More and more teams are packing up and ending the season as the first eight playoff teams have been sent home, and now, more than half the NBA is officially in "offseason mode." With that being the case, expect the free-agent talk to start heating up.
There are a number of free agents, restricted or unrestricted, who have shown varying degrees of promise who should be expected to get a sizable pay bump this year.
At the same time, there are question marks surrounding each one. Each of them will be expected to prove they're worth their money. Here are 15 players who must validate their worth with their new deal.
They're roughly ranked according to potential earnings but don't get too hung up on the order.
Ersan Ilyasova, particularly after the All-Star break, was enormous, averaging 16.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in the second half of the season. It was enough to garner talk that he could be in for a payday of $8 million.
Doubtless, there will be some concern over whether he can maintain the same level of play over the course of a full season. His PER exploded from 14.4 to 20.5. Was this actual improvement or just a change in role for the undersized Bucks after Andrew Bogut's injury.
Virtually, every aspect of his game exploded this year, and if it's genuine improvement, he'll be a steal at only $8 million. Otherwise, he could revert back to 2011 Ilyasova and have fans pulling their hair out. The question here, is which Ilyasova will he be—the 2011 version or the 2012 one?
The Boston Celtics traded center Kendrick Perkins to acquire power forward Jeff Green. It was already a risky trade. Then, they found out he had a heart condition—an aortic aneurism which kept him out for the entire season.
While he’s had a surgery to deal with the issue, he’ll have problems when he comes back. Frist, he’ll need to get back to where he was, then he’ll need to be able to go beyond it. Green has the potential to be a terrific player, and while he’s shown glimpses, he hasn’t fully realized that yet.
The big question around Jeff Green isn't just about his physical heart. His psychological heart might be the bigger question. Will he commit to improve?
Omer Asik has been one of the best defensive players in the NBA over the last two seasons. As a 7’0” center who weighs 255 pounds, he’s a genuine big man too. His defensive instincts are outstanding. He rotates well and protects the lane like it’s his mother.
No player in the NBA has a better defensive rating than Asik over the last two seasons. The only two players who even match his 95 are Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, who have combined to win four Defensive Player of the Year awards.
That defensive rating isn’t a product of playing for the league’s best defense either. His Synergy numbers are equally impressive with a .70 points per play against on the season. By comparison, this year’s Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, yielded .80 points per play. That's a rather significant difference in Asik's favor.
Two questions come though with Asik. First, can he carry the same hefty defensive burden as a starter? Second can he develop his offensive game. Currently, he consistently struggles finishing strong at the basket on the offensive end. He must develop into at least a marginal scoring threat to be legitimate starter.
If he does, he could blossom into an All-Defensive team center and potential All-Star. If not, he’ll be a frustrating player who never scores the way he should and could be one of the league’s most overpaid bigs.
D.J. Augustin is a bit of a redundancy in Charlotte since the Bobcats have decided that their future is with Kemba Walker. So where does that leave Augustin?
Augustin has established himself as a good, but not great point guard in the NBA. He averages 13.6 points and 7.8 assists per 36 minutes a team that has almost as much talent as the Kentucky Wildcats.
There are plenty of teams that could use a good, but not great point guard, particularly one that has the potential to improve and who could be a great asset if there were real talent placed around him.
The question with Augustin is whether he was a good starter held back by a bad team, or was he just a part of the bad team?
Last year, Batum managed to post a 17.4 PER, averaging 13.9 points, 4.6 boards and 1.4 assists per game. He did so playing only 30.4 minutes as well.
Want to know how Batum is 99 percent guaranteed to be a player who can improve beyond those numbers and potentially emerge as a star? Is it because he’s done that at just 23 years of age? Well partly, but that’s not the biggest reason.
The biggest reason is that the Spurs are reportedly interested in him. And when is the last time the Spurs were wrong about a player move?
All the signs are there that he can, but the question for Batum will be whether he can become a top-two option on an NBA contender.
Michael Beasley established that he could be a scorer two years ago when he averaged 19.2 points per game. The problem is that he also established that he really doesn’t do much else. The little things like passing, rebounding and playing defense aren’t a part of his game.
His ability to put the ball on the floor and score will tempt some teams to offer him money, perhaps more than he’s worth to do just that. The risk is that he’ll do just that though.
Beasley is likely to get some money, but if all he ever ends up being is a volume scorer, he’ll have some fans somewhere very frustrated with his lack of production elsewhere. To earn the kind of cabbage he’ll be getting he’ll need to play all aspects of the game.
Last year, Indiana traded with the San Antonio Spurs to acquire George Hill for Kawhi Leonard, Davis Bertans and Erazem Lorbek. Lorbek could be coming to the NBA next year where he could emerge as a quality NBA center.
That combination of players being dealt sort of raises the standard for Hill. He averaged 13.6 points per 36 minutes and played well enough, mostly in a reserve role during the regular season. However, in the postseason, he’s been even better and has a postseason PER of 20.7, while he’s averaging 14.2 points per game as a starter.
