Get your tweeting thumbs and TV-watching ass muscles ready, because the NBA doldrums are about over. Players are trickling back, and team higher-ups are in the muck of one of the thorniest challenges they’ve ever faced: negotiating contract extensions for fourth-year players, deals that must be completed by Halloween.
The extension limbo is always a delicate dance. Committing long-term money to a young player a year ahead of time is a wager on that player’s improvement, work ethic, and health. But it’s a bet that usually works out, precisely because young players with solid three-year NBA track records tend to improve.1 Even extensions that at first induced something between nausea and rage — DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, Mike Conley — morph into fair deals.
And it works out for players, in a way, considering they exchange some risk for long-term security.
Some are straight steals, including extensions for Stephen Curry, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and others. There have been some stinkers, but extensions on the whole have been good value contracts. The Jazz cost themselves more than $3 million per season by letting Gordon Hayward into free agency. That small chunk of potential savings matters. Multiply it over three players and it matters enormously — especially under a collective bargaining agreement with harsh restrictions on big-spending teams.
Hayward and Chandler Parsons are extreme examples. Teams that can’t draw a nibble on the extension carrot have the stick of restricted free agency on the other end, and rivals are terrified to bid on restricted free agents. For every Hayward, there are two or three guys who sit untouched for weeks or sign team-friendly contracts in anticipation of a nonexistent market. Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe have learned this summer what Nikola Pekovic, Gerald Henderson, and many others learned before them.
There is no universal right answer. This extension period is especially tricky. The NBA is on the verge of signing a new national TV contract that will double the current deal, a windfall that will launch the salary cap into the stratosphere.
One problem: No one knows when, or how, that cap jump will happen. It’s at $63 million for this season, and teams are projecting it could leap as high as $80 million for the 2016-17 season — the first under the new TV contract. Depending on how the league and its TV partners structure the inflow of cash, there could be one or two more mini-jolts before the cap settles into a new normal around $90 million.2
One theory floating around that makes some practical sense: The league might backload the TV deal so that networks pay a bit less than expected in 2016-17 and a bit more each year after. Why? Because teams can lock out the players after the 2016-17 season, push for a larger percentage of revenue, and slot more of the TV revenue into that post-2017 pool. Diabolical!
Grantland reported in July that the league is considering methods of pinching the onrush of money to avoid a gargantuan one-year jump in the cap level. Teams are speculating that the league might apply future TV money to the 2015-16 cap, nudging it up above the current projection of $66.5 million. A bigger than expected jump would especially impact max contracts, since they are tethered directly to the cap ceiling. The league has told teams in the last two weeks to hold their 2015-16 cap projections steady, but there is a roiling anxiousness that this may change soon — and an urgent need to know.
Any player contract locked in now, under a $63 million cap, will obviously look loads better from the team’s perspective if the cap hits $80 million in two summers. Both agents and teams understand this. Good luck hammering out an extension in this environment.
With all of this in mind, here’s a look at six of the most intriguing extension-eligible guys in the league.3
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Let’s pretend this is more complicated than LeBron James ordering the Cavaliers to take care of Thompson and the agent they share, Rich Paul. If this were a real negotiation, Thompson might be the most interesting extension case in league history.
No single player will benefit more than Thompson from this summer’s wild roster movement. Thompson’s third season was a depressing plateau, one that pegged his ceiling on offense as “skilled NBA mooch.” He is not a post-up threat and probably should not be allowed to even try it now that three of the world’s 20 best offensive players are in Cleveland. Thompson shot just 41 percent on post-ups last season, per Synergy Sports, and has one go-to move: a righty jump hook he lofts after a quick one-dribble attack from the left block.
Thompson is fast for a big guy, and he sucks in some attention cutting to the hoop on pick-and-rolls. But all of that attention doesn’t lead anywhere good when he catches the ball. Thompson can’t shoot at all — the much-publicized shooting-hand switch resulted in the near-total abandonment of his jumper — and he doesn’t have the strength or leaping ability to finish through help defenders near the basket.
That left Thompson almost totally dependent on his in-between floater:
He has a knack for that shot, but it’s still a 40 percent (or worse) proposition, with better options often available. Thompson forces a lot of those floaters when more skilled players would dish to something better.
