The Los Angeles Clippers traded for Paul George and signed Kawhi Leonard. Kevin Durant left a dynasty in Golden State to join forces with Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. Jimmy Butler took his talents to South Beach. Kemba Walker shipped it up to Boston. And after all that, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook were traded for one another.
The landscape of the league substantially changed as a result of that chaotic big-name player movement, and we could be in for something similar next year. The 2022 NBA free agent class is absolutely loaded with star power, headlined by some of those same players who were a part of the madness in 2019.
While some are less likely than others to actually reach free agency, here’s a look at the top players who could be available in 2022:
1. Steph Curry, unrestricted
2. Kevin Durant, player option
Durant has been known to make some surprising decisions during the annual free agency frenzy, leaving Oklahoma City for a 73-win Golden State team and then leaving the Warriors for the Nets. Perhaps he declines his $42.8 million option and surprises everyone once again.
3. James Harden, player option
KD isn’t the only member of the Nets’ Big 3 who can test the market. All three can. Harden has only changed teams via trade, from OKC to Houston and then Houston to Brooklyn. This could be his opportunity to test the market for the first time if he opts to decline a $47.4 million option.
4. Luka Doncic, restricted
The Dallas Mavericks have endured a messy start to the offseason, from reported friction between Doncic and a front office member to the departures of team president Donnie Nelson, which reportedly “really upset” Doncic, and head coach Rick Carlise. Despite all that, the 22-year-old superstar reportedly still plans to sign a five-year supermax rookie extension worth over $201 million this summer.
5. Kyrie Irving, player option
The always-unpredictable Kyrie Irving as a potential unrestricted free agent in a star-studded class could make for an interesting summer. Things went sour for Kyrie with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. Would the initial orchestrator of Brooklyn’s Big 3 turn down his $36.6 million option and walk away?
6. Bradley Beal, player option
The Washington Wizards had no interest in trading the league’s top scorer at the 2021 trade deadline, but chatter about a potential breakup will continue due to Beal’s looming $37.6 million player option. Beal is already eligible for an extension, but he can make $56 million more if he waits until the summer of 2022 to sign a deal.
7. Trae Young, restricted
Will Young ever be as good as Doncic? Maybe not. But the Atlanta Hawks guard continued to at least close the gap this postseason. Young was mesmerizing in his first playoff appearance, posting 28.8 points and 9.5 assists per game while leading the fifth-seeded Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals. With real “best player on a championship team” ability, Young will deservedly get a max deal.
8. Jimmy Butler, player option
Butler said he was “stupidly locked in” for the 2021 playoffs -- only for him to be outscored by Milwaukee’s Bryn Forbes in a first-round sweep. Regardless, he reportedly is seeking a max extension of four years, $180 million-plus this offseason. Should he not get an extension, Butler will have to decide on his $37.6 million player option when he’ll be 32 going on 33. Butler’s next team would be his fifth team after playing in Chicago, Minnesota, Philadelphia and now Miami.
9. Zach LaVine, unrestricted
LaVine just keeps getting better. The 26-year-old guard upped his game another level as he earned his first All-Star berth in 2020-21, tallying career highs in points per game (27.4), assists per game (4.9), field goal percentage (50.7%) and 3-point percentage (41.9%). He's eligible to receive a four-year, $104 million extension from the Bulls this summer but reportedly is expected to wait to sign his next contract until 2022 free agency, when he could land an even bigger deal.
10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, restricted
Another surefire max extension candidate, SGA had a legit All-Star case this year. The Oklahoma City Thunder looked bound for the worst record in the league, and the franchise’s direction was made clear when it kept the 6-foot-6 point guard off the court to end the season. He has a chance to cash in as the Thunder begin using their treasure trove of draft picks.
11. Deandre Ayton, restricted
Ayton would not have been this high on the list a couple of months ago. In the first three rounds of his playoff debut, the third-year big man averaged 16.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game on over 70-percent shooting and was key in Phoenix reaching the NBA Finals. He was already looking at a nice extension, but he’s earned himself a lot more money with his postseason play.
12. Julius Randle, unrestricted
Randle earned his first All-Star and All-NBA nods in Year 7 by helping turn the New York Knicks from a laughing stock into a team with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But the 27-year-old forward will need to keep proving that he’s actually made a leap and that this season isn’t simply isn’t a mirage.
13. Michael Porter Jr., restricted
Michael Porter Jr.’s agent won’t be bringing his client’s defensive film to contract negotiations, but the 6-foot-10 forward’s offensive game and upside should be enough to land himself a max-level deal from the Denver Nuggets. That is, of course, as long as the Nuggets don’t trade MPJ for an established star before then.
14. Collin Sexton, restricted
One of the more intriguing rookie extension candidates, Sexton falls in below the Luka/Trae/Ayton/MPJ tier. Sexton came back down to Earth after a blazing start to the season, but he still was a 20-plus-point per game scorer on an efficient shooting clip, and his assist numbers went up compared to his first two seasons. The question now is whether Cleveland, who could draft another guard at No. 3 overall, looks to move on from Sexton ahead of his payday.
15. Russell Westbrook, player option
It is hard to see a scenario where Westbrook turns down a guaranteed $47 million (!!!) in his age-34 season. However, the same thing was said about Chris Paul and his massive player option (when he was traded for Westbrook, coincidentally), and now he reportedly intends to opt out for a multiyear deal in this upcoming free agency period -- especially if Beal is sent elsewhere. Never say never, right?
16. Terry Rozier, unrestricted
The Charlotte Hornets were mocked when they opted not to pay Walker and instead handed Rozier $56 million in the summer of 2019. That decision isn’t as funny in retrospect, as the 27-year-old point guard enjoyed a career year for the League Pass-darling Hornets. But LaMelo Ball will be running the show for years to come in Charlotte, potentially making Rozier a valuable trade chip.
17. Jaren Jackson Jr., restricted
JJJ’s first three seasons in the NBA have mostly been marred by leg-related injuries, the latest being meniscus surgery that cost him the first half of the 2021 season and more. If he can stay healthy, he’s valuable as a stretch-five who can protect the rim.
18. Kemba Walker, player option
Kemba did not look like his All-Star self this season in Boston as he dealt with injury. New Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens quickly sent the veteran point guard and a first-round pick to Oklahoma City in exchange for Al Horford, Moses Brown and some salary relief. Considering where his health is trending, it seems more likely than not that Walker will pick up the $37.6 million player option for his age-32 season.
19. John Wall, player option
Wall had a solid season statistically after getting traded along with a first-round pick to Houston for Westbrook, showing flashes of the five-time All-Star that he is. But he is still battling injury and is now on the wrong side of 30. He would be unwise to decline a player option that will pay him $47 million.
20. Jusuf Nurkic, unrestricted
The Portland Trail Blazer center will have a full season to prove that he has recovered from the injuries he suffered over the previous two years and is worthy of big money as one of the most skilled big men in the league.