With sports, we’re all clock watchers. Its lure doesn’t go away once the season is over — it might even make it worse. The day after Miami won the NBA championship in June, power rankings were already being discussed for the 2012-13 season, much the same how a 2013 top-10 was already being mulled while Kentucky danced under confetti in April. Well, we’re looking ahead again. The free agency class of 2013 has been discussed since 2010’s sweepstakes finished, a discussion that has crept up again in light of Serge Ibaka‘s four-year contract with Oklahoma City over the weekend. It cements a third column to hold up the Thunder’s future chances, while leaving one more â€” James Harden â€” still unsecured. Harden, however, is expected to get a maximum contract and with it, his chance to guide a team as its keystone for years to come. Should he stay with the Thunder he would be on a team earmarked for a deep playoff run for possibly half a decade or more. Not everyone will have Harden’s luxury.
Whether unrestricted or restricted, these 10 players face make-or-break seasons; they are part of the mid-level of free agents. Why talk about the borderline players’ contract years? It’s possibly the most crucial season of their careers. This season will be a chance to confirm or even add to the best parts of their games (and drive up an asking price) or become, in the worst-case scenario, also-rans who won’t see their roles increase in the future. To put it simply: a “break” scenario could turn them into cameo artists in the future. With a 2012 salary included and a qualifying offer added, if applicable, here’s a breakdown of where these players stand, what will make or break, and what kind of contract they could expect if they’re up to the task.
10. NIKOLA PEKOVIC, Minnesota, Restricted Free Agent — $4.8 million ($6.1 million qualifying)
As the class of the league in rebounding, Kevin Love is a no-doubt, check-your-brain-if-you-disagree lock there for Minnesota, as well. He won’t be in danger of giving back that title until he’s in his early 30s; however, the gap between him and the second-best Timberwolves’ big man closed some last season. In just his second season, the 26-year-old Pekovic improved from 5.5 points to 13.9 and 3.0 boards to 7.4 as a sophomore. Per 36 minutes, he was 0.1 of a rebound shy of a double-double last season. The word you’ll hear about him is rugged, which is a nicer way of saying he’s far from polished, but there were signs he was becoming more confident on offense. Take a March 13 game where he had 15 points in the game’s first quarter against Phoenix. By the end he was calling for the ball every time down the floor. That’s what a suitor will want to see, with his rebounding and defense already obvious strengths. It’s not the biggest concern should his offensive game stall because as Omer Asik proved this offseason, teams will pay large for one dimension done well. However, Pekovic’s defense isn’t up to Asik’s par, meaning his offense will make or break his offers.
If he makes it: Offers from $8.3 million (Brendan Haywood) to $10.5 million (DeAndre Jordan).
9. KEVIN MARTIN, Houston, Unrestricted Free Agent – $12.4 million
Martin was a miss by Houston when it wanted him to be their centerpiece guard. Not that he hasn’t been productive, it was just too optimistic of a goal to have him turn points into wins as a lead guard. He’s seen Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic outshine him in the last two seasons on his own team before they left, and there is no way he’ll get that role back with Jeremy Lin in the fold now. It isn’t a question of whether his deal will fall, because he’s not getting that kind of money anymore. But what can he show this year to salvage a palatable future role? First, he can shoot the three better. At just a 37 percent average from behind the arc, he needs to be more of a consistent threat from that distance. Stepping inside the arc is an issue, too, at just 41 percent last season from two (part of reason his scoring dropped 6 points per game). If he is going to stick to being a gunner, he needs to be a better shot.
If he makes it: $8.1 million (John Salmons).
8. JARRETT JACK, Golden State, UFA $5.4 million
Jack quietly had one of the best unsung seasons by a point guard last season. He joined Lowry, John Wall, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Tony Parker as the only guards to average at least 15 points and six assists a game. Coach Monty Williams liked Jack’s effort when both were in Portland and allowed him to take the reins on a team with nothing to lose last season. He should have plenty more targets this year with Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Austin Rivers running alongside him. Those additions should bode well not only for his assist numbers, but his own production given the attention the other players will get defensively (none of those aforementioned players are incredible distributors relative to their positions, however, which means more work he’ll have to do with the ball in his hands). Given those tools to work with it would be surprising to see his play diminish â€” and it would be lethal to his career as a budding, consistent leader. If he can stay in the 15 and 6 range, or bump up the assists to 8 per game even, he could receive more than tepid offers.
If he makes it: $8.5 million (Rodney Stuckey) $10.5 million (Jose Calderon).
7. DEMAR DEROZAN, RFA $3.3 million ($4.5 qualifying)
We know DeRozan likes to shoot and that he’s the Raptors’ best in that regard, but is that all there is? It has to be a bit troubling for him that Toronto’s lottery pick, Terrence Ross, is essentially a scoring clone of DeRozan and a better defensive player when he wants to be, too (though motivation waned in losses at Washington). Like Martin, he needs to improve his efficiency with the ball if he is going to stick to being a gunner. He shot just 42 percent from the field and 26 percent from three last year. His biggest selling point is his ability to get the basket and finish (he shot 58 percent at the rim and 43 percent from 3 to 9 feet last year, per). His inability to find consistency past that range is what will sink his chances at landing a bigger contract or role. The defensive issues (poor positioning off ball; saves energy for offense) can be looked past if he can develop a stop-and-pop jumper from the free-throw line ala Kobe.
If he makes it: $5.2 million (Jamal Crawford)
6. TIAGO SPLITTER, San Antonio, UFA $3.9 million
*A disclaimer there is some discrepancy as to whether Splitter is a restricted free agent or unrestricted from various sites, but the majority of trusted sources say, unrestricted.
