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NBA: 5 Young Stars Eligible for Contract Extensions Who Must Be Locked Up

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterOctober 10, 2012

NBA: 5 Young Stars Eligible for Contract Extensions Who Must Be Locked Up

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    October 31st is fast approaching, and you know what that means...

    Yes, it's probably a good idea to get your costume in order before you end up splurging on some chintzy, pre-made get-up at your local Halloween warehouse store.

    More importantly, though, teams around the NBA are hustling to ink their young stars to lucrative contract extensions before treat turns to trick. What the class of restricted free agents for 2013 lacks in franchise cornerstones, it makes up for in a depth of quality players and borderline All-Stars.

    As a result, you won't likely see anyone earning massive paydays like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Kevin Love have in recent years. Nonetheless, it's imperative that teams lock up these five players for the foreseeable future, lest they sit by as their prospects for success waltz through the open market next summer.

James Harden

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder have already splashed cash at their two biggest stars and seemed to signal how they'd prefer to organize their Big Three going forward when they signed Serge Ibaka to a four-year extension this summer. The salaries of those three, along with that of Kendrick Perkins, will push the small-market Thunder perilously close to luxury-tax territory in the years to come.

    Adding James Harden to the mix would all but assure that the Thunder wind up with an expensive bill of penalties, albeit not to the extent that the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets will see.

    Harden's done more than enough in his three NBA seasons to prove that he's worth the expense. The Bearded One's raw numbers—16.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 39 percent from three—were impressive in and of themselves, enough so to earn him the Sixth Man of the Year award.

    But it's the efficiency with which Harden stuffs the stat sheet that's most impressive. He checked in fourth in the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, third in offensive rating, second in true shooting percentage and second in effective field-goal percentage.

    Which is to say, James makes the most of his role as the first guy off Scott Brooks' bench.

    OKC GM Sam Presti isn't stupid, either. He knows he needs to keep Harden around for the Thunder to contend in a stacked Western Conference. Harden's one of only three players on the roster, along with Durant and Westbrook, on whom the team can count on to score with any consistency.

    Without Harden, the Thunder would have to lean even more heavily on the singular talents of their two All-Stars to carry the day.

    It's no wonder, then, that OKC's front office and Harden's representatives are hard at work on an extension, one made all the more plausible by James' willingness to take less money for the good of the team

    If a deal doesn't get done soon, though, don't be surprised if Harden finds max offer sheets in free agency next July to be too tempting to resist.

Ty Lawson

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    Talent-wise, Ty Lawson can't quite measure up to Harden, though he's arguably more important to the future of his team than James is to his. The fourth-year point guard out of North Carolina is the key catalyst behind the Denver Nuggets' uptempo attack, with the blinding speed to get the ball up the floor, the vision to dish on the break and the strength to finish through contact.

    Lawson came into his own last season, his first full campaign without Chauncey Billups ahead of him on the depth chart. His 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals had him on the verge of All-Star status, and his performance against the Lakers in the playoffs only pointed to bigger and better things to come.

    Who knew those bigger and better things would include acquiring Andre Iguodala and re-signing JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler? With those three athletes joining Denver's corps of burners, the Nuggets should be even more lethal on offense in 2012-13 with Lawson orchestrating the operation.

    That, among other things, has ESPN's John Hollinger pegging the Nuggets as contenders for the coming season. However, they won't be in the conversation for long unless they lock up Lawson beyond this season.

    Folks in the Mile High City have nothing to fear, though. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, Lawson and the Nuggets are likely to get a deal done before the October 31st deadline.

Taj Gibson

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    The Chicago Bulls are expected to have an extension of their own done with Taj Gibson before the regular season starts. The Bulls would be loath to wait this one out and watch Gibson's price tag skyrocket on the open market, as was the case with Omer Asik this past summer.

    Team owner and noted penny-pincher Jerry Reinsdorf is already sweating the prospect of dipping into the luxury tax for the very first time this season and can't be too happy about the way in which his expenses are set to balloon in 2013-14.

    That is, unless Gibson gives the Bulls an easy out. If Gibson can prove that he's worthy of a starting spot at power forward this season, he'll give Bulls GM Gar Forman that much more leeway to reshape the roster and create some flexibility, perhaps by cutting Carlos Boozer.

    That being the case, Chicago would be wise to lock Gibson up pronto, before his value (and contract demands) skyrocket to heights that Reinsdorf isn't willing to match. Otherwise, the Bulls may be left with another painful rebuild on their hands by the time Derrick Rose is back to a reasonable facsimile of his pre-knee-injury self.

Nikola Pekovic

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    As with Taj Gibson in Chicago, the Minnesota Timberwolves have a big, physical frontcourt player of their own who's due for a payday.

    Not Kevin Love—he's already signed on through at least the 2014-15 season. I'm instead referring to Nikola Pekovic.

    The massive Montenegrin was among the NBA's most improved players last season. With fellow Balkans native Darko Milicic finally out of his way on the depth chart, Pek erupted for 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds while shooting 56.4 percent from the field and establishing himself as something of a cult figure in the basketball blogosphere.

    He's the perfect yin to K-Love's yang, a burly bruiser who rebounds, plays solid position defense and can score in the paint. In fact, according to ESPN's John Hollinger, Pek led the NBA in points in the paint on a per-minute basis last season.

    T-Wolves GM David Kahn may be keen to build a winner around Love and Ricky Rubio, but if his team is to contend in the West sooner rather than later, they'll need Pek's hulking presence to anchor the middle of the floor.

Stephen Curry

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    Pek would've been even better last season had he not been stung by the injury bug.

    The same could certainly be said of Stephen Curry, who missed 40 games for the Golden State Warriors last season on account of a bum ankle. Curry was back in action for the first time in months on Monday, when he registered two points, two rebounds and six assists in 12 minutes during a preseason victory over the Utah Jazz.

    By all accounts (via MercuryNews.com), Stephen looked good in limited action, distributing the ball on offense and hustling around the floor on defense in a way that would indicate that his ankle is good to go.

    On the other hand, Curry was noticeably fatigued toward the end of his time and there's no telling how his ankle will hold up amidst more extensive minutes over the course of an 82-game schedule.

    Still, it would behoove the Dubs to get Curry under contract as soon as possible. He'll be an integral part of Golden State's retooled attack—a leader in the locker room, a passer who can get the ball inside to Andrew Bogut and David Lee and a sharpshooter who stretch opposing defenses alongside Klay Thompson and rookie Harrison Barnes.

    The Warriors can also use the prospect of Curry's injury risk to drive down his contract expectations in the interim. Waiting out the season, and watching Curry bolster his bottom line with a breakout season, would be that much riskier for Golden State.

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