There's no time quite like a contract year to prove your worth.
Players who are eligible to hit restricted or unrestricted free agency are firmly on the radars of teams all around the NBA, but it's up to the players to establish how big of a "blip" they'll be.
Whether it's about coming back from an injury, fighting off Father Time, maintaining value or shaking a bust label, the following contract-year players all face critical seasons ahead, and they all have something to prove.
Contract Status: Derrick Favors is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent if a qualifying offer is accepted next offseason. Favors will make $6.08 million this season.
What He Has to Prove: That he's worthy of a max contract.
It's all on a silver platter for Derrick Favors.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap aren't around to block him from substantial playing time any longer. He's had three years to mature and learn. He has no veterans he'll have to defer to. All things told, Favors should get the minutes and touches to make the Utah Jazz his team this season.
But can the 22-year-old big man become a star and a more consistent scorer in his first season as a full-time starter? Was letting go of Jefferson and Millsap the right decision? Favors has 82 games to answer those questions and prove he's worthy of the opportunity.
While he certainly has the potential of a max player thanks to his size and defensive capabilities, we'll see if Favors can produce at a level that warrants the big payday he's headed for.
Contract Details: Dirk Nowitzki is on an expiring contract worth $22.7 million this season. He'll become an unrestricted free agent after this year.
What He Has to Prove: That staying in Dallas won't be a mistake.
Dirk Nowitzki has been loyal to the Dallas Mavericks, and the Dallas Mavericks have been loyal to Dirk Nowitzki. Although parting ways may have been in the best interest of both parties, Nowitzki, as far as we know, never made any requests to be dealt.
That's important because the Mavs couldn't deal Nowitzki without his permission due to a no-trade clause in his contract.
The Mavericks added Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon this offseason, but Nowitzki is still the biggest star in Big D. Although it's highly unlikely the Mavs contend for a title this season, there's more cap space on the horizon next season to surround Nowitzki with talent.
For this year, Nowitzki will have to prove that he's still good enough to carry a team and that he's not wasting the last few years of his career with a lottery team when perhaps he could have pushed to be dealt to a contender.
Contract Details: Gordon Hayward is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent next offseason if a qualifying offer is accepted. Hayward will make $3.52 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he's worth big money this offseason.
Is Gordon Hayward a top scoring option or a complementary player?
He'll have the chance to answer that this season with the Utah Jazz, as Hayward will be charged with even more playmaking and scoring responsibilities due to the injury of rookie point guard Trey Burke.
Hayward has very quietly had a nice start to his career, but he hasn't established that he's worthy of being a top-three contract on a competitive team quite yet. If he stays on his current trajectory, it will be hard for any team to give Hayward that kind of money or role.
Luckily for Hayward, he'll have every chance to put up the big numbers that bring in the dollars in the offseason. If he can make Utah's offense even respectable while performing as the top scoring option, the perception around his game could change.
Contract Details: Evan Turner is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent next offseason if a qualifying offer is accepted. Turner will make $6.67 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he's not a bust.
Evan Turner hasn't performed like the No. 2 pick in the draft should, and now he's in a precarious situation with a rebuilding team that may be ready to move on without him.
Turner's lack of perimeter scoring and efficiency overall has sank his value offensively over the last three seasons, and his lack of elite athleticism or effort hasn't done him many favors on the other end, either.
While he's been a disappointment thus far, Turner is one of the few reasonably talented players on Philadelphia's roster. He'll have plenty of opportunities to show the right kind of improvement and put up big numbers, even if it's probably too late for his chances at sticking in Philly.
Contract Details: Avery Bradley is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent next offseason if a qualifying offer is accepted. Bradley will make $2.51 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he can shoot or play point guard.
Avery Bradley is facing some of the same problems other defensive-minded combo guards are. What position does he play? Will he kill the spacing offensively?
While Iman Shumpert has improved as an outside shooter so he can play off the ball, Bradley hasn't shown a consistent jumper in his three years in the league quite yet.
After he failed to seize the point guard spot once Rajon Rondo went down, Bradley may have to shake the perception that he's better suited as a third guard than anything else.
