The 2021 NBA Playoffs have seen new contenders rise to the top of the East and West, as the four teams left in the conference finals have combined for two championships, most recently the Bucks in 1971. That has also opened the door for some new stars to emerge on a grander stage, most notably Atlanta’s Trae Young and Phoenix’s Devin Booker, while the Clippers’ Paul George has rewritten his own narrative with sensational play.
With some of the injuries we’ve seen to key players, this postseason has also thrust others into a larger role, offering an opportunity to prove what they can do on the biggest stage. Some have been younger players getting an expanded role for the first time, while others are veterans proving they still have plenty in the tank to provide to a contender. Showing that is always important, but never more than when you’re about to enter a free agent summer. There have been a number of upcoming 2021 free agents who have taken advantage of this postseason to showcase what they can bring to the table for a top team, and are set to cash in on their performance this summer.
Reggie Jackson (Clippers, UFA): The most talked about player in terms of who has made himself the most money in the playoffs is Reggie Jackson. The Clippers guard is set to go from making the vet minimum to another substantial, multi-year deal thanks to his performance for L.A., stepping up to help carry the offensive load alongside Paul George in the absence of Kawhi Leonard. Jackson has made more threes than any player in the 2021 Playoffs and is averaging 18.1 points, 3.2 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game on 49.2/41.5/86.8 shooting splits in 18 games. It hasn’t just been a hot series for Jackson, but a sustained performance and that matters in securing him a big contract this summer from someone.
John Collins (Hawks, RFA): So much of the conversation is, rightfully, about Trae Young, but John Collins has consistently been their second best player. With Bogdan Bogdanovic being hampered by a right knee injury, the Hawks have needed someone to step up as a secondary scorer and Collins has been that guy against Milwaukee so far. His averages aren’t gaudy — 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game — but he’s been efficient (55.4 percent shooting from the field and 34 percent from three) and he’s shown versatility playing some small-ball five and some big-ball three around his typical stints at power forward. The Hawks weren’t ready to pay Collins what he wanted before the season, but his playoff performance is going to apply plenty of pressure to give him a big time deal this summer.
Cam Payne (Suns, UFA): Payne was good for the Suns all season, but the playoffs have been where he’s really shined. He set a new career-high for points scored in any game earlier this postseason and is averaging 10.3 points and 3.5 assists per game (with just 1.2 turnovers) on solid efficiency (42/35.8/93.8 splits). Payne has been vital to Phoenix’s success, particularly early in the Clippers series with Chris Paul out, and for someone who was out of the league and playing in China two years ago before getting picked up as a late pre-Bubble addition by the Suns, he has more than made the most of his opportunity and proven he belongs in the NBA.
Tim Hardaway Jr. (Mavs, UFA): Hardaway was the Mavs’ second-best player in the Clippers series, and while he wasn’t quite as consistent as he maybe would like, I think he still earns a spot on this list. He was always going to command some serious money this offseason, but he showed how valuable he is to Dallas and why they can’t risk seeing him walk this summer, so expect the Mavs to have to pony up big time to keep their best perimeter threat alongside Luka Doncic.
Norman Powell (Blazers, UFA): Powell was only out there for six games this postseason, but he was terrific for Portland, particularly in some games where they desperately needed a pick up offensively. He didn’t need a “prove it” performance in the same way as Payne or Jackson, but his effort certainly endeared him to the Portland faithful and showed why they dealt for him at the deadline in order to secure his Bird rights. Whether he stays or not is among the bigger questions facing the Blazers in a very important offseason, and they’ll have plenty of competition for a wing of Powell’s caliber on the market.
Blake Griffin (Nets, UFA): After he got bought out by Detroit and landed in Brooklyn, Griffin was expected to look solid in a reduced role that would only ask him to do what he’s best at, but few expected him to look as good as he did in the postseason. He was simply terrific for the Nets, giving them quality minutes on both ends. What he does this offseason will be fascinating. It would make a lot of sense for him to stay in Brooklyn and continue in a role that clearly suits him, but that would need to be on a minimum deal or a small exception. It’s possible bigger money is out there for Blake, but after how things went in Detroit, he’ll surely be thinking about fit and title contention first, which might lead him right back to the Nets.
Derrick Rose (Knicks, UFA): Rose was the Knicks’ best player in their first round series with the Hawks, which, in fairness, is partly why they were bounced in five games. He’s not a player capable of dragging teams to win by himself at this point in his career, but he showed that there’s still plenty left in the tank, particularly on the offensive end. Rose has said he enjoys being in New York, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a contender comes calling with a two-year mid-level type deal.
Bobby Portis (Bucks, UFA): Portis was one of Milwaukee’s offseason additions last summer in their scramble to put together a squad after the Bogdan Bogdanovic debacle, and while there were questions at the time about whether he’d bring them what they needed come playoff time, he has answered those and then some this postseason. Portis has been, alongside Pat Connaughton, Milwaukee’s best and most consistent bench contributor, and his energy has been a needed jolt for the Bucks second unit. He has embraced his role in Milwaukee, taking fewer shots but being a willing scorer when the opportunity presents itself, and he’s bought in fully to what the Bucks do defensively to help alleviate a huge drop off when Brook Lopez is on the bench by being a switchable option to shake up the looks they can show opponents compared to Lopez’s drop coverage. He’s going to have plenty of offers to consider this offseason, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back on the Bucks, as, similar to Griffin, he’s likely learned the value of fit after numerous stops elsewhere.
Nic Batum (Clippers, UFA): Batum’s resurgence this season with the Clippers on a vet minimum will open up some doors to go elsewhere in the offseason. He’s still a quality corner three shooter and he’s proven to be an extremely valuable small-ball big as the Clippers have morphed into this postseason’s best small team, at times out of necessity rather than will. Like a number of guys on this list, Batum will likely be seeking chances to win and fit over money, but the offers might be more significant even accounting for that thanks to his play this postseason.
Torrey Craig (Suns, UFA): This is more of a “I still belong in the league” situation as Craig hasn’t been out of his mind or anything, but he has been a helpful rotation piece on a Finals contender in Phoenix. That’s important for Craig, who couldn’t crack the Bucks rotation this season (after falling out of favor in Denver at the end of last season) and was a literal throwaway in the PJ Tucker trade that the Suns wisely scooped up for free. He has always been a willing and capable defender, and has bolstered his stock with some terrific and timely three point shooting (both in the regular season at north of 36 percent and jumped to 44 percent in the playoffs). He’ll have some real offers to consider this offseason as a quality role player.
DeMarcus Cousins (Clippers, UFA): Similarly, DeMarcus Cousins has gotten his chance to prove he still can be a helpful offensive player in the right role. Ty Lue has helped him out by deploying him against opposing small-ball lineups and letting him feast at the rim, proving that in the right situation, Boogie can still do Boogie things. He is not the same explosive athlete he once was, but he still has his back to the basket craft and knows how to use his immense size to bully his way to the basket and score once he gets there. He’s still likely to find himself on vet minimums going forward, but for someone who had injuries push him near the brink of being out of the league, that’s a welcome improvement.