NBA free agency is either an opportunity to anticipate or a trial to be dreaded, and the difference depends on how the player who's approaching it performs.
Remember, free agency isn't just about the money coming in the short term. Contracts signed in the 2022 offseason set a precedent. Once attached, it's difficult to peel off the "minimum" or "mid-level" label. On the flip side, it's much easier to fall out of max territory than it is to break in.
These are the high-profile 2022 free agents who've done the most to change their fortunes so far—for better or worse.
Helping: Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns, RFA
Deandre Ayton might have been disappointed that he and the Phoenix Suns couldn't agree on an extension before the 2021-22 season, but he won't feel that way after the next round of negotiations.
The No. 1 pick in 2018 hasn't let his contract status affect his play, and Ayton is proving his worth as a key piece on a contender for the second straight season.
The numbers are just one part of the case for his warranting the max-level deal he couldn't wring out of the Suns in October. Phoenix is 2.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, with most of the boost coming on defense. This is the third straight season in which Ayton has improved the Suns' bottom line.
He's made that difference with efficient scoring (16.9 points per game on 62.1 percent shooting), elite rebounding (a career-high 11.2 boards per game) and the rare ability to dominate the interior while also surviving in space defensively.
Ayton was a massive problem for the Golden State Warriors in Phoenix's two meetings with a team it will likely have to beat to reach another Finals, totaling 47 points and 17 rebounds, with eight of those boards coming on the offensive end. A center who can exploit the Warriors' lack of size while also keeping his bearings against one of the most movement-heavy and complex offensive systems in the league is basically priceless.
He might also be the player best equipped to slow down Nikola Jokic. The reigning MVP hasn't held back praise for his 23-year-old rival.
Ayton has some of the best interior touch in the game, cannot be played off the floor by small-ball opponents and is only getting better defensively. The Suns weren't sure he was worth a no-questions-asked max a few months ago. Restricted free agency will prove those doubts were a mistake.
Hurting: Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets, Player Option
Kyrie Irving may not hit free agency at all this summer, a scenario that once would have been unthinkable.
Why wouldn't a 29-year-old NBA champion and seven-time All-Star coming off the most efficient shooting season of his career head into 2021-22 with an unwavering intent to get back on the market as soon as possible? Framed another way, what's a guaranteed $36.9 million in 2022-23 when you can opt out and sign a new contract worth up to $242 million over five years?
Considering Irving's spotty health history, which had held him under 70 games in seven of his 10 seasons before this one, few stars had better reasons to lock in multiple years at a max pay rate than he did.
Now more than two months into the 2021-22 campaign, Irving hasn't played a minute. His refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will likely thin the pool of potential suitors and cause those who remain to question what he's actually worth. The bet here is that no one will be quick to hand over as much money as the CBA allows.