Whether that's accomplished by running the point much more successfully or becoming at least a passable perimeter shooter, Bradley has a lot to prove in a contract year that could very well be an audition for the league's other 29 teams.
Contract Details: Paul Pierce will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Pierce is due $15.3 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That age is just a number.
For some guys, it's very simple. Paul Pierce is a legend and a future Hall of Famer, but even guys with a cemented status in history still have to prove they're capable if they keep lacing them up.
The Brooklyn Nets sacrificed essentially every possible future first-round draft pick from now until 2020 to land Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics, so the spotlight and pressure will be on. The only difference on this new "superteam" is Pierce is no longer the established player in place like he was in Boston.
Pierce may have to take more of a backseat than he's used to, but his performance will still be vital to Brooklyn's success. Can Pierce still get it done in his 15th season with all the minutes he's logged over the years? He'll have to try to prove that he can keep holding off Father Time.
Contract Details: Luol Deng will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Deng will make $14.2 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he's worth a similar amount to what he's getting paid now.
Given his injury history, probable decline and lack of outside shooting ability, Luol Deng is probably overpaid right now. There's definite value in his great defense and ability to cut offensively and make plays off the ball, but Deng is at best a third option offensively on a great team.
The good news for Deng is that with his full health and Derrick Rose's return, he could very well be in line for one of the best seasons of his career. Deng's at his best when he doesn't have to be "the man," and you could see him having a more efficient season and perhaps a less taxing load defensively thanks to Jimmy Butler's emergence.
Deng's past doesn't justify his current deal, but a great season this year could prove he's a little more worthy of a big salary so long as conditions warrant.
Contract Details: Greg Monroe is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent next offseason if a qualifying offer is accepted. Monroe will make $4.08 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he can work with Andre Drummond and Josh Smith.
Greg Monroe's value has taken a wild swing through no real doing of his own. Once considered Detroit's franchise player, Monroe now has to prove that he's not the third wheel in the frontcourt with Andre Drummond and Josh Smith.
With Smith locked up long term and Drummond still with a few years on his rookie deal, Monroe has to show the Pistons that he's not expendable and that he can mesh with his teammates. While Monroe is a unique talent as a paint scorer and capable passer, spacing could be a serious issue for the Pistons this year.
With fellow draft-class member DeMarcus Cousins landing a max extension, Monroe should be shooting for a similar payday. For now, though, Monroe will have to prove he can toe the line between franchise star and accommodating piece for it to work in Detroit.
Contract Details: Andrew Bogut will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Bogut will make $14 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he can stay healthy.
Andrew Bogut's talent has never been in question. When he's on the floor, he's a defensive anchor that can protect the rim, clean the glass and make life rough on opposing post players. He's not the offensive player he was before his gruesome elbow injury, but he's still extremely valuable when he's on the floor.
Problem is, he's very rarely on the floor. Bogut has only appeared in 44 games over the last two years, and that might give a team some serious pause about offering him a long-term deal this offseason.
Bogut could put some of those injury concerns on hold with a healthy regular season and postseason. If he's banged up again, securing a deal anywhere close to what he's getting paid now will be a challenge.
Contract Details: Pau Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Gasol will make $19.2 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he's better off without Dwight Howard.
It's easy to subscribe to the theory that Pau Gasol will have a better year, at least offensively, now that Dwight Howard is gone. Gasol performed better with Howard off the floor last season, and now there will be no competition for post touches, where Gasol has historically been most effective.
Gasol's skills as a passer and outside shooter allow him to play pretty much anywhere on the floor, but he probably works best as a center who can operate from the block and draw double-teams. While he's not a rim-protector defensively and he's clearly lost some mobility, Gasol is a smart player who understands rotations and the value of positioning.
Gasol should be a hot commodity in free agency next year, but he'll need to prove that last year's decline was an aberration and not a sign of things to come.
Contract Details: Ed Davis is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent next offseason if a qualifying offer is accepted. Davis will make $3.15 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he's good enough to make Zach Randolph expendable.
If the Memphis Grizzlies are ready to move on from Zach Randolph and his huge contract that runs through next season, Ed Davis will have to step up and show he's ready for more responsibility.
