Big Al Jefferson...definitely getting paid in the offseason.
The NBA Finals may be in full swing right now, but that's essentially inconsequential to every team in the league not named the Miami Heat or San Antonio Spurs.
Twenty-eight teams are focusing all their energy on getting better and potentially making it to the very NBA Finals they're sitting at home watching. And while improvement can come from the draft and simple player growth, a big part of it often comes from free agency.
A bunch of teams spent the last year or two frantically trying to hoard cap space in any way they could for a chance to sign one of this offseason's big-name free agents. Which means that a couple of players are about to get a whole lot richer.
As for which players are going to get the biggest paydays...let's find out.
There's a chance this guy won't be in a Bucks jersey much longer.
Brandon Jennings' free agency is going to be very interesting.
Jennings is a scoring guard who can essentially only score from one area—beyond the arc. The Milwaukee Bucks guard hit 38 percent of his threes last year, but if you look at this NBA.com shot chart, you can see that he could hit little else. That's true especially in the paint, where he hit a putrid 43 percent of shots.
However, Jennings is still very young, should improve and occasionally wows everyone with a game like this. Which means someone's going to pay him (or at least try to). And that's where things get interesting.
The Bucks tried to lock Jennings up with a four year, $40 million deal last offseason, and he promptly turned it down (via Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears). Jennings could sign a one-year qualifying offer with the Bucks (worth about $4.5 million) this offseason and told Yahoo! Sports:
If I take the qualifying offer and become an [unrestricted] free agent there is no way I am coming back. There is no way.
Jennings isn't a max player (or even close) because of the flaws I noted earlier, and it's unlikely that anyone offers him much more than what the Bucks already did. But Jennings seems to be enamored with big-market teams (per ESPN's Chris Broussard) and has spoken at length about how great the Dallas Mavericks are, telling ESPN's Tim MacMahon:
Who wouldn’t want to play in an environment like this every night? You’ve got an owner who’s so into his team and everything like that. Every time you see the Mavs, you see him cheering or going crazy. They won a championship. They’re about winning.
So here's the prediction: The Mavericks float Jennings an offer of slightly over $40 million, the Bucks—who favor Monta Ellis over Jennings according to ESPN's Marc Stein—don't choose to match it and Jennings accepts because he dreams of playing in a bigger market.
Like I said though, it's definitely going to be interesting.
Prediction: four years, $44 million
Bynum hasn't proven he can stay on the floor, but he'll be paid nonetheless.
Andrew Bynum is the trickiest player on this list to nail down.
There's no doubt that Bynum is worth a max deal when healthy (his hair alone is probably enough to make it worthwhile), but is any team really going to invest serious money in a guy with knees like his? Bynum's only played more than 60 games in a season twice in his career, and guys with an injury history like that don't often magically get healthy.
Ultimately though, the dream of a healthy Bynum is enough to cause more than a few front offices to throw a near max contract his way. He's one of the better two-way players in the league, and he utterly dominated nearly every other center in his path two years ago (per 82games.com).
Build an offense around Bynum, some shooters and a point guard capable of running a decent pick-and-roll, and you'd have a pretty scary team.
It's unlikely that anyone is willing to give Bynum more than a few years, but he'll still get paid thanks to his boom-or-bust potential and the unwritten rule that any big man who can play anything resembling basketball deserves over $10 million a year.
Where Bynum will be making all that money is a bit of a mystery, but he's sure to find a few suitors for his fragile, but considerable basketball talents.
Prediction: three years, $45 million
Iguodala's outstanding defense is the main reason he's paid so much.
When Andre Iguodala signed his last contract, he was horribly miscast as a franchise player and thus never really lived up to the deal the way Philadelphia 76ers fans hoped.
At this point though, we know who Andre Iguodala is—an elite perimeter defender and playmaker who can play multiple positions—and that means it's likely he'll be properly paid this summer. Iguodala isn't technically a free agent yet, but he has an opt-out clause and recently made it clear to Fox Sports Florida's Chris Tomasson that he'll most likely take it (so it isn't too big a risk to put him on this list).
Now that head coach George Karl and general manager Masai Ujiri are gone from the Denver Nuggets, all bets are off on where Iguodala goes. But wherever it is, he's due for a hefty payday.
Iguodala may not be a top-notch scorer, but he affects the game in virtually every facet (meaning his new team won't have to fit its schemes around him), and only Kosta Koufos had better on-off splits for the Nuggets this season (per 82games.com).
Iguodala had a bit of a down year offensively, scoring just 13 points per game on 45 percent shooting (and just 57 percent from the line!), but he does far too much not to get one last big contract this offseason.
Prediction: four years, $48 million
Jefferson's a great offensive player but his defense...
Here's a little secret for you—Al Jefferson's going to be way overpaid this summer.
That's in part thanks to the aforementioned unwritten rule that all big men get paid too much, but also because Jefferson's terrible defense completely submarines his overall value.
Jefferson is a very good offensive player, particularly on the low block. There's not a true center in the league with a better back-to-the-basket game, and Jefferson's added to that with a surprisingly dangerous mid-range jumper. His value on the offensive end is very real...but negligible because of his terrible defense.
Jefferson is extremely slow—particularly when moving laterally—which makes him nearly useless defensively anywhere except directly under the basket. The Utah Jazz gave up over nine more points per 100 possessions with Jefferson on the court this season (per 82games.com), making them better when he was on the bench than not.
