NBA Players with Most to Prove Entering Final Year of Their Deals
No matter how firmly established his reputation, every NBA player begins the 2017-18 season with questions to answer.
Those playing in contract years stand out, though. They're the ones who must prove their worth ahead of free agency.
Can they take the next step, demonstrate leadership or dispel concerns about fluke performances? Can they force a max-salary bidding war or nail down a surefire mega-extension? Can they remove a looming draft-bust label?
Here, we'll focus on 2018 free agents who stand to make big money (or at least rehabilitate their reputations and prolong their careers) if they shine during their contract years. This is a group that also has significant downside risk, as failing to meet the demands of the market could result in diminished paydays.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and even Nikola Jokic represent a class of players we're not interested in. As long as they stay healthy, these 2018 free agents are ticketed for max deals. They've proved enough already.
The same can't be said for the rest of these guys.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
You're laughing already, aren't you? Thinking to yourself, incredulously, "Of course DeMarcus Cousins is getting the max!"
Look at the numbers! The physical profile! The skill!
But what have those considerable tools gotten him to this point?
We don't know how much of the dysfunction with the Sacramento Kings was his fault, he's never made the playoffs and his undeniable basketball gifts haven't translated to sustained success on the defensive end.
In an era where centers are going extinct (particularly ones who can't switch onto guards or defend the rim), are we sure there'll be a rush to pay Cousins the max as an unrestricted free agent next summer?
This season, Cousins won't even be saddled with the burdens of leadership. He failed to carry that load with the Kings, but now all he has to do is prove he's a winner with superstar help. Anthony Davis takes the pressure off like no one Cousins has ever played with.
The New Orleans Pelicans are no paragon of organizational functionality. Nobody's expecting 60 wins.
But Cousins must show he can contribute positively to a winning effort for the first time in his career. He must prove he's more than a brilliantly skilled big man who gets his numbers, pouts, sporadically defends and finds enemies everywhere—from referees to reporters to color commentators.
Cousins got a partial pass with the perpetually unraveling Kings. If suitors see the same story play out with Cousins in a new environment, they won't be so quick to come running with huge contract offers.
Heading into his age-27 season, Boogie is in the best shape of his career. That's a start.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
"Very confident," Isaiah Thomas told reporters of his expectations regarding a max contract. "I deserve it. I put the work in, and you can put me down against any guard in the NBA. ... My numbers are up there with the best players in the world, and my team is winning. So, I mean, you have to reward that."
You've got to admit Thomas has a strong case.
He averaged 28.9 points and 5.9 assists on 62.5 percent true shooting in 2016-17, numbers that certainly look max-worthy. But he'll turn 29 next season, and spending big on him will mean expecting production like that to continue.
This seems like a good place to mention that the point-assist-accuracy combo Thomas posted last year constitute the only such season ever compiled by a player 6'2" or shorter. In a vacuum, is it wise to assume something that has only happened once in the history of the NBA will happen again?
Thomas' numbers could dip a bit, and he'd still be a fantastic player. But small guards age notoriously poorly, and Thomas' already substandard defense will not improve as he loses quickness.
The fact that the Boston Celtics passed on the chance to draft Markelle Fultz suggests they're not looking for Thomas' long-term replacement at the point. But that could certainly change a year from now.
Playing on a comically cheap deal, Thomas has been one of the best dollars-to-production contributors in the league over the last couple of seasons. As he moves out of his physical prime, will he do enough to command the raise he thinks he's due?
This is a particularly tough one, as Thomas must not only duplicate last year's performance, but also prove he can sustain it for another few years.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Aaron Gordon is part of a 2014 draft class that, almost across the board, has not shown superstar potential.
We'll hit several of them briefly in a moment, but Gordon's 2018 restricted free agency (if he doesn't sign an extension by October) is particularly interesting.
In theory, he's exactly what a modern power forward should be: ultra-athletic, long enough to defend most opposing 4s and gifted with enough coordination and balance to one day develop legitimate guard skills. He spent much of his first three seasons on the wing, where his underdeveloped handle and jumper made him a liability, but significant minutes at the 4 after last year's All-Star break hinted at his true future.
He averaged 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds on 50.3 percent shooting in 24 games after the 2016-17 break.
Why it took so long for the Magic to embrace Gordon as a power forward is a mystery, but he's got the gig now.