Although Davis did very well last season in his starts in Toronto, he never received a similar opportunity from Lionel Hollins once he got to Memphis.
The Grizzlies have a big decision coming up on Davis, and they'll likely want to see if he's capable of being the power forward of the future next to Marc Gasol. Whether that future comes a little earlier than planned will probably be based around how well both Davis and Randolph perform to start the year.
Contract Details: Eric Bledsoe is eligible for an extension before October 31. If that isn't negotiated, he'll become a restricted free agent next offseason if a qualifying offer is accepted. Bledsoe will make $2.62 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he can produce at a similar level in extended minutes.
Eric Bledsoe averaged 14.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per 36 minutes last year with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Instead of guessing what Bledsoe could do with a full slate of minutes, we'll now finally get to see it. Bledsoe and Goran Dragic should form one of the very best defensive backcourts in all of basketball this year, and if Bledsoe's minutes next to Chris Paul are any indicator, offensively it should be fireworks.
Bledsoe still needs to hone his jumper and make better decisions, but if he can prove that he's capable of producing at a similar level in an extended role, he's going to be considered one of the very best guards in basketball soon enough.
Contract Details: Kyle Lowry will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Lowry will make $6.21 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he can be a consistent leader.
Kyle Lowry has the skills to be a top-10 point guard, but his lack of consistency in production, effort and leadership has him nowhere near that group right now.
For the first time in a long time, however, Lowry will have full control over the point guard position and won't be sharing minutes with Jose Calderon or Goran Dragic. Not having to look over your shoulder or share leadership duties can do a lot for a guy, and having a good friend like Rudy Gay on the team might help settle Lowry into a more stable role.
This could be the year Lowry finally puts it all together, and the timing probably couldn't be any better. This is a make-or-break year for Lowry's career.
Contract Details: Danny Granger will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Granger will make $14.02 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he can stay healthy.
For a short period of time, Danny Granger was unquestionably one of the best scorers in basketball. Those days seem like quite a long time ago now, as Granger was already in a slight decline before a knee injury sidelined him for all of last season.
More importantly, Granger will have to prove to the teams with cap space for next offseason that he can stay healthy and that his injury woes are behind him. It's probably unrealistic to think Granger can fully recapture his All-Star form, but just staying on the floor this season will go a long way to proving he's still a valuable asset.
Contract Details: Kobe Bryant will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Bryant will make $30.45 million this year.
What He Has to Prove: That he's still Kobe Bryant.
No one has more to prove this season than Kobe Bryant does.
His Los Angeles Lakers are being predicted by most to miss the playoffs completely, and plenty of people think Bryant's too old and his injury was too severe to make anything close to a full recovery. Some even think this will be the end of the line for his career.
There are more challenges than ever in front of Bryant this season, but the speed of his recovery probably doesn't matter as much as the totality of it. Bryant has to prove that he's still capable of being the alpha dog and that the Lakers can compete so long as he's in the lineup.
The odds are against him more than ever before, but you better believe Bryant is hungry to prove the doubters wrong this season.
In addition to the players that could become restricted or unrestricted free agents, there are players with player options and early-termination options (which are essentially the same thing in the new CBA) on their deals.
That means this a contract year of sorts for the following players:
- Amar'e Stoudemire
- Andrea Bargnani
- Channing Frye
- Carmelo Anthony
- Dwyane Wade
- LeBron James
- Chris Bosh
- Rudy Gay
With some certainty, we can rule out Stoudemire and Bargnani, who couldn't dream of a bigger payday next season. Frye might fit into that category as well, especially if he doesn't play much this year.
As for the remaining stars, each has a little something to prove. Anthony has to prove he can be the alpha dog on a team that has title aspirations. Wade has to prove that his knees can hold up. Bosh has to prove he's worthy of a max deal for his next contract, wherever that may be. Gay has to prove that he's worth the money he'll likely demand in free agency.
As for LeBron? It's funny to say this now considering where we were two seasons ago, but he doesn't really have much left to prove...unless you involve Michael Jordan in the discussion. That's a whole different can of worms we'll save for another day.