In fact, Jefferson's career net rating grades out to a -2.9 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference), meaning most of his teams have been better with him on the bench.
As I said before, Jefferson does have value, but he needs to be surrounded with better defenders (especially better pick-and-roll defenders) to showcase it. Which makes him truly valuable on only a handful of teams.
Jefferson's base numbers (18 points and nine rebounds per game) are nice though, so we can probably pencil him in for a pretty hefty contract. Like Josh Smith, Jefferson needs to go to the right situation to thrive, but he'll be well paid no matter what.
Prediction: four years, $52 million
Pekovic is solid, if not spectacular.
Here's some good news for Minnesota Timberwolves fans: It sounds like Nikola Pekovic will be with the squad for a while.
Flip Saunders, the Minnesota Timberwolves' president of basketball operations, recently told Fox Sports North's Phil Ervin:
Pek's a restricted free agent, so we expect that he's going to be back. We feel he's a valuable part of where we're going, and we'll do what we have to do to try to bring him back. I think Kirilenko's the same way. Until he exercises his option, we feel he's a guy that's going to come back.
Pekovic averaged 16 points and nine rebounds per game last season and looks to be a major part of the Timberwolves' future moving forward. And that's great. Pekovic may not be a flashy player, but he's a great fit with Kevin Love, he's a solid team defender and Minnesota scored at an elite rate when he was on the court this season (per 82games.com). That's without Love, too.
With that being said though, Pekovic will be fairly costly. After all, teams pay a premium for quality big men (that's why there are so many of them on this list), and Pekovic will command a lot of money.
Pekovic isn't a game-changing star, just a very good third option, so he's not worthy of a max deal. Something like $12 million per year sounds appropriate for someone of his skills, and it's likely that's around the number he gets this offseason (basically making him the first properly paid big man ever).
Prediction: five years, $60 million
On the right team, Smith could be absolutely terrifying.
It seems unlikely that Josh Smith ends up back with the Atlanta Hawks, so the real question here is whether or not a team will pay him the max. Smith has a glaring flaw in his game that may turn off a few potential suitors, so his getting a max deal isn't a total slam dunk.
Just take a look at these NBA.com shot charts here and here, and you may see the problem. Basically, Smith fancies himself a bit of a sharpshooter despite the fact that the only zone he shoots an above-average percentage in is right at the rim. And of course, the one place he takes a below-average percentage of his shots at is right at the rim. So that's a problem.
But is it a problem big enough to cost him a max deal? Probably not. Despite some big shot-selection shortcomings, Smith is still a good player because of his versatility.
Smith played most of his minutes at the 4 this season, but he still got decent time at the 3 and the 5, performing well at each spot (per 82games.com). In a league where the ability to go small is becoming more and more important, Smith could be a matchup nightmare in the right coach's hands. He also can run the floor, play solid defense and impacts the game in a ton of ways.
You could make the case that Smith's shot selection should cost him a big deal, but it won't. On the right team (like say, the Houston Rockets), Smith could be a devastating two-way player, and untapped potential like that always means a big payday.
Prediction: four years, $72 million
Chris Paul is guaranteed the max wherever he goes.
I don't think there's any need to mention why Chris Paul's getting a max deal (short version: he's the league's third-best player and its best point guard), so let's talk about why he'll be re-signing with the Los Angeles Clippers (which is why he gets a five-year deal).
To put it plainly, it's hard to imagine a better situation for Paul. The one exception might be if he and Dwight Howard sign with the same team, but even in that case, the Clippers would be nearly as good. Sure, it hasn't looked like that yet, but you can blame some of that on injury (Blake Griffin's ankle in these playoffs) and another good chunk of it on some of Vinny Del Negro's stranger schemes.
The Clippers never defended set plays (you can see it best in pick-and-rolls) in one specific way this year. They switched on a game-to-game basis, using one scheme until they started getting scored on, causing them to then panic and try to defend another way.
That shouldn't happen on a good team, and it led to the Clippers getting eaten alive from the three-point line (per Basketball-Reference) and posting a bottom-half-of-the-league defensive rating after the All-Star break (per NBA.com).
A good coach can change that, which alone would make the Clippers much, much better. Throw in the fact that the team is still growing and that Paul would be guaranteed significantly more money in Los Angeles, and the choice seems pretty straightforward, even if Paul is a little mad at the organization (via ESPN.com).
Prediction: five years, $108 million
Say what you will, Dwight Howard's going to be a very rich man.
We know that Dwight Howard is going to get a max deal.
Dwight looked completely banged up this season, and despite the fact that he rarely dominated games the way he used to, he still put up 17 points and 12 rebounds per game. And he at least should get back to his old form at some point.
Dwight will get paid. The question now is where Dwight will be lacing them up, and as with Chris Paul, the obvious answer seems to be Los Angeles.
To be honest, this is mostly about money. It's not that Dwight's greedy, it's just that the Los Angeles Lakers can offer Dwight just under $120 million for a five-year contract, whereas any other team can give him just under $90 million for a four-year deal (via ESPN.com). That's an enormous amount of guaranteed money, especially when you consider that Howard still looked like he was dealing with a bad back at the end of the season.
Playing on the Houston Rockets with James Harden sounds tempting, but there's a lot of money to be made on the Lakers, and it's still hard to get a read on how good Los Angeles is since the team was crippled by injuries this season.
Could Dwight take off? Of course. But staying in Los Angeles and getting the five-year max still seems like the most likely outcome at this point.
Prediction: five years, $117 million