Thompson assisted on just 4.5 percent of Cleveland’s baskets while on the floor last season. Only seven players logged at least 2,000 minutes and failed to crack a 5 percent assist rate. Almost all of them were low-usage big men who get paid because they protect the rim and hit the rare shots they take. Thompson, a career 47 percent shooter, does neither.
This is not to say that Thompson is a bad player. He’s a mobile defender who works his ass off and boxes out diligently. He operated within a dysfunctional offense last season, and he had no space in the lane when he shared the floor with Anderson Varejao.4 Thompson can score on the pick-and-roll when the lane is clear, and he’s a smart cutter who lurks along the baseline, waits for his man to leave on a help assignment, and darts into open passing lanes for easy dunks.
His shooting percentage didn’t change, but a much larger share of Thompson’s shots came within the restricted area when he played alongside the spacier Spencer Hawes, per NBA.com.
So, um, next season is going to work out well for him. Thompson may not start, but given Varejao’s age and constant health issues, Thompson will spend a ton of time playing alongside Kevin Love — a 3-point-bombing power forward who keeps the lane clear. Thompson will often share the floor with the league’s best passer and four threatening long-range shooters. That is an ideal environment for a mooch.
He could well put up something like a 14-8 line on 53 percent shooting, and if he does that, the Cavs will crow that their pending eight-figure overpay is a bargain under a rising cap. “We spared ourselves a Hayward,” they’ll say.
And they will be wrong. The Cavs could plop a bunch of big men on cheaper deals into Thompson’s new role and watch those players produce in the same way. Players such as Trevor Booker, Ed Davis, and Kris Humphries bring chunks of the required skill set, and they’re barely making $10 million combined. DeJuan Blair will make $2 million next season, and though he’s not in Thompson’s league as a defender, he’s a craftier pick-and-roll player on offense.
The rising cap makes all present-day contracts look better, but it could also bring opportunities that those contracts could imperil. Cleveland has three max players on its roster, but if the cap rises fast enough, it could actually have some flexibility in the summer of 2016 — right in time for the anticipated mega-leap.
The degree of flexibility is hard to pinpoint, since both Love and James could cycle on one-year deals before striking long-term max contracts the moment the cap makes its biggest jump.5 The timing would make a giant difference, worth several million dollars (at least) every season. If either Love or James locks in an early long-term max with annual raises that don’t keep pace with the jumping cap, the Cavs could work their way to actual cap space in that summer — an unprecedented thing for a superteam.
Max deals work in such a way that the player earns a salary equal to a set percentage of the cap level in the first year of the contract. Love’s case is especially tricky, since that set percentage increases with a player’s experience level — up to his 10th season. Love will burst through the final two experience bands over the next four years.
That is unlikely, and it would require letting both Thompson and Dion Waiters walk. The more plausible scenario involves Cleveland having enough flexibility under the tax to pull something more dramatic than LeBron’s Heat could ever manage. That could mean using the full midlevel exception on a rim protector, or using the sign-and-trade as a weapon to acquire a fourth top-level player — something a taxed-out team cannot do.
Splurging on Thompson would kill that dream. The Cavs may be so good that it won’t even matter. This is a scary roster, younger across the board than the LeBron Heat teams that became trapped by the luxury tax. But the rising cap might spring Cleveland from that usual superteam trap, and overpaying Thompson now carries an opportunity cost.
Thompson is a solid player — a good guy who is well liked around the league. The Cavs should at least sniff out Thompson’s trade market for players at positions of need — a big guy, and a wing who fills at least half the “3-and-D” equation — before throwing big dollars at him. He’s a power forward, and Cleveland has two of the league’s 10 best overall players at that position.
Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns
Power forward is loaded leaguewide, and scouts say the same is true in the pipeline. There’s a reason Monroe felt the cold shoulder from the league while teams tossed piles of money at Parsons and Hayward. Hitting the free-agency market a year from now with Monroe, Paul Millsap, a pile of centers, and perhaps even Kenneth Faried may not be a great outcome for the superior Morris twin. He has just one good NBA season on the record; Phoenix has the upper hand.
The Suns also know that properly leveraging an advantage can come with a cost. Phoenix avoided overpaying Eric Bledsoe in free agency, but the Suns’ pragmatism irritated him, and they now risk losing Bledsoe outright. Phoenix could find a happy medium by lavishing Morris with an offer that looks crazy now but could end up a bargain if he builds upon his breakout third season. Something like a four-year, $32 million deal that stays flat or declines year-over-year as the cap rises might work for both sides.
