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13 Contract-Year NBA Stars Who Will Play Their Way into a Massive Payday

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2012

13 Contract-Year NBA Stars Who Will Play Their Way into a Massive Payday

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    Heading into the 2012-13 NBA season, certain players have more than just a championship on their minds.

    At least 50 or so players could be heading into the final year of their contracts, with either restricted or unrestricted free agency awaiting in the summer of 2013.

    Many of these players aren't anything special. They're the role players, the roster fillers—the guys who are lucky to get the mid-level exception, if that.

    Others, however, are bona fide superstars.

    The 13 players featured here all potentially face free agency next summer, and all 13 should earn a pretty penny based on their play this season.

    For your reference, the players are ordered by a combination of: 1) how likely they are to take their game to the next level this season; and 2) the likely salary they'll command next summer.

13. Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls

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    We start with Taj Gibson, who suddenly lacks a Bench Mob frontcourt partner after Omer Asik signed this summer with the Houston Rockets.

    Typically, a guy who only averaged 7.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game last season wouldn't be seen as a breakout candidate. Gibson's a rightful exception.

    According to mySynergySports, Gibson only allowed 0.77 points per possession last season, which ranked 65th overall in the NBA. Carlos Boozer, the Chicago Bulls' starting power forward, allowed 0.89 points per possession last season, which ranked 305th overall.

    Seeing as Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau prides himself on defense first, Gibson should earn a significant uptick in minutes this season, especially with Derrick Rose sidelined by a torn ACL until at least the start of 2013.

    With those minutes will come significantly increased production for Gibson, which will help him earn at least an $8 million/year payday next summer.

12. Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jrue Holiday threw the gauntlet down this summer by reportedly seeking a maximum contract offer from the Philadelphia 76ers. That's a gutsy move for a player who only averaged 13.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game in the 2011-12 season.

    This upcoming season, he'll have to prove with his play that he's worth anything near a maximum contract. Luckily for Holiday, he'll have Andrew Bynum now on his side.

    With a big man like Bynum commanding double-teams on the interior, Holiday should have that much more freedom on the perimeter to operate the Sixers offense.

    If Holiday expects to earn a max deal next summer, he'll have to significantly improve his offensive production in every facet. Realistically, he'll have the freedom to be a 20-point-per-game scorer this season, with Andre Iguodala having been traded to Denver in the Bynum deal.

    Seeing as Jeremy Lin, George Hill and Goran Dragic all earned $8 million/year deals this past summer, Holiday should see enough of a boost this season to earn somewhere around $10 million/year next summer.

11. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets

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    In terms of production, Ty Lawson carries one of the most cap-friendly (and therefore valuable) contracts in all of the NBA.

    Despite averaging 16.4 points and 6.6 assists per game for the Denver Nuggets in 2011-12, Lawson is only scheduled to make $2.5 million this upcoming season. Jeremy Lin did that for 20 games last season and this summer earned himself $25 million over the next three years.

    Even if Lawson simply maintains his statistical output from last season, he'll be setting himself up for a pretty payday next summer.

    The thing is, the Nuggets only improved this past offseason. They traded Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo for Andre Iguodala, giving themselves a deadly 1-2 wing combo, and center JaVale McGee spent three weeks this summer under the tutelage of Hakeem Olajuwon, which should only pay dividends.

    Assuming Lawson orchestrates the Nuggets' fast-paced offense successfully this season, he, like Jrue Holiday, will be in line for a $10 million/year offer in the summer of 2013. 

10. Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    When the Minnesota Timberwolves' Nikola Pekovic hits restricted free agency next summer, he won't have any shortage of pursuers.

    Foul trouble kept Pekovic limited during his rookie season (he averaged 7.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes), but he put that behind him last season and emerged as a breakout star.

    Per 36 minutes, "Pek" averaged 18.5 points and 9.9 rebounds for the Timberwolves in 2011-12, asserting himself into the discussion of the league's top young centers.