If he blossoms in his rightful position, leveraging his athleticism into defensive versatility and scoring in ways that don't involve dunking, he'll be a sought-after asset. And though there will always be teams convinced they'll be the ones to sculpt a raw athlete like Gordon into basketball art, a disappointing campaign in his age-22 season could mean most view him as a bench player.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Go ahead and try to think of a player with a broader spectrum of possible career paths ahead.
Can't do it, can you?
For 31 games last season, Joel Embiid looked like a generational talent, a superstar big man capable of dominating on both ends in ways traditional and cutting edge. He defended the paint and finished lobs while also flashing terrifying skill as a three-point shooter (36.7 percent) and straight-line finisher off the dribble.
It was Hakeem Olajuwon stuff, only with more muscle.
But those 31 games are all we have right now. Embiid spent the other two-and-a-half seasons of his career injured, which is the reason nobody can be sure what to expect going forward.
It's hard to say how many healthy games Embiid would have to play this season to assure himself of a max offer. If he somehow logs 70 games and sustains his otherworldly stats from last year, he's a lock. But what if he only plays 40 or 50 games and is again hampered by health concerns?
What's he worth if this year is just a repeat of last year?
It's difficult to ask a player to prove he's healthy because injuries are so often uncontrollable. But that's exactly what everyone needs to see, including the Philadelphia 76ers, other teams willing to gamble with big offer sheets and fans yearning for the supreme talent meet his potential.
Barring a preseason extension, the most talented player in the 2014 draft class could hit restricted free agency assured of a full max offer from the Sixers. Or, he could wind up fielding one-year fliers from clubs hoping his body holds up.
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
It doesn't seem possible that Derrick Favors just turned 26 in July—partly because he's heading into his eighth NBA season, but mostly because he spent last year moving around like he was 36.
Back and knee injuries sapped his mobility in 2016-17, but Favors isn't so far removed from being one of the top young big men in the league. He's uncommonly strong but marries that force with deft touch from difficult, no-man's-land distances. He hit 47.6 percent from 3-10 feet last season.
Most guards would love to have his feel on those little five-foot floaters.
Defensively, Favors has been overshadowed by Rudy Gobert for the past three seasons. No shame there, as Gobert is one of the two or three most impactful defensive forces in the league. Still, it's easy to forget how much a healthy Favors can influence the action on both ends.
From 2013-14 to 2015-16, Favors averaged at least 13.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per contest. But his games-played tally has shrunk from 74 to 62 to 50 over the last three years.
A healthy season with production that resembles his rates of a couple of years ago would be enough to convince at least half the teams in the league that he should be starting for them. Gobert's presence means big minutes aren't in the cards in Utah, but opportunities abound elsewhere.
If Favors reverses his physical decline, he'll erase the only real concern surrounding his future.
Andrew Wiggins and the Class of 2014
We've hit a pair of 2014 draftees with plenty to prove before restricted free agency next summer, but this class is absolutely loaded with question marks.
With qualifying offers worth several million dollars representing worst-case scenarios, none of these guys are going broke. But the 2017-18 season is still make-or-break for many of these soon-to-be restricted free agents.
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor is already committed to paying Wiggins $150 million on a five-year extension. This is baffling in light of Wiggins' DeMar-DeRozan-lite offense and unconscionably poor defense. He has everything to prove, but the Wolves aren't going to make him do it before burying him in cash.
Parker's quickness and fantastic handle returned after his first ACL tear. Can he recover as well after a second? And does he do enough on defense to be more than a scoring specialist?
George Hill is gone, but Ricky Rubio is aboard to man the point in Utah. This indicates the Jazz saw the same version of Exum as the rest of us last year. He's a straight-line speedster with a shaky handle and no change of pace in his game. The monstrous defensive potential is still there, but Exum must display more craft and feel if he has designs on running a first unit full time.
Is he ever going to hit threes consistently? If so, he could still be a starting point guard on a good team, and his defensive versatility would be helpful in hiding teammates' deficiencies at other positions. If not, he's a gritty spark plug who feels best utilized off the bench.
We've got 20 games of elite production following his trade to the Portland Trail Blazers last year. We've also got a couple of seasons of dissatisfied backup play and shoddy defense. Which is the real Nurkic?
Portland needs to know before committing big money to keep him.