So now, the question with Hill is whether he's going to develop into a player who proves he was worth the trade value. Right now, while Leonard has proven himself to be a quality player, the jury is still out.
For now, this trade is still a “win-win,” but what will be it when Hill’s new, bigger contract is a year or two old?
Aaron Brooks spent his entire season absent from the NBA as he played in China for the Guangdong Southern Tigers. While there, he led his team to the CBA finals where the team eventually lost.
Brooks was an All-Star and played well enough, once scoring 40 points in a game.
He's also a former Most Improved Player in 2009-10 when he was with the Rockets.
He probably would have inked a nice contract last year if there hadn’t been a lockout. Now, the question concerning Brooks will be whether he can return to his 2010 form after a bit of a down year in ’11 and a year in China in ’12.
Courtney Lee has shown flashes of stardom in his NBA career. This season in Houston when Kevin Martin spent some time on the injury list and Lee spelled him in the starting lineup, he redeemed himself well, averaging 14.0 points as a starter while shooting a true shooting percentage of .534.
Lee has been looking like potential starter for a few years now and is ready to assume the role. It’s likely that he’ll at least get the chance to from any number of teams looking for a new starting shooting guard.
The question for Lee will be can he sustain his level of success as a full-time starter, or will he just be a career reserve?
“Linsanity” reached ridiculous proportions this year when Jeremy Lin went form utter obscurity to international fame in a mere matter of weeks. His story alone earns him the most money he’ll be able to make.
If the Knicks don’t offer him $5 million, there are no shortage of other teams that will be willing to snatch him up, and by NBA rules, he won’t be able to make more than that. The only question with Lin is whether he was a flash-in-the-pan or whether he can sustain that kind of success for a full season as a full-time starter. If it’s the latter, he’ll be a deal at just $5 million.
JaVale McGee isn’t stupid; he’s just a knucklehead. Even when he gives full effort, he embarrasses himself. Most people rush back on defense, and they get complimented for energy. The problem with McGee is that when he gets back on defense, his team has the ball.
McGee dunked not one, not two, but three basketballs at once in the dunk contest two years ago. Granted, you can only dunk one at a time in an NBA game, but it says something about the tremendous athleticism he has.
He’s fast for a big man. He has good defensive instincts and is a quality shot-blocker. It’s not unreasonable to put him on the same level of DeAndre Jordan who signed a $40 million contract last year. That's four billion pennies. It’s not ridiculous to think he could get the same this year.
The question about him will be whether he has the sense to go with all those cents. If he can develop as a player, he could end up being a steal for that kind of money. Otherwise, he’ll end up being chase out of where he ends up going.
O.J. Mayo, a.k.a. the Double-Condiment, has two general camps regarding him. There are those who think he’s been overhyped since high school and doesn’t really have the athleticism or skill set to ever become a bona fide NBA star—and maybe not even a bona fide starter.
Then, there are those who are equally certain that the man is loaded with potential and is being underutilized in Memphis, where he’s had run-ins with his head coach Lionel Hollins. They figure a change of scenery will get him a fresh start, and he’ll start realizing his potential.
The question about Mayo is which camp is right? We’ll know in a season or two, and there will be some very happy or some very disappointed fans depending on which it is.
Ryan Anderson is the reigning Most Improved Player. That alone is going to get him some extra bucks. His improvement wasn't entirely a product of his minutes going up either, as his per-minute stats improved as well as his overall production. His PER jumped from 19.0 to 21.2.
However, there is some question about Anderson and how much his success was a result of playing alongside Dwight Howard, how much was a product of Stan Van Gundy’s system and how much was Anderson himself.
There’s a good chance that he will be without either Howard, Van Gundy, or both, even if he stays in Orlando next year. Will he be able to prove that he was the reason for his success, or will the doubters be proven right?
Right now, the three best centers in the NBA are Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Tyson Chandler, in that order. After that, who's the fourth best? There are a number of names that haven’t quite distinguished themselves from the field that round out the top five.
Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut, Marc Gasol and Marcin Gortat are all in that discussion, but perhaps of all of them, Hibbert has the most potential to be a threat on both sides of the ball. The rest all shine on one end more than the other.
The question regarding Hibbert is whether he can take his game to the next level and be the kind of player who can carry a team. He’ll likely be asking for the type of money—or close to it—that suggests he is.
After negotiating for a deal that included Eric Gordon as the essential piece of the puzzle that would complete the Chris Paul trade, the New Orleans Hornets initially thought they had made a great deal as Gordon immediately hit a game-winning shot for them in the opening game of the season.
Their enthrallment was short-lived though, as Gordon was injured for the majority of the season, and now, there are questions around his health as he prepares to enter into a new contract.
If there were no injury issues with Gordon, there would be no question at all in regards to him. He's the best young shooting guard in the game right now. However, the fact that there are haunting injury concerns might make a team which was just purchased and rescued from bankruptcy less than eager to take a risk on entrusting the franchise to a potentially fragile player.
The question with Gordon is simple. Will he stay healthy enough to make his contract worthwhile.