2022 NBA Free Agency Predictions: Where will Zach LaVine, Deandre Ayton, Miles Bridges and others sign?

2022 NBA Free Agency Predictions: Where will Zach LaVine, Deandre Ayton, Miles Bridges and others sign?

NBA free agency officially gets underway at 6:00 PM ET on Thursday night, but over the last several days there has been no shortage of speculation as to where the top names on the market will end up.

On the whole, the 2022 free agency class isn't as loaded as some in years past, but stars like Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, Deandre Ayton and Miles Bridges – among others – all have major decisions to make. At this juncture, some players are firmly in limbo, while others are indicated which direction they may be leaning.

Before any deals are finalized, let's take a look at where nine of the top free agents on the market could be playing next season.

NBA Free Agency Tracker: Analysis on every signing and trade

NBA free agency predictions for Beal, LaVine, Ayton and other notable players

Bradley Beal

Status: Holds $34.6M player option

Prediction: Signs five-year, $248 million max contract with Wizards

While it's not a done deal, it's widely expected that Beal will return to the Wizards on a full max contract. The question is whether Beal is truly committed to remaining with the organization through the duration of the contract, or if he's simply looking to cash in and then explore other options.

For the time being, though, it certainly appears that Beal will be on the Wizards' roster to begin the 2022-23 season. Chances are, this will remain a touch-and-go situation that we likely revisit several times over the next season or two.

Zach LaVine

Status: Unrestricted free agent

Prediction: Re-signs with the Bulls on a five-year, $212 million max contract

With free agency just days away, the prevailing belief remains that LaVine will return to the Bulls. The team hasn't explicitly committed to offering LaVine the full max, but that's what it will take to retain the two-time All-Star.

As a top-30 player, but not a top-15 guy, LaVine is exactly the type of player who instantly becomes overpaid on the max, but that's simply the nature of how these contracts work in the modern NBA. With that said, LaVine is only 27 and likely entering his peak years, so even if the Bulls opt to reset at some point, moving LaVine likely wouldn't be difficult.

NBA Free Agency 2022: When does NBA Free Agency start?

James Harden

Status: Holds $47.4M player option

Prediction: Exercises player option and seeks longer-term deal with Sixers

At this point in his career, and given what's transpired over the last two seasons, there's little reason to believe Harden would want to part ways with Philly. The question is whether he'll be able to secure a long-term, multi-year deal as his 33rd birthday rapidly approaches. The most likely outcome is Harden opting in and buying himself more time to discuss an extension – whether it be for the full four-year max or something with a bit more flexibility. 

For the most part, Harden didn't look like his former MVP self after joining the Sixers midway through last season, but Daryl Morey and the Sixers have essentially backed themselves into a corner. If Harden were to decline the player option and test unrestricted free agency, Philly would risk losing him for nothing.

Miles Bridges

Status: Restricted free agent

Prediction: Signs a four-year, $130 million contract with the Pacers

It's not often that restricted free agents are the biggest headliners, but it will be fascinating to see where both Bridges and Deandre Ayton wind up. Bridges' current team, the Hornets, have expressed interest in bringing him back, but it remains unclear if Charlotte will be willing to extend the 24-year-old the full max. Another team linked to Bridges – his hometown Detroit Pistons – may be in a similar boat after adding Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren to their developing core of Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart

By all accounts, money is Bridges' top priority, so if a team is willing to max him out, he'd likely sign that offer sheet. Enter the Pacers – one of only a handful of teams projected to have north of $20 million in cap space (that number could climb significantly higher if the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner or Buddy Hield are traded away). Like Detroit, Indiana has some appealing young pieces in place but the Pacers are a team that notoriously avoids rebuilds and wants to return to playoff contention as soon as possible. Bridges isn't exactly a No. 1 option, but he'd be a good fit alongside Tyrese Haliburton and No. 6 overall pick Bennedict Mathurin

The key, of course, is that Charlotte would have to decline to match Indiana's offer sheet. That's far from a guarantee. But it's worth keeping in mind that the Hornets are a notoriously stingy franchise, so they could very well be OK with allowing a good-not-great player to walk away at that number.

