The NBA's 2021 class of available players was not a deep one to begin with, and the first two days of free agency removed almost all of the top-tier talent from the market, but there are still helpful players to be had.
Only the Oklahoma City Thunder are still capable of creating significant salary cap space, and they are unlikely to invest their finances in anyone other than an expiring contract who will not alter their plans to finish in the lottery once again. OKC will buy out the final two years on their contract with four-year All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who will then take what little money the New York Knicks have left to spend.
[ 2021 NBA free agency: Live updates, reported deals and rumors ]
That leaves the Charlotte Hornets and possibly the New Orleans Pelicans as the only other teams capable of exceeding the $9.5 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception in free agency. Seven more teams can offer that $9.5 million TPE, according to salary cap expert Keith Smith: The Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
Even players on this list of top-10 available free agents may be fighting for remaining salary cap exceptions — a $5.9 million taxpayer MLE, $4.9 million room exception or $3.7 million bi-annual exception — before settling for the minimum. It will be interesting to see whether the leftover talent or big salaries dry up first.
1. Kawhi Leonard
Size: 6-7, 225
Stats (34.1 MPG): 24.8 PPG (51/40/89), 6.5 RPG, 5.2 APG (2.0 TO), 2.0 S/BPG, 26.0 PER
Leonard's résumé speaks for itself. He is a two-time Finals MVP. He will also almost certainly re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers after opting out of a $36 million option, but it is at least interesting that he will reportedly meet with other teams and has yet to commit to his incumbent club. Most rivals would bend over backwards to land Leonard, regardless of whether his ACL surgery keeps him out all of next season.
This is most likely just a staring contest between Leonard, who understands that the investment ownership made in him is contingent upon his return, and the Clippers, who know they still have control over any sign-and-trade agreement their superstar might seek. In the end, Leonard will get what he wants out of Steve Ballmer's deep pockets, because the alternative is a long-term future short of championship aspiration.
2. Reggie Jackson
Size: 6-2, 208
Stats (23.0 MPG): 10.7 PPG (45/43/82), 2.9 RPG, 3.1 APG (1.1 TO), 0.7 S/BPG, 14.2 PER
Jackson answered any lingering doubts teams might have about his effectiveness in a winning situation. Once Leonard went down in the Western Conference finals, Jackson was the second-best player behind Paul George on a Clippers team that came within two wins of the Finals. Over the final eight games of the playoffs, Jackson averaged 21.4 points on 49/37/86 shooting splits, reaffirming his status as one of the league's most efficient scorers in isolation. He should be due a significant raise from his minimum salary.
3. Dennis Schroder
Size: 6-3, 172
Stats (32.1 MPG): 15.4 PPG (44/34/85), 3.5 RPG, 5.8 APG (2.7 TO), 1.3 S/BPG, 13.8 PER
After finishing runner-up in the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year race, the Los Angeles Lakers sought Schroder's services as a third option next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That partnership yielded unproductive results. With James and Davis in and out of the lineup, Schroder struggled to establish a consistent role, and he disappeared in the playoffs. There is reason to believe he can return to form in the right situation.
4. Lauri Markkanen
Size: 7-0, 240
Stats (25.8 MPG): 13.6 PPG (48/40/83), 5.3 RPG, 0.9 APG (1.0 TO), 0.8 S/BPG, 15.2 PER
Markkanen has played for three different coaches in four seasons on a Chicago Bulls roster in constant flux. His true potential is still untapped. He is a 7-footer and career 40% shooter on 6.1 3-point attempts per game. If Markkanen can find a base level of defensive competence, he holds serious value at age 24.
5. Danny Green
Size: 6-6, 215
Stats (28.0 MPG): 9.5 PPG (41/41/78), 3.8 RPG, 1.7 APG (1.0 TO), 2.1 S/BPG, 12.1 PER
Green's streakiness has often left fans wanting more at each of his five stops over a 12-year career, and those streaks can last for entire seasons. He has also started for three championship teams with three different franchises and played in six conference finals. Green brings veteran leadership, 3-and-D help and versatility on the wing, and he should probably be higher on this list as a priority for contending teams.
6. Kelly Oubre Jr.
Size: 6-7, 203
Stats (30.7 MPG): 15.4 PPG (44/32/70), 6.0 RPG, 1.3 APG (1.3 TO), 1.8 S/BPG, 13.3 PER
There are many reasons to like Oubre. His length and athleticism make him a versatile defender, and he looks the part of a valuable weapon on the wing, but his career 33% 3-point shooting is a major concern. If you cannot make a leap in that regard while playing in the space provided by Stephen Curry's brilliance, then what chance do you have elsewhere? If Golden State lets him go, that's three teams in three years.
7. Josh Hart
Size: 6-5, 215
Stats (28.7 MPG): 9.2 PPG (44/33/78), 8.0 RPG, 2.3 APG (1.0 TO), 1.1 S/BPG, 12.2 PER
Hart is one of the more underrated players left on the market, and it is a wonder the New Orleans Pelicans have not reached an agreement with him yet. They could just be waiting to match whatever offer Hart might secure in restricted free agency. He does a little of everything and should be a prime fit on a team boasting ball-dominant stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, but his catch-and-shoot efficiency must improve.
8. Hamidou Diallo
Size: 6-5, 202
Stats (23.6 MPG): 11.6 PPG (48/34/64), 5.2 RPG, 1.9 APG (1.5 TO), 1.3 S/BPG, 14.3 PER
The 23-year-old Diallo has all the tools to be an impact player on the wing. His athleticism on defense is already worthy of attention, but he needs some polishing on offense, especially as a floor-spacing shooter. Five-star University of Kentucky recruits who slipped in the draft and flashed the kind of potential Diallo has in his first three NBA seasons do not go unnoticed. His availability in restricted free agency could just be another matter of Diallo's agent trying to get a sizable deal elsewhere, forcing the Detroit Pistons to match.
9. Paul Millsap
Size: 6-7, 257
Stats (20.8 MPG): 9.0 PPG (48/34/72), 4.7 RPG, 1.8 APG (0.9 TO), 1.5 S/BPG, 16.4 PER
The four-time All-Star has seen his role diminish as he has entered his mid-30s, playing only 12.1 minutes per game for the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs this past season. He may not be able to carry a significant load anymore, but Millsap is still capable of short bursts of defensive versatility, floor spacing and banging bodies on the block. There are any number of contenders who could use his help deep into a rotation.
10. Khem Birch
Size: 6-9, 233
Stats (22.8 MPG): 7.2 PPG (50/25/71), 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG (0.7 TO), 1.4 S/BPG, 15.1 PER
Birch is a professional backup big who brings energy and versatility off the bench, commodities contenders are looking to acquire on fairly short money. Competition for his services could earn him some extra dough.
Beyond this list, few free agents — three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams among them — strike me as someone worth an investment more than a minimum salary. The pickings are getting pretty slim already.
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports: