LBJ free agency [608x342]
LBJ free agency [608x342] (Credit: Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire)

Ratcliffe UEFA blocked Utd from signing player

Although NBA free agency has diminished in star power in recent years, this summer's class of free agents could be highlighted by the leading scorer in league history. If he declines a $51.4 million player option for 2024-25, LeBron James will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time since joining the Los Angeles Lakers via free agency in 2018.

A number of top free agents, most notably two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, have already taken themselves out of the mix by signing extensions during the season. Still, as we look ahead to free agency -- which can officially begin after the NBA Finals, when teams are free to negotiate with their own free agents -- there are a handful of top players who could change teams, led by Leonard's LA Clippers teammate Paul George.

Free agency wasn't a key factor in building the four rosters that reached the conference finals, but it has been an important tool in the New York Knicks becoming contenders. A year ago, they signed my fifth-ranked free agent, Golden State Warriors guard Donte DiVincenzo, and saw him enjoy a career season alongside fellow free agency addition Jalen Brunson in the backcourt.

Let's take a look at this year's top players available by my multiyear SCHOENE player projections, which factor in performance over the past three seasons and the development of similar players at the same age as well as utilizing adjusted plus-minus data from Krishna Narsu to incorporate value not captured by the box score.

1. LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers | F | Player option Projected WAR: 24.4

A three-year projection for James, who will turn 40 in December, is pushing it. At some point, how long James wants to play will be more important than how well he can play. Still, given James was an All-NBA pick this season -- and on my second team -- he is likely to be the best player in this group next year, if healthy, and retain significant value beyond.

2. Paul George LA Clippers | F/G | Player option Projected WAR: 23.3

Due to his playing style being more dependent on physical skills, George -- who turned 34 in March -- is forecast to lose more of his value over the next three seasons than James. Nonetheless, if he leaves the Clippers, George will have the best three-year projection for a player who changed teams since the star-studded 2019 free agency. No wonder ESPN's Brian Windhorst reported earlier this month that George is at the top of the list for the 76ers, who have max-plus cap space to build around their core.

3. Tyrese Maxey Philadelphia 76ers | G | Restricted Projected WAR: 21.6

The whole reason the Sixers are uniquely positioned to add a top free agent is Maxey's bargain $13 million cap hold, which prices him in at a fraction of the 25% max contract he is likely to secure as a restricted free agent. Having developed into an All-Star at age 23, Maxey is projected behind only James by the end of the three-year window. Philadelphia can shop for a star in free agency then exceed the cap to re-sign Maxey to a long-term deal.

4. Immanuel Quickley Toronto Raptors | G | Restricted Projected WAR: 20.9

My projections are also high on Quickley, Maxey's backcourt mate at Kentucky who likewise just completed his rookie contract. In 38 games with the Raptors, who acquired Quickley as part of the deal sending OG Anunoby to the Knicks, Quickley averaged 18.6 points per game and 6.8 assists per game, the latter nearly doubling his previous career high. Quickley's efficiency predictably dropped in a larger role, but it was important proof of concept that his productivity as a sixth man with the Knicks could translate against starters. Given Quickley will turn 25 in June, there's probably still more development to come.

5. James Harden LA Clippers | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 18.4

Second on this list a year ago, when he declined a player option and requested the trade that ultimately sent him to the Clippers, Harden suffers from looking a year deeper into his future. The three-year window now takes Harden through age 37, and while his projected value in 2024-25 ranks third among free agents, that drops to 11th by 2026-27.

6. De'Anthony Melton Philadelphia 76ers | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 17.2

Melton's ongoing back issues quietly helped derail Philadelphia's season in combination with the absence of MVP center Joel Embiid. The 76ers went 22-11 in Melton's 33 starts, but he played just six games after Jan. 12. When healthy, Melton is a standout in terms of adjusted plus-minus impact because of his versatile defense and capable 3-point shooting (37% career). And Melton -- who will turn 26 on Tuesday -- is right in his prime years.

7. Pascal Siakam Indiana Pacers | F | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 16.6

Adding Siakam midseason as a second star alongside Tyrese Haliburton helped elevate the Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals. Projecting ahead, Siakam could start to lose some value on his next contract. He turned 30 in April, and similar players at the same age saw their per-minute productivity drop by 5% the following season. Nonetheless, Siakam projects as an above-average starter for years to come.

8. OG Anunoby New York Knicks | F | Player option Projected WAR: 13.8

Box score stats, in particular, might not capture the value of Anunoby's rock-solid play at both ends of the court. His impact on the Knicks was obvious after they added him in late December. New York went 20-3 (.870) with Anunoby in the lineup the rest of the season and started the playoffs 6-2 before the left hamstring strain that sidelined him through an ill-fated attempt to play in the Knicks' Game 7 loss to Indiana.

9. DeMar DeRozan Chicago Bulls | F | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 13.8

It's a testament to how well DeRozan has offset the effects of aging that his projection is actually better now than when he hit free agency three years ago and joined the Bulls via a sign-and-trade deal. During that span, DeRozan was an All-Star twice and finished as runner-up for this year's Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year Award. At some point, DeRozan might be slowed by age, as he will turn 35 this summer after leading the NBA in minutes played this season. For now, bet against him at your own risk.

10. Malik Monk Sacramento Kings | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 12.6

Monk averaged a career-high 15.4 points and 5.1 assists in just 26 minutes per game and was the odds-on favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year Award before a sprained right MCL ended his season early, hurting Sacramento's bid to make the playoffs for a second consecutive season. A free agent for the third time in the past four summers, Monk is just entering his prime at age 26, making him an intriguing target for a team willing to test the Kings' willingness to possibly go into the luxury tax to re-sign him.

