Athletes in every sport tend to step their games up during a contract year, and professional basketball players are no exception. With a large number of NBA stars heading into the final year of their current deals, expect to see plenty of career-defining performances during the 2012-13 season.
Dwight Howard and Chris Paul will be the biggest names on the free-agent market, but there are several other players who will be looking to land a max contract at some point over the next 12 months. While some stars will only need to stay healthy in order to rake in the big bucks, others will need to have a breakout performance if they want to cash in next season.
With NBA franchises preparing to open their coffers once again next July, here's a look at 10 players who are set to break the bank in the summer of 2013.
The Los Angeles Clippers offered Chris Paul a three-year, $60 million extension earlier this summer, but the 6'0" point guard declined, preferring to bide his time for another 11 months before he cashes in.
Indecision isn't the reason for the delay: By waiting, Paul will be eligible to receive a five-year, $105 million deal next July.
With the benefit of having his first full training camp as a member of the Clippers, Paul—who finished third in MVP voting in 2011-12—is well positioned to have a monster season. Paul captured first-team All-NBA honors last year and at only 27 years old is just entering the prime of his career.
With the Clippers adding Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford this offseason, Paul is set to lead Los Angeles deep into the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Stephen Curry is one of the best pure shooters in the game of basketball, and perhaps only his surgically repaired right ankle will prevent him from receiving a max contract next summer.
With Curry having undergone two operations to the same ankle in less than a year, the Golden State Warriors chose not to offer their sharpshooting guard an extension. Instead, they'll wait and see how Curry looks in training camp before deciding whether to present him with a deal before the October 31 deadline.
Curry missed 40 games last season, but when he's in the lineup, the 6'3" shooting guard has few peers from beyond the arc. A career 44.1 percent three-point shooter, Curry is in line for a big payday next year even if Golden State decides that he isn't worth the injury risk.
A report earlier this summer from Yahoo! Sports stated that Jrue Holiday was "seeking a max contact extension" from the Philadelphia 76ers. At the time, one could appreciate the bravado that went into making such a request, especially since Holiday regressed during his third NBA season.
Then last week, everything changed. Once Philadelphia acquired Andrew Bynum in the deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, Holiday's prospects for next season took a turn for the better.
For the first time in his career, Holiday will be playing with an All-Star-caliber big man, and if he and Bynum can develop a consistent two-man game, the Sixers will be a force to reckon with in the Eastern Conference.
With Bynum attracting most of the attention on the offensive end, Holiday should get better looks at the basket, allowing him to improve his mediocre shooting percentage (44 percent from the field for his career). Holiday has all of the tools to be one of the league's top 10 point guards, and this is the year for him to put it all together if he's truly seeking that max extension.
Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings gets a lot of (well-deserved) flak for his questionable shot selection. That said, don't be surprised if the 6'1" playmaker takes his game to the next level as he enters the final year of his rookie deal.
Jennings clearly has the talent to be an All-Star; his maddening inconsistency is the only thing that separates him from the elite tier of NBA point guards. To his credit, Jennings has markedly improved his jump shot over the past two years while slightly cutting down on his turnovers.
According to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Jennings is open to a contract extension, but nothing has come of that just yet. If something doesn't get done before the beginning of the season, Milwaukee might be forced to pay a hefty premium to bring Jennings back if its star guard finally has a breakout year.
Andre Iguodala may have averaged only 12.4 points per game last year, but his defensive prowess will make him a highly coveted free agent if he declines his $15.9 million option for 2013-14.
Very few players can fill up a stat sheet like Iguodala, and his all-around game helped the U.S. Men's National Team capture the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. The 6'6" swingman will rarely put up 30 points on any given night, but he's a lockdown defender who is capable of guarding point guards and power forwards alike.
Iguodala has been coy with his emotions following his recent trade to the Denver Nuggets, but regardless of how much success he has with his new team, it would be in his best interests to exercise the early termination option in his contract.
The 2012 NBA Finals won't wind up in James Harden's personal highlight reel (12.4 PPG on 37.5 percent shooting), but the Oklahoma City guard still figures to be one of the biggest prizes in next year's free-agency class.
Both Harden and teammate Serge Ibaka are in line for huge raises in 2013, and the Thunder have some serious financial decisions to make before the end of next summer. Harden will almost certainly be offered a max deal, but Oklahoma City may be unwilling to commit that kind of money to a player who doesn't even start for the team.
Harden went on record earlier this summer to say that he expects to stay with the Thunder for the long haul. If Oklahoma City gets over the hump and captures the Larry O'Brien Trophy next season, neither the team nor Harden will likely want to part ways.
Joe Johnson is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, leaving forward Josh Smith as the Atlanta Hawks' de facto alpha dog. Smith's newfound status should translate into huge numbers for him; whether it equals wins for the Hawks is a different matter altogether.
After averaging career highs in points and rebounds last season (18.8 PPG, 9.6 RPG), Smith's basketball IQ is finally catching up with his All-World athleticism. A 20 and 10 season isn't out of the question for Smith, and if that happens, the 6'9" forward will be well compensated once he hits the free-agent market next summer.
The Oklahoma City Thunder likely won't be able to sign both James Harden and Serge Ibaka to max contracts next year, so the early money says that Ibaka will be the odd man out. But if Ibaka doesn't wind up re-signing with the Thunder, it won't take him all that long to find another gig.
After leading the NBA in blocks last season (3.7 per game), and with per-36 minute averages of 12.1 points and 10 rebounds, the 6'10" Ibaka will be one of the league's most sought-after restricted free agents in the summer of 2013.
Even without a polished offensive game, the soon-to-be 23-year-old Ibaka could potentially make a run at the Western Conference All-Star team as early as next season.
Andrew Bynum hasn't even stepped on the court for the 76ers yet, but it would be a complete surprise if he isn't the cornerstone for the Sixers' youth movement for at least the next six years.
Once Bynum becomes a free agent next season, Philadelphia will be able to offer its seven-foot center one extra year and about $20 million more than any other team.
Sixers president Rod Thorn feels as if his team has a "very good" chance to re-sign its most recent acquisition, and with Bynum growing up in Plainsboro, N.J. (about 50 miles outside of Philadelphia), the odds that the 24-year-old would walk away from the Sixers are very slim.
Bynum had career highs in scoring (18.7 PPG) and rebounding (11.8 RPG) in 2011-12, and now that he's in a situation where he's the No. 1 option on offense, a second consecutive All-Star nod is all but a certainty.
"The Indecision" is finally over...or is it?
While Dwight Howard is now a proud member of the Los Angeles Lakers, there's still the matter of him agreeing to an extension to stay in Hollywood beyond this season.
With the Lakers willing to offer him a max deal, and with the allure of Tinseltown less than 10 miles away from the Staples Center, the smart money says that Howard puts his name on the dotted line next July 1. Then again, this is the same man who basically held the NBA hostage for the better part of a year.
The only guarantee with Howard is that, if healthy, he's the best center in the game today.