That’s less than Cleveland will likely pay Thompson, and while Morris isn’t a top-five pick with Thompson’s career-counting stats, the Morris that emerged in Phoenix last season is a better all-around player. His upside might be as a skinny and more athletic version of Boris Diaw, with less innate passing ability.
Diaw’s passing is deadly in part because his post-up game is threatening enough to draw help. Morris was one of the league’s very best post-up scorers last year; he shot 46 percent from the block, drew fouls at a decent rate, and took care of the ball, per Synergy. He subsisted on high-degree-of-difficulty turnarounds and fadeaways, and he might not be able to make those shots at the same clip next season:
He has a nice touch and enough moves in his arsenal — on both blocks — to keep defenders guessing. He was a jab-steppy ball-stopper in the post, and that must change; defenses will focus on him, and Morris will share the floor with more accomplished scorers if he replaces Channing Frye in the starting lineup.
Morris can pass. He spots cutters from the elbow, whips touch passes around the horn to corner shooters, and is a dynamite entry passer.6
An assistant coach once told me that Robert Horry might be the greatest post entry guy ever, since he had good enough shooting touch to play along the perimeter and was tall enough to see over defenders. Morris isn’t on Horry’s level as a shooter, but he threw some beautiful lobs over fronting defenders last season.
Morris can work off the bounce, both from the block and when he gets the ball on the perimeter against a scrambling defender:
Diaw is skilled enough to keep the attack moving from anywhere on the floor. Morris has the same basic mix of ingredients; he just needs to find the right dose of each one. He could look to pass a bit more from the post, and he should recommit to becoming a league-average 3-point shooter after shifting inside last season.
Morris probably tops out as a slightly above-average defender, and that’s fine. He doesn’t scare anyone near the basket; opponents hit a whopping 57 percent of close shots when Morris was both near the shooter and the basket, per NBA.com. He gets caught at times in no-man’s-land defending the pick-and-roll, drifting away from his man to help without actually helping:
There are burblings that perhaps Morris doesn’t play with enough “urgency,” and Phoenix needs to steal some of Intel’s7 best scientists to determine whether the Morris twins lose their individual powers if separated. The brothers told teams before the 2011 draft that they would take less money to stay together, sources say, and if that’s still true, the Suns should apply some pressure.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Intel has a major hub in the Phoenix area.
After three years and 5,000-plus minutes, league executives still feel as if they are only beginning to learn about Vooch. But true starting centers get paid, and if Vucevic gets to free agency next summer after another strong season, there’s an outside chance some team desperate for size will toss a max offer sheet at him. I mean, JaVale McGee is making $11 million for being tall and goofy. Vucevic can actually play.
The Magic can nip that process with an extension, but given Vucevic’s strong play, it may cost them $11 million or $12 million per season to do that. And that would be a bet — on Vucevic improving his defense and functioning on offense without much shooting around him.
Vucevic is a nimble post scorer for a behemoth. He’s quick sliding around the floor, and he’s strong enough to seal deep position against almost anyone. He shot about 46 percent on post-ups, per Synergy, with a bunch of crafty moves he can pull with either hand.
The scoring hasn’t translated to the pick-and-roll. Vucevic isn’t a leaper, and if he catches the ball in traffic, he struggles to finish through contact. He barely gets to the line for a high-usage big guy, and he shot just 42 percent out of the pick-and-roll last season — 89th among 111 players who finished at least 50 such plays as the roller, per Synergy.8
Most of the guys below him are pick-and-pop shooters, naturally taking lower-percentage shots — including lots of 3-pointers. There is also Roy Hibbert, checking in at no. 104 out of 111. Oof.
In fairness, Vucevic rolled into a crowded lane unless the Magic paired him with a pseudo floor-spacing power forward like Tobias Harris. Good luck finishing pick-and-rolls like this:
Vucevic isn’t just a paint player. He’s a decent midrange shooter, though he can fall too much in love with his jumper, and he can pass and screen just fine from the elbow area. He’s a monster rebounder on both ends and an underrated practitioner of the Tyson Chandler tip-out.
The questions come on defense, where Vucevic’s nimble footwork doesn’t carry over. Vucevic moves fast and with purpose when he’s dictating the action — when he knows the plan. Shift control to the other team, and he looks like a typical plodding 7-footer.
