NBA Ballers Making Most of Contract Years

Ricky FrechCorrespondent IMarch 3, 2013

NBA Ballers Making Most of Contract Years

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    Outside of winning a championship, there aren't many better motivators for professional athletes than signing a fat contract after having a great season.

    Quite a few guys from the 2013 NBA free-agent class have upped their games this season and are obviously playing to eke out a few extra dollars in negotiations this summer.

    We expected this from players like Chris Paul and Josh Smith, but you might find a few surprises.

    Here are 12 guys who are balling harder than ever on their way to the bank.

Jeff Teague

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    Jeff Teague is far from the biggest star on this list, but that doesn't mean he's any less deserving.

    The young point guard is averaging career bests virtually across the board.

    He's scoring almost 15 points a game and averaging seven assists—up from 4.9 a game in the 2011-12 season.

    He hasn't quite reached "star" status. However, if he keeps improving at his current pace, he's well on his way.

    Expect to see him command much more than his paltry $2.4 million salary by the time we begin next season.

David West

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    David West is playing like he's back with the New Orleans Hornets this season, averaging 17 points and eight boards per game. He also leads the surging Indiana Pacers in PER while playing well on the defensive end.

    Obviously, his stats are bound to take a bit of a dip when Danny Granger returns to the lineup, but that doesn't mean that his play thus far hasn't shown that he's still got "it."

    Unfortunately, West is 32 years old and probably isn't going to get another $10 million a year contract.

    That said, he provides great play in the post and would be a major pickup for any playoff contender.

Tiago Splitter

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    Tiago Splitter's not doing much differently than he's done in past seasons. He's just doing it while earning more playing time for the San Antonio Spurs.

    Take, for instance, the Spurs' last game against the Sacramento Kings. Splitter played 23 minutes, scoring 14 points on just eight shots, while bringing down 11 boards.

    His shooting percentage has always been through the roof (he's a career .590 shooter), but now his rebounding numbers are beginning to come up to par.

    Splitter's continued work toward becoming a nightly double-double threat should translate to a bigger paycheck this summer.

O.J. Mayo

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    O.J. Mayo has always been able to put the ball through the hoop. However, when he was with the Memphis Grizzlies, he struggled with his all-around game and was relegated to the bench in favor of defensive stopper Tony Allen.

    Now that Juice is back in a starting lineup, he's scoring at a high rate while showing that he's added a few new wrinkles to his game.

    Mayo's "only" averaging 17.3 points per game, but his shooting percentage is higher than it's ever been in virtually every category.

    In addition, Mayo's numbers were even better before Dirk Nowitzki made his return to the Dallas Mavericks. It's easy to say that Mayo could be averaging more than 20 as a team's main scorer.

    What could be most important for Mayo going forward is that he's also averaging four assists a contest, showing off a better overall skill set.

Tyreke Evans

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    Tyreke Evans is a victim of getting too much hype way too soon.

    True, his numbers have never been as high as his 20-5-5 rookie campaign, but he's been consistently putting up good minutes this year, especially since coming back from injury just before the All-Star break.

    In fact, while his scoring is down to just about 15 per game, he's becoming more selective with his shot, leading to a career-high shooting percentage.

    Evans is still one of the best players off the dribble, but doesn't really have a consistent role with the Sacramento Kings.

    Look for him to secure a solid contract this summer on a team that better plays to his strengths.

Brandon Jennings

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    Brandon Jennings is always a threat to go off in a big way, as his recent back-to-back 30-point games against the Brooklyn Nets show.

    However, Jennings is slowly becoming more of a complete point guard, bringing up his assists to just over six a game.

    In addition, it's going to be hard for the Milwaukee Bucks to keep both Jennings and Monta Ellis on the roster. It looks like, for now, Ellis is the team's No. 1 option at point guard.

    The 23-year-old is also averaging 18.5 points and has room to grow.

    If that doesn't get you a nice, new contract, I don't know what will. 

Nikola Pekovic

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    Over the past few seasons, Nikola Pekovic has become a nightly threat to put up a double-double for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    With quality centers at a premium in the current NBA climate, guys like Pekovic are going to get paid.

    Look at Omer Asik, another seven-footer who got a huge contract with the Houston Rockets after coming off the bench for the Chicago Bulls last season.

    Pekovic should see even bigger dollar signs than Asik, because his game has actually proven to work in a starting lineup.

Paul Millsap

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    The Utah Jazz might have the deepest frontcourt of any team in the NBA, largely because of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.

    Both would easily start on almost any team and have the potential to be 20-10 players in the post.

    Unfortunately for the Jazz, both are up for new contracts after this season.

    Millsap's minutes have gone down a touch this year, which has made his overall numbers decline as well.

    However, he can still start in this league, as his 20.73 PER can attest. He should find himself with a new deal, as well as a new team, this summer.

Al Jefferson

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    As mentioned in the previous slide, Al Jefferson is having a good contract year.

    Much like Utah Jazz teammate Paul Millsap, Jefferson's overall numbers are down slightly in 2012, but that's more because of the team's depth at the position.

    Jefferson's 17.7 points, 9.4 rebounds and 21.01 PER have to have general managers salivating at the thought of putting this guy on their roster.

    In fact, Jefferson currently has the second-best PER in the league for centers who play starters' minutes, just behind Brook Lopez.

    Jefferson has long been one of the league's premier players at the position, and he'll continue to be paid like it after this summer. 

Dwight Howard

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    Put aside the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers are underachieving this year and have become a media circus during Dwight Howard's short tenure. Just look at Howard's numbers.

    His scoring is down—which might have just a little bit to do with the fact that he plays with Kobe Bryant—but he's still leading the league in rebounds per game and sits at fifth in blocks. This is all while still playing at least partially injured.

    The Lakers might not be the championship contender we thought they were. But one thing is certain: Dwight Howard can still ball.

    He's the best center in the NBA, and he's going to get paid like it, regardless of where he ends up.

Josh Smith

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    Ladies and gentlemen, the Josh Smith trade rumors could finally be coming to an end, and it's only going to take him signing a brand-spanking-new deal with a team that isn't the Atlanta Hawks.

    All kidding aside, Smith is probably as close to a lock as you can get as far as a marquee player hitting the open market.

    That's going to make one franchise very lucky this summer, as J-Smoove brings a diverse and athletic skill set, which virtually any team could use.

    Smith is a guy who can get 18-20 points a game. He can contribute all over the stat sheet and play excellent defense at almost every position.

    He might not be a true "superstar," but he's right there on the edge.

    Maybe a move to a new team will take him over the top and help him finally reach his first ever All-Star Game.

Chris Paul

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    We end with the biggest and best superstar that could find himself in free agency this offseason: Chris Paul.

    Paul is unquestionably one of the top three point guards in the league, and you could easily make a case for him being No. 1.

    His scoring is slightly down. Considering he's still shooting his same high percentage, that has more to do with his team getting better than anything else.

    In fact, you could argue that when he's healthy, CP3 is better than ever.

    Paul currently leads the league in steals and is second in assists. He also scores more than 16 points a game. This even as Blake Griffin becomes a much more capable scorer and Jamal Crawford lights it up off the bench.

    The most important thing, though, is that Paul has the Clippers as the best team in Los Angeles.

    When have we ever been able to say that about L.A.'s second franchise?

    We all know Chris Paul is going to get paid this offseason. It's just a question of how much, and by whom.