One of the toughest decisions a NBA general manager has to make is whether or not to offer a young NBA player approaching the end of their rookie contract a max contract extension. Most of the time, if this is a successful signing, the coinciding GM will also receive a contract extension of his own. If it doesn’t work, unless they are able to get said player off the books for future draft picks, talent or cap savings, there is often trouble.
These rookie salaries, which usually last four years, exist solely for the protection of NBA franchises so they don’t have to deal with another Glenn Robinson and Milwaukee Bucks situation. Robinson owns the distinction of having signed the richest rookie deal in the history of the NBA at $68 million over a 10-year period.
The following year, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed between the NBA owners and the NBA Players Union, instituting a rookie salary cap of sorts. This effectively eliminated rookie holdouts (a good thing) and saved franchises from signing unproven rookies to ridiculous contracts (a great thing).
Now it goes without saying, not many players are receiving these anymore for obvious reasons: Team salaries have become more rigid. The salary cap has tightened up with the much more punitive nature of the latest iteration of the CBA. This has fundamentally altered the landscape of free agency and, thus, driven down salaries for players for the fear of receiving exorbitant luxury tax bills from the commissioner’s office.
Despite these external pressures, teams are still offering max contracts to players approaching the end of their rookie contracts. John Wall, of the Washington Wizards, got his. Paul George from the Indian Pacers recently received a long-term deal. Kyrie Irving is sure to receive one in the summer of 2014 and DeMarcus Cousins is closing in on an extension with Sacramento before play begins for the 2013-2014 season.
With these future potential post-rookie max extensions up-in-the-air, let’s review some of the more recent max contract extensions and see where they rank in terms of value and risk.
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1. KEVIN DURANT – SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
My two-year-old nephew couldn’t have screwed this up. Durant had just made his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game, led the league in PPG and was the darling of Oklahoma City and the envy of every GM not named Pat Riley. If not for a certain King in Miami, Durant would probably have won the MVP award at least twice since 2010. He also happened to lead the league in scoring twice since signing his extension on top of leading his team to an NBA Finals appearance in 2012.
2. JAMES HARDEN â€“ SG, Houston Rockets
This is exactly the reason I don’t blame Sam Presti for trading Harden away. Sure, Thunder fans probably feel differently about it but under this new CBA, unless your name is Mikhail Prokhorov, it’s impossible to retain basically four max contract players (Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka). The Houston Rockets immediately signed him to a max contract offer, then Harden proceeded to crown himself the best shooting guard in the NBA, not with talk but his actions. There were many critics who wondered if Harden was worth the max but 25.9 PPG, 5.8 APG and 4.9 RPG while carrying your team to the playoffs quieted pretty much everybody. It even convinced Dwight Howard that he would rather play with Harden than Kobe. I’m pretty sure Sam Presti still has nightmares about Harden’s Euro step move, especially after Russell Westbrook went down with the knee injury in the playoffs last season.
3. BLAKE GRIFFIN â€“ PF, Los Angeles Clippers
He’s on his list not because of his statistical output or less-than-stellar playoff record. Rather it’s all the intangibles that Griffin offers. He brought excitement, hope and a general positive outlook to this god-forsaken franchise. He dominates highlights, fills the stands with fans, plus sells jerseys, cars, sandwiches, etc. He’s marketing gold. He’s not the perfect player: He flops too much, doesn’t defend the rim like he should and doesn’t have the type of post game that scares anyone — ask the Memphis Grizzlies. But he earns every cent of his max contract extension in other ways. He’s also probably a huge reason why Chris Paul decided to re-sign with the Clippers. That in itself should warrant consideration for a Nobel Prize, right? Or at least a seat in Congress.
So Far, So Good But…
4. DERRICK ROSE â€“ PG, Chicago Bulls
Don’t get it twisted, Rose deserved this extension. He was coming off his MVP season, his second All-Star season and had just made First-Team All-NBA. After signing his extension, this is what Rose has done: torn the ACL in his left knee; miss an entire season; refuse to recruit free agents to the Bulls. This has left tons of fans in Chicago scratching their heads. Washington’s Bradley Beal even called Rose out. The more troubling thing is how he will come back after this injury. For someone that plays as quickly, explosively and violently as Rose does, if he’s not the same player as he was before, his max contract might have a Gilbert Arenas-like feel to it after his knee injuries. Let’s just hope that knee comes around.
5. RUSSELL WESTBROOK â€“ PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
In a somewhat similar situation to Rose, coming off a season-ending knee injury. Some NBA experts even consider Westbrook the most physically gifted player at this position in the entire history of the NBA. Rose missed an entire season; Westbrook tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee during the playoffs. Worst-case scenario is that he struggles back and re-aggravates something in his knee. What if he doesn’t quite feel right? The amount of fast twitch muscles in his legs, the amount of pressure and general wear and tear is a lot to deal with, let alone come back from. Adrian Peterson is not the norm but the outlier for knee injuries, and even if Westbrook’s isn’t quite as serious, he’ll still need to work himself back to where he was beforehand. There are a lot of questions that Westbrook must answer and if it’s not satisfactory, those four years of max salary left on his deal could be the death-knell of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances of winning a title with this group. That is highly unlikely, but there is just enough uncertainty for doubt to creep in.