Vucevic tries hard, and the Magic wisely have him sit back against the pick-and-roll:
Large humans help on defense just by getting in the way. But Vucevic wilts a bit against teams that can stretch him out. Vucevic can’t sit back that far against elite shooting point guards, and when he has to chase those guys, he has trouble scampering back to patrol his original assignment. Kyle O’Quinn bails him out here:
Vucevic can be a little slow rotating from the weak side as a helper; per NBA.com, opponents shot 56.6 percent on close shots with Vucevic near the basket, an ugly number.
The Magic were a weak defensive team almost across the board, and Vucevic will improve as he grasps NBA speed and timing. But he’ll probably never be a major plus defender, and he needs to see the ball a lot in order to maximize his value on offense. The market will say he’s worth a near-max deal, but I wouldn’t be stoked to be the one paying it.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
This is perhaps the perfect aggressive extension case — an elite wing defender who carried a ton of momentum into his third season and promptly watched his shooting fall into the toilet. Butler’s defense remained stout, and if Derrick Rose can help him rediscover his shooting touch, Butler will draw huge interest as a free agent in a league short on two-way wings.
Chicago might have a window now to ink Butler on a long-term deal that wagers on a rebound but doesn’t carry the full cost of one. If Butler turns it down and plays well enough to draw a max offer sheet, the Bulls could shrug, sign it, and know they did their best to get a better deal.
Rose will turn Butler back into a spot-up shooter, but playing two years without Rose has helped Butler develop all the other parts of his game. The Bulls have used him as the screener in pick-and-rolls, and they have even designed funky plays in which Butler fakes a pick under the rim and reverses into post-up position:
He shot a disastrous 32 percent on the pick-and-roll last season, but Chicago’s spacing was mostly bad, and a lot of those were heaves late in the shot clock. The Rose-less Bulls lacked a point guard capable of puncturing the defense, so when the ball found its way back to Butler for a secondary attack, he had to work against a set defense. He can’t really do that.
He can drive in either direction, he’s a canny reader of defenses, and he’s a bulldozer going to the rim once he gets a head of steam:
Butler, jersey somehow always untucked, looks like Earl Campbell barreling through defenders. He can take a bump and hang in the air, which helped him draw shooting fouls on nearly 15 percent of his pick-and-roll finishes — the third-highest such mark among all ball handlers,9 per Synergy.
Again, with a minimum of 50 pick-and-rolls.
Stick Butler in a whirring offense that would get him the ball against scrambled defenses and he could become the Bulls’ version of Kawhi Leonard — a so-so off-the-bounce guy who can create just fine given a small head start.
All of this hinges on Butler finding his stroke after shooting just 28 percent from deep last season. Defenses stopped guarding him, allowing his man to muck up more threatening stuff in the paint:
He has a slowish release that turns open jumpers into contested shots, and, whoa boy, did Butler brick away on contested shots. He hit just 31 percent of guarded shots outside 10 feet, per SportVU data provided to Grantland, one of the worst marks in the league.
He missed a bundle of open shots, too, but he nailed nearly 38 percent of his 3s in 2012-13. Butler’s defense is a known commodity. If his all-around offense catches up, he’ll be coveted leaguewide.
Alec Burks, Utah Jazz
One of the hardest things to do in the NBA is drive to the basket at the kind of calm pace that allows a player to keep all of his options open. A lot of ball handlers turn the corner on a pick-and-roll, stop at the foul line area, and throw a perfectly nice pass to a teammate on the perimeter.
Once that same player gets inside the foul line, he picks up speed and drives into a thicket of bodies with an intent to get to the rim. If those bodies terminate that plan, well, there is no plan B.
Burks is an explosive, ultra-fast athlete, and he made himself more unpredictable off the bounce. He mixed up his use of screens10 and added some Eurosteppy finishes:
In 2012-13, he went away from picks more often than any player in the league, per Synergy.
He’s an effective passer on the perimeter, but that hasn’t translated into a drive-and-kick game. Burks also doesn’t shoot enough 3s, especially since he’s nearly a league-average 3-point shooter who looks comfortable from the corners.
Again: The context was not ideal. Burks came off the bench for a bad team, facing clogged lanes and playing with point guards who couldn’t bend opposing defenses.
