Behold the power of the contract year.
Perform incredibly well, and a player can get that Jerome James money. Struggle, and a player might be cast to the bottom of the bargain bin in free agency. There's no hyperbole here: Performance in a contract year can swing a player's value by millions of dollars.
For the sake of this exercise, players that can become free agents next season, restricted or unrestricted, will be considered. Players with early termination options, however, will not be considered. Sorry, LeBron James. You'll have to sit this one out.
We'll also focus more on players who are likely to increase their salaries with big seasons. That means we'll exclude guys on giant expiring deals like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Luol Deng. This one is strictly for the players who are primed to have big contract years and increase their value, not just maintain it.
For Kyle Lowry, talent has never been the issue.
When he's engaged, Lowry is a bulldog of a defender. When he's taking good shots, he has unlimited range. When he's motivated, he'll hit the glass as hard as any point guard in the league.
Focus, consistency and the ability to mesh with teammates has kept Lowry back from becoming a star, but nothing can make a player buckle down like one more chance at a big payday.
Lowry will have his challenges playing next to possession hoarders DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay, but if he could focus on being more efficient and dominating in other areas like he's capable of, he could earn much more than the $6.2 million owed to him this season.
He'll come gift-wrapped in caution tape next offseason if he doesn't finally pull it together, but Lowry has the chance to prove he's a top-flight point guard this season. Jose Calderon is gone and there's increased responsibility on him, but with that comes increased opportunity.
When you think of elite defensive big men, Derrick Favors probably doesn't spring to mind. He's still young and very unproven, but all the raw skills are there. Favors is a big body who can own the glass (10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes on his career), block shots and use his mobility to stifle pick-and-rolls. He's the total package on that end.
Favors is still eligible for a contract extension from the Utah Jazz up until October 31, but let's work under the assumption that he'll bet on himself and hit restricted free agency to drive up his value.
As opposed to scrounging for scraps like he did behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, Favors can now get all the minutes he can handle in Utah's frontcourt. With more polish on his offensive game than you might think, and no real competition for touches, Favors is in line to put up huge numbers.
When 22-year-old big men with great athleticism produce, the money comes flying in from all angles. Don't be surprised if he gets a max deal next offseason.
Quincy Pondexter broke out last year in the postseason, filling the role of a shooter on the wing the Memphis Grizzlies needed so desperately.
Going into a potential contract year this season, Pondexter should occupy a larger role, even with Mike Miller, Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen around. Out of that group, Pondexter is the only one who provides both three-and-D, so he'll still warrant a good chunk of playing time.
If the Grizzlies can't negotiate a contract extension before the October 31 deadline, it wouldn't be surprising to see a team offer Pondexter twice the amount he's making now ($2.22 million) next offseason. Great teams need great role players, and Pondexter should show in a contract year that he fits in any scheme new head coach Dave Joerger throws out there.
Contract years seem to benefit big men more than anyone else. Erick Dampier, or pretty much any center the Mavericks signed over the last 15 years, is a good example of that.
With that in mind, Spencer Hawes has everything working in his favor this season. He has no real competition for minutes with Nerlens Noel still sidelined. He has no real competition for touches, either. He can be the "good stats on a bad team" player that always seems to be overvalued when they hit the open market.
And really, you can talk yourself into Hawes. He has some range on his jumper, which teams are obsessed with right now. He can block a few shots. He's a true 7-footer. He's a pretty decent passer, too. That guy sounds really good, right?
Hawes just doesn't really "get it," but there's no stat for smart help defense. He's a strong candidate to put up big numbers this season and get wildly overpaid the following offseason because of those numbers. The $6.5 million he's making this year might look like a bargain compared to his next deal, which is a little scary.
Eric Bledsoe might not be a "true" point guard, but that might work in his favor.
When you consider the depth of the point guard position around the league, it might benefit Bledsoe to excel next to Goran Dragic in the Phoenix Suns backcourt. Plenty of teams could use a defensive menace on the wing who brings plenty of athleticism, but not many teams need starting point guards right now.
While some old-school thinkers might not be able to get over Bledsoe's height (6'1") at the 2, you can't just ignore his production. Bledsoe is probably the best shot-blocking guard this side of Dwyane Wade, he averages nearly five rebounds per 36 minutes on his career, and his low center of gravity and crazy build will keep almost all shooting guards from backing him down. It can work.
Bledsoe will finally be given the opportunity he needs in Phoenix. If he demonstrates the same athleticism and versatility he did in Los Angeles, he'll solidify himself as one of the most exciting young guards in basketball.
More fun for the Utah Jazz next offseason, huh? Along with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward will hit restricted free agency if the Jazz don't extend him. We'll see how committed the franchise is to him soon enough.
Commitment from the coaching staff is probably the reason Hayward isn't a bigger name at this point. Despite being the best option at either wing spot pretty much since the day he arrived in Utah, Hayward has started in less than half of his total games played.
Jazz head coach Ty Corbin seems to have little choice but to play Hayward a full slate of minutes now, and the increased time and chances to operate with the ball on a team void of scorers should boost Hayward's numbers quite a bit.
Hayward has the offensive skills to really break out this year as a great shooter, scorer and playmaker with ideal size. Watch out.
Sometimes reputation matters more than production. That has to be the case with Toney Douglas.
Douglas is an elite perimeter defender who can hound opposing guards, and he's shot over 37 percent from three-point land in three of his four seasons. He's a decent distributor, but he sticks to his bread and butter behind the arc.
Still, Douglas is probably most remembered for his flop in New York, where he struggled mightily to run a pick-and-roll heavy system as the starting point guard. That's not who Douglas is, but teams still seem to hold it against him.
With Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala in Golden State, Douglas won't have to do those things. He can defend and spot-up, and he's shown the ability to do both at a very high level. The Warriors will miss Jarrett Jack as a backup point guard, but Douglas should certainly outplay his measly $1.6 million price tag.
Can Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson play extended minutes next to each other?
According to NBAWowy.com, New Orleans was significantly worse last season defensively when Davis and Anderson shared the floor (1.20 Points Per Possession allowed) compared to when Davis was on the floor without Anderson (1.05 Points Per Possession allowed).
Although New Orleans was better offensively, with the additions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, it might be wise to put an emphasis on the defensive end now.
Jason Smith could be a nice compromise starting next to Davis in the starting lineup. He's bigger than Anderson and is a far better rim protector, yet he still offers stretch thanks to a deadly mid-range jumper. Smith knocked in nearly half (80-for-161) of his jumpers from 16-feet out to the three-point line last year.
Centers that can shoot the ball are a rarity in the NBA. Smith is only making $2.5 million this season, but if he can finally stay healthy and get solid minutes, he'll set himself up to make much more than that next offseason.