the floor together. That was the best on-court mark among the team’s 45 two-man combos that shared the floor for at least 250 minutes.
Related free agents: Chris Boucher (TOR), Thomas Bryant (WAS), DeMarcus Cousins (DEN), Dewayne Dedmon (MIA), JaMychal Green (DEN – PO), Isaiah Hartenstein (LAC), Robin Lopez (ORL), Eric Paschall (UTA – R), Bobby Portis (MIL – PO), Jalen Smith (IND), Hassan Whiteside (UTA) and Thaddeus Young (TOR) – Assuming Portis exercises his player option, Hartenstein may be the best of the abundant back-up big men listed here (there are more attached to Ayton above). His 3.8 steals + blocks per 36 minutes ranked sixth among 272 players who played at least 1,000 minutes, and the Clippers were at their best (plus-7.0 points per 100 possessions) with him on the floor.
9. Bruce Brown, Brooklyn
Brown was one of just two or three Nets that could be trusted on both ends of the floor as they got swept by the Celtics in the first round. And just for his defense and energy, he seems to be an irreplaceable part of the team’s core. But he’s still limited on both ends of the floor, uncomfortable on the perimeter on offense and a little too small on defense.
Number to know: Including playoffs, Brown shot 19-for-32 (59%) from the right corner, but just 25-for-76 (33%) from elsewhere around the arc.
Related free agents: Jevon Carter (MIL), Nicolas Claxton (BKN), Gary Payton II (GSW) – Carter is a smaller, defense-first guard. Claxton (a 23-year-old restricted free agent) is another young defender that the Nets seemingly need to bring back (despite his free throw issues). Payton is the Western Conference version of Brown, a guard on defense, but more of a center on offense, setting screens, rolling to the rim, and just taking advantage of the attention paid to his high-scoring teammates. He suffered a nasty injury in the playoffs, but has established himself as an important piece of the Warriors’ success and should be rewarded with a significant raise (he got paid the minimum this season) and a multi-year deal.
10. Carmelo Anthony, L.A. Lakers
Reminder: This is the most intriguing free agents (and we’ve grouped some of them together). And it’s certainly intriguing to see what comes next for a member of the 75th Anniversary Team. In his 19th season and at the age of 37, Anthony played in 69 games and registered career-high marks for effective field goal percentage (54.4%) and true shooting percentage (57.9%). Defense is an issue, of course, but if he wants to keep playing, he probably can.
Number to know: Anthony had an effective field goal percentage of 59.5% at home and 48.8% on the road. That was the second biggest differential among 158 players with at least 250 field goal attempts both at home and on the road
Related free agents: LaMarcus Aldridge (BKN), Blake Griffin (BKN), Dwight Howard (LAL), Andre Iguodala (GSW), DeAndre Jordan (PHI), Rajon Rondo (CLE), Lance Stephenson (IND), Isaiah Thomas (CHA), Tristan Thompson (CHI) and Lou Williams (ATL) – The “they’ve seen better days” list includes a few names that we may never see again in an NBA uniform.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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