NBA Free Agents 2021: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, Top Targets

MILWAUKEE, WI - MARCH 02:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks dribbles the ball while being guarded by Victor Oladipo #4 of the Indiana Pacers in the fourth quarter at the Bradley Center on March 2, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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You know an NBA free agency class is loaded when teams start planning for it years in advance.

Given how loaded the 2021 crop could be, it’s no surprise to see clubs carefully monitor their future spending and create as much flexibility as possible for a potentially fortune-changing offseason.

Depending on how they handle their player options, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George could all hit the open market at the same time. Anthony Davis might, too, if he opts for a one-plus-one contract or exercises his 2020-21 player option this offseason. Each could shift the Association’s power structure on his own.

We’ll break down a different group of elite free agents here, though: those whose contracts are set to expire after the 2020-21 season. While they could always ink extensions before then, for now, these are the biggest names likely to be a part of the potentially historic 2021 free-agent class.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

If factories produced basketball cyborgs, they’d build their blueprint from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The reigning MVP is a walking cheat code with impossible mobility and explosiveness for a near-7-footer. Opponents know he’s hard-charging toward the rim—exactly half of his career field-goal attempts have come within three feet of the basket—and they’re still powerless to stop him. He’s already tied for the 16th-most seasons in NBA history with 25 points per game and 50 percent shooting, and he’s only 25 years old.

Obviously, the Bucks want to keep him inside the Badger State as long as possible. They’ve said they’ll put a supermax offer in front of him as soon as it’s allowed, and they’ll be the biggest winners of the offseason if he signs it.

But if he doesn’t, he’ll spark a frenzy. Trade offers could come flying in by the dozens, and teams will immediately work on fine-tuning their recruiting pitches. As loaded as this class might be, he’s the biggest prize regardless who else enters the market.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

A healthy Victor Oladipo is a two-way force.

In 2017-18, he made his All-Star debut behind a previously unseen combo of volume and efficiency on offense, plus his usual brand of disruptive defense. By year’s end, he had hit a number of personal bests, including 23.1 points, a league-leading 2.4 steals, 47.7 percent field-goal shooting and 37.1 percent shooting from three.

Unfortunately, it’s been a rough go almost ever since. He suffered a torn quad in January 2019, which cut short his 2018-19 campaign and delayed the start of his 2019-20 season. Over his 49 games played across both campaigns, he’s averaged just 17.4 points on 41.7/33.3/74.2 shooting.

“I’d be lying if I said I was even 80 percent out there,” he told The Athletic’s Michael Lee in May.

The Pacers know better than anyone how dominant Oladipo can be, but they’ve also seen the severity of his injury and challenges in his recovery. That could make for some interesting, potentially uncomfortable negotiations, although most expect the sides will come together on a long-term extension this offseason. If that doesn’t happen, though, he could be a trade candidate and one of the most sought-after free agents in 2021.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

With Defensive Player of the Year awards to show for the past two seasons, Rudy Gobert has the hardware to prove he’s the stingiest stopper in basketball.

Any team hoping to transform its identity on the less glamorous end of the court could do with Gobert. In 2014-15—the last season in which he wasn’t a full-time starter—Utah won 38 games and ranked 14th on defense. Over the following four seasons, the Jazz averaged 47.3 victories and a defensive ranking of 3.5.

He’s the best anchor in the business, but that doesn’t make him an automatic keeper for the Jazz.

He was the NBA’s patient zero for the coronavirus, and his admittedly “careless” behavior created tension within the locker room. The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Sam Amick and Tony Jones reported that Gobert’s relationship with Donovan Mitchell “doesn’t appear salvageable,” although Gobert has downplayed the rift.

But the big man is also fighting against basketball’s move away from interior bigs. He has some value on offense as a screen-setter, rim-runner and rebounder, but he’s not a shooter nor a shot-creator. Teams have been hesitant to give major money to players with his skill set, and that might be especially true for a small-market team like the Jazz, who can only afford so many major purchases.

That said, a contender with offensive firepower but limitations on defense—the Dallas Mavericks come to mind—could make Gobert a priority if he reaches the open market.  

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