The 2021 NBA free-agent class had a chance to be historic.
Then just about everyone who ranked as a difference-maker decided they would bypass the open market and ink early extensions instead.
The player pool hasn't dried up, but if Kawhi Leonard stays with the Los Angeles Clippers, which The Athletic's Sam Amick and John Hollinger reported is likely to happen "barring a dramatic turn of events," you'll be able to take a seat without getting your torso wet. A Leonard-free hierarchy would start with aging vets (Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan) and young restricted free agents (John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Lonzo Ball).
Those players can definitely help and each will have suitors calling the second the market opens. Which phone calls they choose to answer might surprise you.
There are some natural, national brands sure to be in the discussion—the New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat to name a few—but the following four clubs might hold more appeal than casual fans realize.
When Kemba Walker bounced out of Charlotte in 2019, the franchise faced a long, uncertain future without an obvious focus. Not even two years later, the Hornets have their buzz back and it's growing loud enough to potentially lure in another notable free agent—just like it did with Gordon Hayward this past season.
Charlotte could sit about $26 million below the cap line, based on projections from Amick and Hollinger, which is more than enough wiggle room to splurge. That opportunity could present itself if future hoopers-for-hire have been tracking the happenings with this squad.
Stardom is awaiting rookie LaMelo Ball. In his debut season, he's already one of just 13 players to average 15 points, six assists and five rebounds. Narrow the scope to his 21 starts, and he's up to 19 points, six dimes and five boards, making him one of 10 players to hit those marks.
Ball is the type of talent that other players should want to join. He's always looking to pass and rarely misses an open teammate. He doesn't have to dominate the ball, either, since his three-point shot is sharp enough to add value as a spot-up sniper (2.0 triples per night at a 37.5 percent clip).
"He's damn good to be his age," LeBron James said of Ball after a March matchup, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. "His speed, his quickness, his ability to make shots and baskets in the paint...and he's going to only get better."
Beyond Ball, the Hornets have a former All-Star in Hayward, who is comfortable in the spotlight but just as effective in a supporting role. Terry Rozier works on or off the ball, and his defensive motor is always revved. Miles Bridges bounces around like he's in a pair of moon boots. P.J. Washington is so good in his glue-guy role he might score a sponsorship with Elmer's.
This entire quintet is under contract for next season, and there's still cash to throw around. Go-to scorers and impact bigs should be itching for the opportunity to latch onto this rising roster.
Why should impact free agents give the Grizzlies a look? Well, first of all, this up-and-coming roster is already making waves without them.
Memphis is on a two-year run of outpacing expectations. Entering Sunday, this squad owns a better winning percentage than the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics as well as a better net rating than the Portland Trail Blazers. And that's all true despite the fact that Jaren Jackson Jr., a central support pillar in the post-grit-and-grind rebuild, has been out all season recovering from a meniscus tear.