6. KEVIN LOVE â€“ PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
Now this one was a bit more suspect from the beginning, and it started right with the contract. Love wanted the full five-year max extension. Minnesota agreed only to give him a four-year max extension (with an opt-out after three years), doing something you rarely see in the NBA: A franchise basically telling their All-Star cornerstone, thanks but we’ll keep our options open.
The pluses are all there: top-three rebounder in the league, one of the best three-point shooting big men and an absolute load down low. But the downside is hard to ignore: has shot less than 45 percent from the field in his career, has missed 123 total games in the last four seasons and has not led his team to the playoffs, ever. This is somewhat of a typical transaction for teams that are historically bad, thus leading to such desperation moves. (Although Minnesota did keep their options open.)
If Love is on a playoff team (i.e. Spurs or Bulls), averaging 17 PPG and 10 RPG, he re-signs for something in the ballpark of four years and $50 million. The reason why he’s not in a lower tier is because the nature of his injury. It doesn’t deal with any _CLs or serious joints below the waist. He should be fine coming back from it this season.
7. MARC GASOL â€“ C, Memphis Grizzlies
An absolute defensive stud in the middle with a budding offense game. He anchors the stingy Grizzlies defense like no other; this team cannot do what it does from a defensive strategy without Gasol. An incredibly valuable piece to this perennial playoff team, he puts up a consistent 14 PPG, 7-9 RPG and two BPG. However, when you need a go-to basket in crunch time and you are literally the fourth option, that is not very max-money deserving. The other factor working against Gasol is the fact that he was significantly older (almost 27 years old) than most of these other max contract players at the time of signing.
However, he deserves the benefit of the doubt at this point because of his recent track record. Yet one can’t stop wondering about all the risks involved, as well as the overall value he brings to a team that’s bound to lose in the second round of the playoffs for the foreseeable future.
Please Don’t Screw Me
8. BROOK LOPEZ â€“ C, Brooklyn Nets
When healthy, Lopez is a legit All-Star. Many NBA analysts even think he’s the best offensive center in the league at this moment. Last year for the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets, Lopez averaged 19.4 PPG, shot 52 percent from the floor and blocked 2.1 shots a game. However, for a seven-footer, he doesn’t rebound and is not known for his lateral quickness. The truly scary thing are his feet and his long battle with keeping them injury free, which led to him missing pretty much all of his fourth season in the NBA. I’m sure the training staff of the Nets holds their breath every time he jumps. Lopez might be the next Zydrunas Ilgauskas, an offensively talented seven-footer who suffered multiple foot injuries that caused him to miss significant portions of his career. (For Big Z, it was essentially three out of his first four seasons.)
9. ROY HIBBERT â€“ C, Indiana Pacers
As was evident from the Pacers performance this past postseason, Hibbert is the last line of defense for his team’s championship hopes. Though Hibbert almost became a Portland Trail Blazer, most league analysts fully expected the Pacers to match the max offer. Yet, how does a 7-2 mammoth of a man respond to this by shooting south of 45 percent from the field? Hibbert managed to up his game to 17 PPG and 10 RPG while shooting above 50 percent from the field in the playoffs but it’s always troubling when players only “rise” to the occasion whenever they “feel” like it. Though smart money would say Hibbert will play fine throughout the life of this contract, he has people keeping a wary eye on his consistency and competitive fire.
10. JOHN WALL â€“ PG, Washington Wizards
In a league full of extremely talented point guards, John Wall, in terms of physical skills and gifts, is near the top if not the top with both Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook coming off knee injuries. However, he still has many questions to answer. Will he ever play a full season? (Most games played by John Wall in a season: 69.) Will he develop a more consistent jump shot? Will he learn to make better decisions as the primary playmaker? Will he finally lead this team to a playoff appearance? Some area fans grumble that the reason John Wall was offered this max contract extension was due to his sensitive ego and Ernie Grunfeld‘s pending contract coming up for renewal after this upcoming season. Grunfeld’s fate, literally, is in John Wall’s hands.
11. ERIC GORDON â€“ SG, New Orleans Pelicans
It comes as no surprise that Gordon signed a max contract as a restricted free agent with the Phoenix Suns, and then asked the New Orleans Hornets (at the time) to not match the offer because he really wanted to play with Steve Nash. But the Hornets matched the offer, and mysteriously, Gordon’s injured right knee becomes very serious and he proceeds to miss 57 games in the 2011-2012 season. Fast forward another six months, the same knee is still so seriously messed up that he sits the first 29 games of the 2012-2013 season. By this point, I’m sure Dell Demps, the GM of the New Orleans at-the-time Hornets, was willing to trade Eric Gordon for some expiring salary and a box of Cronuts.
In total he’s missed 143 games in the last four seasons, and has looked lethargic and out of shape since his knee injury. With that being said, there is an outside chance Gordon gets fully healthy, gets mad watching Tyreke Evans possibly threaten his starting spot, which leads to him playing his best ball in over a three-year period. But I’d say there is a better chance he’s traded for 50 cents on the dollar to some team run by a former Sam Presti assistant.
Which players coming up are deserving of max contracts? Which ones aren’t?
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