    According to mySynergySports, Pekovic ranked 14th overall in the league with 1.07 points per possession, and he finished fourth in the league with 1.33 PPP when he was the roll man in a pick-and-roll.

    Now, with Pekovic having reportedly toned his body and gotten more muscular this season, the Timberwolves' young center could be even more dangerous this upcoming season. If Omer Asik can get $8 million/year, Pek will command that at the bare minimum next summer.

9. Paul Millsap, Utah Jazz

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    You may not think of Paul Millsap as a traditional star, but here's a news flash: For each the past two seasons with the Utah Jazz, Millsap has averaged roughly 17 points and eight rebounds per game.

    Over that time frame, only 20 NBA players have averaged over 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for an entire season. Millsap's done it twice.

    At only 6'8", he's an inch or two shorter than a traditional power forward, which could spell trouble against a team with twin seven-footers like the Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks.

    Defensively, Millsap allowed opposing power forwards to average a PER of 18.3 per 48 minutes against him, but he made up for that by averaging a 21.5 PER of his own when playing at the 4.

    With the contracts of Millsap and Al Jefferson both expiring after this season, the Jazz are likely to move on from at least one of the two of them, with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter waiting in the wings. If Millsap puts up another 17-and-eight season, he'll almost certainly earn himself $10 million/year next summer.

8. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

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    Will the real Tyreke Evans please stand up? Entering his last year before restricted free agency, he doesn't have much of a choice.

    Who is Evans, really? The player who averaged 20 points, five rebounds and five assists as a rookie, joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players in league history to achieve such a feat?

    Or was Evans' rookie season a fluke, as his past two seasons might suggest? His season averages have dropped every year since his debut, settling at 16.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in 2011-12.

    According to Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Evans has been putting in the work this summer to get back into the upper echelon of NBA combo-guards, even coming to the gym for 4 a.m. shooting sessions.

    If the rookie version of Evans reemerges this season for the Sacramento Kings, they'll have little choice but to match any offer for him next summer, when he'll be a restricted free agent.

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    If Stephen Curry can prove that he's over his chronic ankle trouble this upcoming season, he could earn himself a maximum contract offer next summer when he becomes a restricted free agent.

    Last season, Curry missed 40 games due to his creaky right ankle, averaging career lows of 14.7 points and 5.3 assists in the process. The two seasons prior, however, he averaged roughly 18 points, six assists and four rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range.

    His sharpshooting ability earned him a job in the NBA after his wicked run through the 2008 NCAA tournament, and he's only improved his three-point shooting averages in each of his three NBA seasons.

    With career shooting averages of 47.3 percent overall, 44.1 percent from three and 90.1 percent from the free-throw line, Curry could become a member of the exclusive 50-40-90 club within the next few seasons.

    If he can stay healthy (and that's a big if), Curry will earn one of the largest paydays of any player in 2013 free agency.

6. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

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    Now that Joe Johnson has been traded to the Brooklyn Nets, the Atlanta Hawks officially become Josh Smith and Al Horford's team.

    That's music to the ears of fantasy basketball players, who have long held a reverence for Smith's versatility.

    Yes, Smith falls prey to low-percentage midrange jumpers far too often, having shot 37 percent from 16 to 23 feet last season while attempting a career-high 6.3 shots per game from that range.

    He may not be a stellar long-range shooter, but he is a great scorer, rebounder and passer, having averaged 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game last season.

    Throw in 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals per game in 2011-12, and it's no wonder why Smith has carved out such a reputation in fantasy basketball.

    Assuming Smith has another season in which he averages close to 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, he should at least be able to match the $12.4 million he's making this year for an annual salary next summer. 

5. Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz

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    Al Jefferson doesn't possess the star power of his counterparts this high up on this list, but he has every reason to expect a contract in their range once he hits unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2013.

    In a league where true 20-point-, 10-rebound-per-night threats are becoming a thing of the past, the 6'10", 265-pound Jefferson possesses the size and strength to serve as a team's primary big man.