Burks is a so-so defender but not a damaging vortex of suck. He has happy feet and can juke himself out of plays, and he’ll make the occasional failed gamble that is fatal to any team defense. He’s prone to some wild and often unnecessary rotations that leave good shooters wide open, though the Jazz defense overall was a mess under Ty Corbin. Burks isn’t big enough to defend bulky small forwards, and bruising 2-guards like Wesley Matthews hurt him on the block.
Executives view Burks as a sixth man, the customary pigeonholing for any combo guard, and compare him often to Monta Ellis. But Ellis is on another planet as a drive-and-dish force, and Burks could absolutely grow into a fourth or fifth starter on a good team. He’s a worker, and he’s exactly the kind of secondary ball handler every team needs now.
He hasn’t shown that kind of “starter on a good team” ability yet, and it’s unclear how much the Jazz should pay to find out if he might someday show it. Burks isn’t great at any one thing, and he’s mediocre at most things. But he’ll get minutes this season and draw interest in a league drooling over any available young wing player.
A four-year, $28 million extension might seem an overpay given Burks’s record, but it could turn into the new TV-deal version of those $4 million–level extensions teams gave Thabo Sefolosha, Quincy Pondexter, and Jared Dudley. Those deals weren’t home runs, but they provided good value at most times,11 and can return actual assets in trades.
Brandon Knight, Milwaukee Bucks
The jury’s obviously out on the Q-Pon deal, since he missed almost all of last season.
Knight made progress last season, and his agents are surely holding up his 18-5 line and demanding a $10 million deal. But he remains unproven at either guard position, and in a league overstuffed with starter-level point guards, the Bucks have no reason to bid high on an extension.
Knight became a more polished ball handler last season, but even so shared point guard duties at various times with Ramon Sessions, Nate Wolters, and Luke Ridnour. He dished more dimes, cut his turnovers, and showed more of the nuances that any lead dog needs to fool dialed-in defenses.
He has a better change-of-pace game, a usable floater, and more passes in his quiver than the players he shares the backcourt with. But like Burks, he often drives with a score-first approach that short-circuits possessions before the Bucks can squeeze out the juicy stuff.
Knight takes a maddening number of long jumpers early in the shot clock. He’s a decent jump-shooter, though his 3-point accuracy dropped off last season as he launched more off the bounce, and he should jack triples when defenders go under picks.
But long 2s like this, with 20 seconds left on the shot clock, have no place in a functional offense:
Those upchucks are doubly frustrating because Knight has a turbo gear that allows him to turn the corner and fly by help defenders on his way to the basket. As with Burks, too many of those drives involve minimal planning and end in ugly hurls, but Knight is getting better at passing in traffic. He’ll even do the Steve Nash thing, where he drives down one side of the lane, probes the defense, slithers under the basket, and pops back out the other side.
He’ll also occasionally misread plays and mistime passes. Knight is still an inaccurate passer; plays like this, in which he looks off the set target (Caron Butler, showing his hands at the right elbow) and throws a wild bounce pass, are not unusual:
We just have no evidence that Knight can be the undisputed lead guard on a good team. Context hasn’t helped. He shared ballhandling duties for two bad Detroit teams, and last season he logged just 350 total minutes in 19 games alongside the duo of Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova — a front-line pair that offers a nice combination of spacing and pick-and-roll danger.
Jason Kidd will install a more creative offense, and though Kendall Marshall is aboard on a killer minimum deal, Sessions represented a greater threat to Knight’s hegemony.
On defense, Knight spent a fair bit of time guarding wing players last season, and he’s rangy enough to survive on most nights against the league’s sad array of 2-guards. But one bad matchup renders that scheme untenable, and in a playoff series, that is death.
Knight is long and quick defending point guards, and he works hard chasing guys around screens. The Bucks did a fair bit of off-ball switching on the perimeter last season, and given Giannis Antetokounmpo’s versatility, they have the potential to turn into a long-armed house of mirrors.
But there are only a half-dozen teams in dire need of an upgrade at point guard. Houston has a ball-dominant shooting guard, Orlando drafted Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton in consecutive years, the Heat won’t have cap space next summer, and the Lakers and Knicks will set their sights higher in free agency — at least at first.
Knight is a great guy and a tenacious worker, but he doesn’t seem primed for a massive breakout. The Bucks can hold a firm line at $7 million or lower.
There are a few other situations worth monitoring. The games don’t start until October 28, but a very interesting backroom game is well under way.