11 NBA Stars Who Will Thrive in Critical Contract Seasons in 2012-13
Year after year, one of the most interesting and entertaining stories to watch develop are which players with expiring contracts seem to be playing at superhuman levels.
Sometimes these players end up with contracts that seem to remember nothing of their previous seasons, but everything works out okay.
More often than not, however, a player in a contract year will buckle down to get that long-term deal, only to take it a little bit too easy the following season.
Last year, guys like Ersan Ilyasova, Ryan Anderson, Goran Dragic and Omer Asik are perfect examples of guys who got paid more for what they did recently rather than in years past. Whether or not those contracts work out for those teams will be up in the air for a few years, but it's fun to keep an eye on.
One of the more hilarious examples of this backfiring for a team recently was John Salmons getting a five-year deal that gave him nearly $40 million for what he did in half a season with the Bucks.
Salmons was key to Milwaukee making the playoffs and pushing the Hawks to seven games in the first round, averaging 20 points and shooting nearly 47 percent for them in the stretch run.
Salmons then put in a season shooting less than 42 percent and they decided to bail before things got ugly, swapping him for Stephen Jackson and a lower draft pick in 2011.
The point is, contract years are to be looked at with a wary eye. as some players tend to outplay what's expected of them for a reason, crashing back to earth the following season. '
The following players are guys who are going to thrive in their contract year, ranked in order of how much above their station they play, not how good their season will be as a whole.
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There are a handful of guys running around the league on expiring contracts or with player options who are in interesting situations.
Some, like Delonte West, must continue to produce in order to fight for their next contract. Others, like Daniel Gibson and J.J. Hickson, must prove they can play like they have in seasons past.
Still others have obstacles in their way in the form of other teammates keeping them from improving too much, like James Harden, who is stricken to the bench, and Jrue Holiday, who has a new teammate who is going to demand quite a few touches on offense.
There are obstacles to overcome, but these guys should impress nonetheless, just not as much as some of the other guys ahead of them. Players on contract years to watch out for include:
11. Kevin Martin
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It would take a room full of experts, wise men, crones and fools in order to explain exactly what it is Daryl Morey is doing with the Houston Rockets this season. There is one thing that's a constant from last season, however: Kevin Martin will score.
Martin is back to being the No. 1 option on offense for the Rockets now that Kyle Lowry is gone, but he's not without help. Jeremy Lin should be able to be a threat more often than not if he is two-thirds of the man he was last season, which will give the defense something to worry about.
An off year last season riddled with ticky-tack injuries will make his seemingly inevitable bounce-back all the more impressive.
Of course, if (wait, it should probably be a "when") Houston trades him, this could all be from a different team, but at the very least we should expect to see his scoring averages to recover.
10. Chris Paul
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Chris Paul isn't going to go out and improve by leaps and bounds, but that's not to say he won't thrive in his contract year.
Paul is a professional (as far as off the court goes, the flopping thing is detrimental to this argument), so he'll probably go through the season, we'll hear a mention of him declining to sign an extension (it would be insane for him to do so) and everybody will move on.
The Clippers will make the playoffs, probably make it to the second round and then get bounced by the Lakers or the Thunder.
That's the storyline we should expect from Paul this season. He's going to be at least as good as he has been, live up to his name and earn his max deal that he's got coming to him.
Whether he'll stay in Los Angeles, however, is completely up in the air.
9. Dwight Howard
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I called Chris Paul a professional, so I guess that makes Dwight Howard a Little Leaguer.
Even still, Dwight Howard is going to play with the best point guard that he's ever played with. Hell, he's going to play with the best offensive distributor that anyone could hope to play with who doesn't happen to be named Rajon Rondo.
Where Paul will probably improve only marginally or stay where he is, Howard's offensive output should increase so long as the Lakers don't let Kobe Bryant run the offense and do Kobe Bryant things all game long.
Beyond that, Howard is going to be dominant on defense, probably seeing an increase in blocks simply because he'll be picking up guys who beat Nash off the dribble, giving the Lakers all the more reason to throw shovels full of money at him next year.
8. Jeff Teague
Jeff Teague's career is at a crossroads, which is interesting considering he's going into just his fourth year in the NBA.
Basically, Teague has had his year as a marginal bench player, his year as a bench player with promise and his year as a starter who produced well enough to earn that starting role. His progression from year-to-year, however, hasn't been nearly as great as it seems it should have been.
While his scoring efficiency has risen, nearly everything else he does has been stagnant as far as per-36 minute averages go, although there is something to be said about a guy who can sustain per-36 averages going from the bench to a starter.
The ball is in Teague's court this year it seems, especially with a lineup that will be more favorable to point guards. Joe Johnson's usage percentage has been at least 25 percent for Teague's career, which takes him out of his role as the team's offensive distributor more often than it should.
He'll be given greater responsibility, but he it seems like he'll be able to rise to the opportunity.
7. O.J. Mayo
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O.J. Mayo spent the offseason looking for a team, any team, that would give him what he thought he was worth. Boston was offering him the chance to play for a contender and their mid-level exception, but Mayo was having none of that. He wanted more.
Reality set in, Jason Terry got the Boston spot and Mayo whimpered his way into Dallas with a $4 million deal on the table. Mayo isn't necessarily going to be a free agent next season as he's got a player option to stay in Dallas, but if this offseason was any kind of precursor, Mayo wants more money.
How does a basketball player like Mayo get more money? Well, he's in an excellent situation.
Mayo will no longer be the sixth man with Memphis, rather he'll be Dallas' second scoring option at times (sounds frightening) with open shots coming from the perimeter as Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman threaten from mid-range all game long.
He's going to score. We've seen him do that before, but if he wants a better deal than the one he got this season, he's going to need to score more efficiently.
6. Josh Smith
Josh Smith saw the Hawks get rid of the one guy who liked to shoot jumpers more than he did this offseason, which should give him plenty of space to play the game he likes to play.
However, if he wants the big free-agent deal that we're going to assume that he thinks he deserves, he's going to have to play differently.
If he's smart he'll attack the rim, play stout defense and play in the Hawks system until they inevitably trade him, giving general managers and coaches everywhere the hope that his wild-chucking days are behind him, even if it's just a facade.
If he's not smart, then somebody close to him is going to sit him down and tell him exactly that, otherwise that big paycheck is going to be slightly less big.
Smith will continue to put up scoring numbers that the Hawks need, and he's going to get blocks and steals going for the big play, but he needs that shooting percentage to trend closer to the 50 percent that he shot three seasons ago, rather than the high 45 percent that he shot this season.
5. Andre Iguodala
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Andre Iguodala has the reputation of being a defensive stopper thanks to his role as the leader and the anchor of the staunch defense that Philadelphia boasted last season. That reputation is going to stick with him like glue, whether he lives up to it completely or not.
It's hard to pry that label off a guy, and at the very least some residue stays like a sticker that's been on something for too long.
However, once Iggy gets into the swing of things in Denver, he's going to start having Team USA flashbacks like crazy.
They won't need him to be the leader of this offense; they've got Ty Lawson for that. All they're going to need him to do is jump up a lot and put in alley-oops, knock down some jumpers and watch that field-goal percentage soar.
Even as the Nuggets continue to give up 102 points every time they run out on the floor, Iggy'll be commended for his defense, especially if that number should fall below the triple-digit mark.
If the alleys keep leading to oops and he stays healthy, then we'll hear plenty of stories about the resurgence of Andre Iguodala as an offensive threat.
4. Taj Gibson
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Derrick Rose is out until we see him fight his way back onto the court, so that means the Chicago Bulls need a savior. They played well without him last season, but it was a shorter season and there was promise of him coming back; hope, if you will.
Luol Deng is fine, but he's not a leader. Carlos Boozer will look like he's stepping in, only he'll fall apart when things really matter. Rip Hamilton is too old, Joakim Noah is definitely a rallying point, but he's not the man to get them over the hump.
What they're going to need is Taj Gibson to come in and give them hope that he really is going to be as good as he looks at times. They need the dominant defense and solid offense every game, not one or the other and not streaky glimpses of both.
Given that, Chicago can safely tell Carlos Boozer to take a hike, power through the coldest months of 2013 and wait to see if Rose can make it back in reasonable time to think about the playoffs.
If not, they can settle in, let what happens happen and use that newfound cap space to reward Gibson with some extra zeros on those paychecks and sign a neat little free-agent shooting guard if they so desire.
3. Andrew Bynum
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It doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but this is probably the first year that you could argue that Dwight Howard should be the third center taken in a fantasy draft.
Kevin Love (who's listed as a PF/C) is going to rebound and score like crazy and hit threes, whereas Dwight Howard's limited to scoring, rebounding and blocking shots.
The monkey wrench that will probably wriggle its way between those two is Andrew Bynum. He's got no leash, he's got no Kobe Bryant keeping him from shooting 20 times a game if he wants to. More important than all that, he's expected to be a scoring machine for Philadelphia.
Fantasy thoughts aside, Bynum should have the best year of his career if he continues to play like he did last season for the Lakers. Three of Philly's top five scorers from a season ago are in different uniforms and the scoring vacuum might be too big for even Bynum to fill.
Bynum will be in heaven playing in Philadelphia if only for the fact that he'll be scoring like a madman, even more reason for that maximum contract to come his way next year.
1a and 1b. Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry
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While Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are the biggest name free agents of the 2013 class, Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry are the best, and by far the most intriguing restricted free agents of the class.
If Stephen Curry comes back to the Golden State front office with an offer sheet from some other team willing to give him something in the neighborhood of four years at $45 million, do they do it? What if he's gotten hurt in the previous season?
The same goes for Ty Lawson. Can a team really win a title with a point guard who averages fewer than seven assists per game as their highest paid player, or thereabout?
Whether those teams can figure out the answers to those questions, it seems more than possible that both Curry and Lawson have years that will make an argument for them to be their team's highest paid player.
Injuries could derail this, as could countless other variables, but each of these guys seem ready to take over a team looking to be more than an also-ran in the Western Conference.
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