    According to mySynergySports, 48.2 percent of Jefferson's possessions last season were post-ups, where he averaged 0.96 points per possession. That figure ranked 18th overall in the NBA.

    Besides his first two seasons with Boston when he played limited minutes, Jefferson has essentially been a 20-10 player over the past six seasons.

    If Jefferson can avoid a serious injury in this final year of his contract, a $12-plus million/year payday should be awaiting next summer, either from Utah or another bidder.

4. James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    James Harden's free-agent status will be one of the most hotly pursued between now and Oct. 31, which is the deadline for the Oklahoma City Thunder to sign Harden to an extension and keep him from reaching restricted free agency next summer.

    ESPN's Chris Broussard recently tweeted that Harden wants to stay in Oklahoma City but also wants a maximum contract offer. As Royce Young of Daily Thunder has explained, a max contract for Harden would put the small-market Thunder far over the luxury tax cap, potentially costing the team $20-plus million in tax payments.

    There shouldn't be any question that Harden deserves a max contract at this point. Despite the no-show in the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden is the perfect complement to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant: a high-percentage shooter who's great at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line.

    Seeing as Harden only just turned 23 years old a month ago, the sky appears to be the limit for the 2012 Sixth Man of the Year. On any other team not named the Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers or Miami Heat, he'd be an unquestioned starter at the 2.

    If Oklahoma City can convince Harden to take less than the max before Oct. 31, it'll be a huge coup. Otherwise, barring a massive injury, Harden will get multiple max contract offers next summer, whether the Thunder like it or not.  

3. Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Speaking of guaranteed max contract recipients... How about a 24-year-old two-time NBA champion who averaged a career-high 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game last season?

    Now that Bynum has been traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, he'll finally have the chance to prove he's capable of being a team's No. 1 option on offense.

    Sixers coach Doug Collins has made it no secret that Bynum's arrival will redefine the Sixers' identity as an inside-outside team offensively.

    Assuming Bynum's value on a basketball court wasn't completely dependent upon the presence of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, he should prove more than capable of handling that role for the Sixers this season.

    Seeing as centers like Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez commanded max contract offers in the summer of 2012, barring injury, there's no way that Bynum should expect anything less in the summer of 2013 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

2. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    If, for whatever reason, the Los Angeles Clippers decide not to extend a maximum contract offer to Chris Paul after this season when he becomes an unrestricted free agent, the 29 other teams in the league certainly will.

    Over the past few seasons, Paul has reclaimed his title of best point guard in the NBA. His diminutive 6'0" frame doesn't prevent him from absolutely dominating opponents on a nightly basis, as he's led the league in steals five times during his seven-year career.

    He's the best pure point guard in the NBA, having averaged a shade under 10 assists per game throughout his career, but he doesn't mind scorching the nets at times, as evidenced by his career average of 18.8 points per game.

    Paul had surgery earlier this summer to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, but he's expected to be back healthy in time for the start of the regular season.

    If Paul can orchestrate Year 2 of Lob City as effectively as he did last season, there's no question that he'll be receiving a max contract offer from every team that pursues him next summer.

1. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

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    It's not every year that the NBA's best center hits the market as an unrestricted free agent, but that appears all but a certainty for the summer of 2013.

    Dwight Howard, who was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this summer, sounds like he's in no hurry to sign an extension with his new team.

    At this point, the plan appears to be for Howard to play the year out, see how he likes life with the Lakers, and reassess his options next summer, hopefully with his first NBA championship in hand.

    Once the three-time Defensive Player of the Year returns from offseason back surgery, he'll fortify the Lakers defense and be a headache for the 29 other teams in the league.

    In a starting lineup with Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, one-time league MVP Kobe Bryant and two-time MVP Steve Nash, Howard packs the potential to be the most dominant of all five.

    If Howard goes ahead with his plan of reaching unrestricted free agency next summer, he'll have no shortage of teams throwing max contract offers his way. Here's hoping he's a little more decisive this time around.

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