Mind on My Money: NBA Players Killing It in Contract Years
Killer contract-year performances are bread and butter for payday-seeking NBA players.
Looming negotiations act as an extra incentive to overachieve—particularly for players coming off rookie-scale deals who didn't end up brokering extensions by the October deadline. Those second contracts represent the first opportunity for youngsters to procure life-changing money.
The same oftentimes holds true for players barreling toward their third contract. Some signed extensions or restricted free-agent deals at what ended up being cut-rate prices. (Stephen Curry knows what we're talking about.) Others jumped at the opportunity to make a few extra dollars after a quasi-breakout and are only now finding out how it feels to be a wanted baller.
Even max-deal formalities (i.e. superstars) have a dab of additional motivation in contract years. It doesn't matter whether they're flight risks. Everyone is extra engaged when more money is coming down the pipeline.
The following players all fall into one of these categories. They're not the only contract-year performers crushing it, but they're rising above and beyond the occasion more than their peers.
Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder (Player option)
Paul George has been fine. He's clearing 20 points per game and pacing the league in steals. But the Oklahoma City Thunder offense is worse than disappointing, and George is shooting 33.3 percent during crunch time.
No, he's not in danger of signing for less than the max. He's maintaining his superstar status. He's just not killing it.
Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz (Restricted)
Rodney Hood is averaging 20.8 points and 2.0 assists on 46.6 percent shooting, with a 46.2 percent conversion rate on threes, over his last eight games. And the Utah Jazz are scoring like the league's best offense with him in the lineup during this stretch.
Circle back here in six weeks. If this output has even remotely held up, Hood will be an official crushing-it inclusion.
Rudy Gay, San Antonio Spurs (Player option)
Raise your hand if you thought there was ever a chance Rudy Gay would play well enough to opt out of his contract with the San Antonio Spurs this summer?
Exactly zero hands should be in the air. He's been better than anyone on the wrong side of 30 working his way back from an Achilles injury should.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Team Option)
Nikola Jokic only fails to make the cut because we cannot be sure whether the Denver Nuggets will decline his team option to make him a restricted free agent or let his situation ride out until 2019.
Rest assured, though, the 6'10" bell tower clearing 15 points, 11 rebounds and four assists per game while knocking down 40-plus percent of his threes and 55-plus percent of his twos would make a more prominent appearance if he controlled his own destiny.
JJ Redick, Philadelphia 76ers (Unrestricted)
JJ Redick averaging 15.8 points and 3.5 assists per game while burying 40.7 percent of his threes for a blossoming Philadelphia 76ers squad is among the least surprising and most impressive expiring-contract detonations on the season. He just makes so much sense for this team, as both a catch-and-fire gunner off screens and a tertiary playmaker.
Here's hoping Philly has enough cap space left over after signing LeBron James to keep Redick around.
Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks, 50.7 percent shooting
Restricted free agents are expected to get squeezed in this summer's market—an unwelcome assumption for pretty much anyone looking to get filthy rich on their post-rookie-scale deal.
Except Kyle Anderson.
Free agency could not be coming at a better time for the fourth-year wing. He barely registered on the consequential radar before this season. He was someone the Spurs flirted with using but inevitably viewed as a victory cigar and end-of-rotation minutes-gobbler.
That was then. This is now. And, right now, