This season, one of the biggest (and soon to be most repetitive) storylines will be the ensuing craziness that occurs when superstars like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, and yes, even Chris Bosh can become free agents. Are you ready for another onslaught of media predictions and ESPN headlines like “LeBron wears yellow shirt outside-is Cleveland back in the mix?” or “Kobe says anything is possible” (Side note: if you think for a second that Kobe, if he comes back healthy, isn’t going to use his pending free agency to get exactly what he wants in L.A. then you’re crazy.) or “Bosh pledges eternal loyalty to Big Three; Wade, James tell him that’s REALLY not necessary.”
The point is, we all know what’s coming, just like when the water shakes from the T-Rex in Jurassic Park (sorry, Bosh got me thinking about dinosaurs). But what about the players who aren’t in this elite category? The group of players in the last year of their contracts this season, and whose play determines their pay?
For those who didn’t know, NBA front offices have a long history of misjudging players’ ability/potential based off contract year performances. Players can “trick” front offices into paying them much more than they’re actually worth (Brendan Haywood, Drew Gooden, Linas Kleiza and Jerome “Trash Bags” James to name just a few recent ones) by outperforming their statistical history. In the past we’ve seen GMs who need to make a big signing throw millions at a player who never performs as well again. But, in recent years, with properly managing the salary cap becoming increasingly important, more and more GMs are weary of taking a risk on a player with prior injury or with just one really good season.
The pressure isn’t just on the front office execs however; players in the last year of their contract (or with the early termination option like James, Bryant and others) have to perform capably or risk going into negotiations without any negotiating power. As we saw this past offseason, players like Monta Ellis (due to make $11-plus million in the last year of his old contract) chose to opt out hoping to secure a lucrative long-term contract, only to underperform or overvalue themselves and come up short. (Ellis signed a three-year $25 million contract at the end of the offseason.)
The point is, it’s essentially “put up or shut up” time for this group of players. So who has a lot riding on this year? Let’s look at 10 players in the midst of important contract years.
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unrestricted free agent
Dirk is the only true star to appear on this list. The former MVP (who boast career averages of 22.6 PPG and 8.2 RPG) is entering his 16th season and will turn 36 by season’s end. So, he’s no spring chicken. While he had a down year (by his standards) last season, by February he was back to being typical Dirk.
I can’t see Dirk playing anywhere else, but I thought the same thing about Paul Pierce this offseason. After striking out the past two year in luring a big free agent partner to Dallas, is Dirk willing to sacrifice his final years playing on a mediocre team? After making $22,721,381 this season, will he simply accept a major pay-cut so he can finally get the help he needs? This season will have a huge impact on both Dirk’s future and the future of the Mavs organization.
player option for 2014-2015
After seven years in the NBA, I don’t know exactly what to say about Rudy Gay. On one hand: he is freakishly athletic; he can play shooting guard, small forward and even a little power forward; he’s still in his prime (or just entering it depending on your definition) at age 27, and COULD potentially have that moment where it all clicks and he reaches his potential. On the other hand, while he has all the physical talents to be a superstar, he hasn’t shown it consistently enough to be anything more than a second or third option.
While he once had a capable three-pointer to go with his acrobatic finishes, he now is more than willing to iso and chuck up the long-range two-pointers instead. He could be a capable defender as well, but that would require some effort, something he hasn’t been willing to give just yet. He will never live up to the contract the Memphis Grizzlies gave him (five years, $82.3 million), which resulted in his $19.3 million player option he must decide on after the season. Much like Andre Iguodala‘s situation this past offseason, Gay must decide between long-term security, or one year of making $19.3 million. We heard this past spring that Toronto was going to lock him up to an extension this summer and then… haven’t heard a word since.
If Gay shows any signs of improvement on defense and shot selection, and the Drake-led Raptors put together a decent season, Gay might be able to trick some GM into locking him up to another lucrative extension. If Gay continues to play selfish basketball, will he end up like Monta Ellis? (Expecting a big payday and ending up taking much less money after firing your agent and looking foolish… it was a bad summer for Monta). We’re about to find out.