Check out all of the 2022 upcoming NBA free agents

Deandre Ayton

Status: Restricted free agent

Prediction: Sign-and-trade to the Raptors

In what's an overall underwhelming free agency class, Ayton is probably the single biggest unknown of the group. His chances to land a full-max offer sheet from a team other than the Suns seem to be dwindling by the day. And while Phoenix could still bring him back at a number below the max, the relationship between player and organization may have soured. With that in mind, a sign-and-trade may be the best path forward for both Ayton and the Suns.

Toronto hasn't been directly linked to Ayton conversations, but it's no secret the Raptors would like to put an end to their rotating door at center. Ayton would no-doubt shore up the position, but acquiring his services would likely mean parting ways with a good young asset in OG Anunoby. Ultimately, that deal would leave Toronto with a strong core of Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and Ayton.

Meanwhile, the Suns would have to find another option at center – a possibility they're clearly ready to embrace – but there's a lot to like about a Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Anunoby foursome.

Jalen Brunson

Status: Unrestricted free agent

Prediction: Signs near-max contract with Knicks

New York cleared $19 million in cap space Tuesday night by trading Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks to Detroit. It's been no secret the Knicks have been interested in Brunson, and the trade officially paves the way for the franchise to offer Brunson near-max money.

Of course, Brunson is ultimately the one who decides whether or not to take the deal. But I imagine he realizes he's capped out his potential in Dallas playing alongside Luka Doncic. Brunson has a better chance to win in the immediate future by staying with the Mavericks, but he's also just 26 years old and doesn't have to start ring-chasing now. He can take the money, be the No. 1 option in Madison Square Garden and figure out the rest later. It would be understandable for Brunson to want to lead a team.

The Knicks have some other roster questions – namely, does Julius Randle need to be moved – but signing Brunson should keep them in the mix for the play-in spot. And Brunson should see a significant bump in production. Per 36 minutes with Luka Doncic off the court last season, Brunson averaged 22.1 points and 7.4 assists.

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Collin Sexton

Status: Restricted free agent

Prediction: Cavaliers match offer from another team

Sexton missed nearly all of last season due to a torn meniscus, which could dampen his market. However, two years ago, he averaged 24.3 points and 4.4 assists on 48/37/82 shooting – impressive numbers for a 21-year-old. Cleveland enjoyed success without him last season due to a breakout Darius Garland season combined with the strong frontline of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. The Cavaliers also acquired Caris LeVert at the trade deadline, who remains under contract next season.

The fit between Garland and Sexton might not be ideal, but it would be difficult for Cleveland to sign another shooting guard with as much promise as Sexton. Finding players to come to Cleveland in the first place isn't easy, and matching a Sexton offer ensures they'll always have at least one playmaking guard on the floor at all times – not to mention two solid big men on the court at all times between Mobley, Allen, Kevin Love and Lauri Markkanen. It's hard for me to imagine Cleveland letting Sexton walk unless another franchise comes over the top with a long-term deal that pays him like a franchise cornerstone.

Malik Monk

Status: Unrestricted free agent

Prediction: Returns to Lakers on taxpayer mid-level exception

The Lakers were one of only two teams to offer Monk a contract last season, but he fared well in what was essentially a prove-it year for the former lottery pick. By all accounts, Monk enjoys playing for the Lakers and would like to stay, but the Lakers' cap situation is a complete disaster, so they're only able to offer him the taxpayer mid-level, which comes in at roughly $6.3 million. 

Certainly, Monk is worth more than that on the open market, but in a summer when few teams have significant flexibility, how many will be willing to throw him a lucrative offer? Of course, Monk could sign for the full mid-level with a non-tax team, but the allure of remaining in Los Angeles and playing alongside LeBron James could be enough to convince Monk to play one more year at a below-market deal before cashing in.

Victor Oladipo

Status: Unrestricted free agent

Prediction: Re-signs with the Heat on short-term deal

Oladipo is still getting back into the swing of things after his injury issues, and I think it makes sense for both parties to run it back in the short term. The guard played just eight regular-season games, though he made 15 playoff appearances and averaged 10.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals.

Though there are guys ahead of him on the depth chart like Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Max Strus, Oladipo is still a great defensive option and is versatile enough to play three positions. Plus, Butler is practically a lock to miss 20 games, which would give Oladipo chances to see extra run. Staying with the Heat also gives him another chance to prove he can be a playoff player.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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