11. Nic Claxton Brooklyn Nets | C | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 12.1

Claxton's value is built more on his leaping ability and speed than his skill, so it's possible we've already seen his peak level of play by age 25. Nonetheless, Claxton figures to hold his value as a quality starting center over the life of his next contract.

12. Tobias Harris Philadelphia 76ers | F | Unrestricted projected WAR: 11.9

Evaluated based on the five-year, $180 million contract he signed with Philly in the summer of 2019, Harris was always going to come up short. On what could be a more appropriate deal this time around, Harris looks far better as a capable 3-point shooter (37% for his career) who also can create his own offense.

13. Gary Trent Jr. Toronto Raptors | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 11.8

After exercising an $18.6 million player option for 2023-24, Trent saw his production sink to its lowest point -- averaging 13.7 PPG in 28.1 MPG -- since becoming a part-time starter in 2020-21. At 25, there's little to suggest a decline in Trent's underlying ability, making him a strong bounce-back candidate for next season.

14. Gary Payton II Golden State Warriors | G/F | Player option Projected WAR: 11.8

Injuries have limited Payton to 66 games over the two seasons since he signed with the Trail Blazers as an unrestricted free agent after helping the Warriors to the 2022 NBA title. His per-minute productivity remains strong, and Payton's impact in terms of adjusted plus-minus has gone beyond that. Among Golden State regulars last season, the team's net rating with Payton on the court ranked second behind rookie Brandin Podziemski, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Although Payton has a $9.1 million player option, he told reporters at exit interviews he'd be interested in opting out to re-sign on a longer-term contract that would cut the Warriors' luxury tax bill by reducing his 2024-25 salary.

15. D'Angelo Russell Los Angeles Lakers | G | Player option Projected WAR: 11.6

Russell's decision on an $18.7 million player option for 2024-25 will have important implications for this summer. He's coming off a strong second half, having shot a career-high 41.5% on 3s. But Russell's production again declined in the Nugget's first-round sweep of the Lakers, during which he made just 32% from deep. If Russell opts in, he becomes much easier for the Lakers to trade in pursuit of a star player; but if he tests free agency, the team will lack cap flexibility to replace him.

16. Miles Bridges Charlotte Hornets | F | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 11.6

Based strictly on basketball, Bridges would be one of this summer's most coveted free agents. He is a versatile forward who is unrestricted at age 26 and has averaged 20-plus PPG during each of his past two seasons. Bridges sat out the entire 2022-23 campaign, however, after pleading no contest to felony domestic violence charges in November 2022. Suspended by the NBA for the first 10 games of this past season on top of the time missed, Bridges played for his $7.9 million qualifying offer as a restricted free agent, making him unrestricted this year.

17. Buddy Hield Philadelphia 76ers | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 11.5

Only Stephen Curry (1,618) has made more 3s than Hield (1,600) over the past five seasons, and nobody else is within 260 makes of Hield. That's about the sum total of Hield's offensive contributions, however, which can lead him to run hot and cold. Hield was down most of his first career playoff series with Philadelphia, falling out of the rotation, before scoring 20 points in 21 minutes during Game 6 versus the Knicks. Given shooting tends to age better than any other skill, the 31-year-old Hield projects as a contributor going forward.

18. Tyus Jones Washington Wizards | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 11.2

A full-time starter for the first time in his career, Jones averaged career highs in points (12.0), assists (7.3) and 3-point rate (41%) while breaking his own record for the best assist-to-turnover ratio (7.35) ever by a qualifying player. As Jones approaches his 30s (he recently turned 28), compensating for a lack of size with quickness might become more difficult and leave him more likely to be an elite backup point guard than a quality starter.

19. Isaiah Hartenstein New York Knicks | C | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 11.1

Stepping into New York's starting center job after Mitchell Robinson went out of the lineup due to left ankle surgery, Hartenstein continued the Knicks' dominance on the offensive glass and improved their interior defense. Had Hartenstein qualified, he would have had a case for making an All-Defensive team. Opponents shot just 52.5% on attempts within five feet from where Hartenstein was the primary defender, good for a top-10 finish among players that defended at least four such shots per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. That should earn Hartenstein a raise off last year's $9.25 million salary.

20. Markelle Fultz Orlando Magic | G | Unrestricted Projected WAR: 9.2

After posting the best statistical season of his career with 14.0 PPG and 5.7 APG as a full-time starter in 2022-23, Fultz helped anchor Orlando's talented second unit most of this past season. The former No. 1 pick might fit well in a reserve role similar to one played by another top prospect who struggled with injuries, Shaun Livingston, with the Warriors.

Other notable free agents

A pair of shooting guards with multiple championship rings are notably absent.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope of the Nuggets does score well by adjusted plus-minus, ranking 53rd among all players over the past three years. That better reflects his value, particularly at the defensive end as a wing stopper, than Caldwell-Pope's less impressive box score stats.

The same disconnect once applied to Warriors All-Star Klay Thompson. Since his remarkable return from ACL and Achilles injuries, Thompson is no longer the same kind of perimeter defender. Thompson's age (34) also takes a considerable bite out of his future projections.

Two players who were forced to sign for the veterans minimum last summer are worth mentioning after rebuilding their value. Both Dallas' Derrick Jones Jr. and Philadelphia's Kelly Oubre Jr. ended up starting in the playoffs. Oubre was tasked with defending Brunson throughout the 76ers' series against the Knicks, while Jones has been the Mavericks' top perimeter defender during their run to the Western Conference finals.