Splitter was the best non-American big man when he was drafted in 2007, but he waited to make his debut until 2010. What was the wait for? A guy who has become quietly very solid if given enough playing time, with 17.6 points and 9.8 boards per 36 minutes. And that’s the part of his game that has improved most, while his defense has held San Antonio together when Tim Duncan is out of the game. I would be very cautious to say he’s in the Asik mode because his interior defense isn’t as advanced. He will get pushed around by several of the West’s best big men this year â€” but if he can learn to score on them with a nice jump hook or another move, he could be seen as worth a bump in pay.
If he makes it: $6.7 million (Samuel Dalembert) to $7.8 million (Kendrick Perkins)
5. DEJUAN BLAIR, San Antonio, UFA $1.1 million
Blair, quite simply, has to get out of whatever doghouse he found himself in during the playoffs. He started 62 of 66 games but then disappeared in the playoffs, playing just 76 minutes. What happened to the rookie sensation in San Antonio, the late draft pick who became the latest “genius” sleeper pick by R.C. Buford? He said in July he thinks he is on his way out of San Antonio. As an unrestricted forward without an ACL in his knees, he has little safety net to rely on. We don’t know why Gregg Popovich soured on him and opted for Boris Diaw instead, but Blair — whose points increased every season but whose rebounds have dipped to 5.5 from 7.0 in 2011 — will have to become the grinder who drove everyone crazy before the turn for the worse in the playoffs.
If he makes it: $3 million (Joel Freeland).
4. JEFF TEAGUE, Atlanta, RFA $2.4 million ($3.4 million qualifying)
There is a giant, gaping hole at shooting guard in Atlanta right now, one Teague should be able to fill with the kind of incessant slashing and scoring he first debuted in the 2011 playoffs. Lou Williams and John Jenkins are nice additions, but there is a spot waiting for Teague to fill. He averaged 11.8 points per game in those playoffs — more than double his 5.2 average from the season — and made everyone realize Joe Johnson had a sort of running mate now. It’s not as if Teague had a terrible season with a proverbial step taken back. The improvement, that step forward, was marginal over 36 minutes from the season before, adding just 0.2 scoring per game and 0.1 assists. Showing he’s a top-15 guard consistently, instead of these wonderful spurts bookended by fits of rocky play, can make him a point a team will invest in. Otherwise, he becomes Patty Mills.
If he makes it: $4.4 million (J.J. Barea) to $5.2 million (Tyreke Evans).
3. TYLER HANSBROUGH, Indiana, RFA – $3.1 million ($4.2M qualifying)
Psycho T hasn’t really been playing insane. In fact, his numbers per 36 minutes have decreased since his rookie-season high of 9.7 rebounds and his sophomore points surge of 18 points. His total rebounding percentage has declined every year since his rookie season and his turnover percentage has increased. The best thing to say given those numbers is that at least his usage rate has decreased, so he hasn’t become a black hole at forward. So where did rookie Hansbrough go? David West‘s arrival obviously had a large effect on Hansbrough’s role, but he’s never been someone who needed a ton of minutes to leave his presence. His style of play may be disjointed but it is all hustle and shot fakes leading to a crash of the boards. The open secret to his offense is in his short game, in contrast to West’s ability to hit from 19 feet. From 3-to-9 feet, Hansbrough is just 29.4 percent effective last season, down from 43 percent as a sophomore (cue offensive breakout). I’m not sold about the viability of his becoming a starting four in the league, but he’ll have to give teams something more than just energy to become a sixth man and spot starter with a pay raise.
If he makes it: $4.2 million (Luis Scola) to $6.4 million (Glen Davis).
2. AUSTIN DAYE, Detroit, RFA $2.9 million ($4.1 million qualifying)
Entering his fourth year, Daye was still playing on Detroit’s Summer League team this year. I suspect it wasn’t a “teach the young guys” theme presented to him but a “can you hold off the young guys?” sentiment the Pistons brass had in mind. He’s a bankrupt man’s Dirk Nowitzki at 6-11 and most comfortable on the wing but he’s shot an atrocious 40 percent from the field and 33 percent (21 percent last season) from three in his three seasons in the NBA. Not what you expect from an investment in the 15th pick. All of these players have a shot at legitimately “breaking” if they don’t play well in these contract years, but Daye’s is the closest to landing him in the D-League. He has to do it all better, but shooting should come the easiest. Make it happen.
If he makes it: $4.1 million qualifying.
1. ERIC MAYNOR, OKC, RFA – $2.3 million ($3.4 million qualifying)
Three seasons in, Maynor watched the Thunder make an NBA Finals run without him as he rehabbed the right ACL tear he suffered nine games into last season. With Reggie Jackson nipping at his heels now as the team’s best backup, Maynor has to show he can be the kind of player whose responsible play got him into the league’s top 10 in assist-to-turnover ratio his first two seasons. Being one of the NBA’s best backup point guards is auditioning to be a future starter for a downtrodden team, all of which is within his grasp if he can still play at full strength. It’s especially true at Oklahoma City, where an apprenticeship behind Westbrook can lead to a bidding war if it goes well. The good: He has a longer season to make the comeback and more time between games to stay healthy. The bad: Jackson played very well in Summer League, averaging 15 points per game and showing explosive athleticism. Maynor can keep his value high by continuing to be a defensive stopper, while scoring in bunches during his time on the floor could push his value beyond the estimate below.
If he makes it: $3.2 million (Will Bynum) to $3.9 million (Kirk Hinrich).
What do you think?
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