The thing about 2022 free agency is that we’ve already had an awful lot of action considering we haven’t even hit the “free agency” part of the program yet. Player transactions are going back and forth despite that in the form of player trades and contract extensions, even though nobody can agree to a deal until 6 pm Eastern on June 30. (Wink, wink.)
Additionally, we have a bit more mystery this time around. There is no guarantee we’ll know the destination of every significant free agent at 6:01 pm the way we did a year ago. For one, some parties are at least slightly chastened by the league’s docking of second-round picks from the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat in the wake of the 2021 debacle. More importantly, however, several of these situations may just need some more time to play out.
Most notably: the future of Deandre Ayton. The top restricted free agent in this year’s class has no obvious max-contract suitors at the moment, with cap-room teams like the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs now pivoting to becoming dumping grounds for others’ unwanted contracts in the past two days. Those were supposed to be the two main stalking horses to goad other teams to pay to re-sign their own players. Subtract them, and there is precious little cap room on the market to chase free agents above the $10-million-a-year mark. Without such an offer sheet, Ayton’s employers in Phoenix also don’t have any overwhelming motivation to give him a budget-busting contract. The Suns would teeter on the edge of the luxury tax, if not past it, with another max or near-max deal on their books.
With so little cap room in the market, where could a competing offer even come from for him? Could the probably-rebuilding-but-maybe-not Indiana Pacers make a run at Ayton with their not-quite max room, or in a sign-and-trade for Myles Turner? What about the Orlando Magic, who have money and motive, but seemingly need perimeter help more than another big? Could the Memphis Grizzlies get in the game with their surfeit of assets and $22 million in cap space? (The Grizzlies’ front office, already ensconced in its familiar bunker at Utah Summer League, isn’t tipping its hand on the myriad options facing the team this summer.)
Ayton’s people will beat the bushes for sign-and-trades, but is there one that really works? Will Ayton just sign the $16.4 million qualifying offer and try again next summer? It’s a weird state of affairs. Nobody really thinks Ayton will be back in Phoenix … yet it’s becoming increasingly difficult to construct scenarios where he ends up someplace else. Something’s gotta give, you’d think, but it hasn’t happened yet.
As for the other first restricted free agent in this class, Miles Bridges, he was arrested the day before free agency started. It is clear how that will impact interest from other teams. The Hornets extended him a qualifying offer for $7.9 million to return to Charlotte.
Meanwhile, some teams on the sidelines at the moment are still trying to wedge into the game. The Minnesota Timberwolves keep working angles on D’Angelo Russell deals. The Sacramento Kings could have $20 million in cap room if they find a home for Richaun Holmes. The Oklahoma City Thunder have 24 hours to use $23 million in cap room. Philly’s Matisse Thybulle is widely known to be available for the right asset; you can have Furkan Korkmaz just by asking nicely. And, of course, there’s Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving. He nearly broke the internet before opting into his 2022-23 contract for $36.5 million, but that doesn’t mean the situation there has gone away. Just because the monster is submerged beneath Loch Ness at the moment doesn’t mean it won’t resurface later this summer.
In contrast, several other free agents’ destinations are already well known. Bradley Beal, Zach LaVine, James Harden, Mitchell Robinson, Jusuf Nurkić and Nicolas Batum are near-certain to re-sign with their respective teams. Jalen Brunson, not so much. Donte DiVincenzo didn’t get a qualifying offer even though Sacramento traded draft equity for him at the trade deadline, perhaps as part of a cap-room play by the Kings that’s contingent on making another trade first. (Or not…but it’s the best reason I got.)
There’s activity further down in the market food chain as well. John Wall has been bought out and seems likely to become a Clipper via their taxpayer midlevel exception, which in turn likely means Isaiah Hartenstein will get his payday someplace else. The Clippers will bring back Batum and Amir Coffey, but they, like the Heat, won’t let a tight-cap situation and few draft assets keep them from circling the waters for other prey.
Harden’s opt-out in Philadelphia, and subsequent re-signing for a lower cap figure as reported by The Athletic, is important in this part of the market, too. It likely opens the door for the Sixers to sign PJ Tucker with their non-taxpayer midlevel exception, even if the rumored three-year deal for the 37-year-old seems to tempt fate. (I say this as somebody who once signed a 37-year-old for a three-year deal for the full MLE.) It also opens up the Sixers’ biannual exception and perhaps some sign-and-trades.
So with all that said … who is actually available to sign right now?
I’m glad you asked. I already listed my top-25 free agents by BORD$ ahead of free agency, as well as the BORD$ values for every likely free agent at point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. Those links also contain some descriptions of how the player valuations came about and where the market may differ for particular players.
That list has changed slightly as a result of decisions in the past couple of days. Heading into the opening minute of free agency, here is what the “BORD$ board” of top-25 free agents (and BORD$ projections) looks like in the wake of some opt-ins and extensions. We’ll be tracking this as free agency goes on:
- James Harden, SG, Philadelphia: $46,617,283 (previously: 2)
- Bradley Beal, SG, Washington: $38,520,130 (3)
- Zach LaVine, SG, Chicago: $31,716,188 (4)
- Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix (restricted): $31,406,061 (5)
- Miles Bridges, PF, Charlotte (restricted): $30,940,550 (6)
- Jalen Brunson, PG, Dallas: $29,371,294 (7)
- Chris Boucher, C, Toronto: $19,782,672 (8)
- Bruce Brown, SF, Brooklyn, $19,043,654 (9)
- Kyle Anderson, PF, Memphis, $18,990,342 (10)
- Mitchell Robinson, C, New York: $18,862,212 (11)
- Jusuf Nurkic, C, Portland: $17,414,518 (12)
- Otto Porter Jr., SF, Golden State: $16,603,510 (13)
- Malik Monk, SG, Lakers: $16,511,722 (14)
- Bobby Portis, C, Milwaukee: $15,793,989 (15)
- Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Sacramento: $15,551,549 (16)
- Montrezl Harrell, C, Charlotte: $14,730,416 (17)
- Delon Wright, PG/SG, Atlanta: $14,546,800 (18)
- Tyus Jones, PG, Memphis: $13,791,316 (19)
- Nicolas Batum, SF, Clippers: $13,734,340 (20)
- Jae’Sean Tate, PF, Houston (restricted): $13,343,341 (NR)
- Kevon Looney, C, Golden State: $12,533,705 (21)
- Cody Martin, SG, Charlotte, (restricted): $12,366,850 (22)
- Anfernee Simons, PG, Portland (restricted): $11,467,484 (23)
- Collin Sexton, SG, Cleveland (restricted): $10,816,788 (25)
- Isaiah Hartenstein, LA Clippers: $10,549,849 (NR)
(Photo of Deandre Ayton: John Hefti/USA Today)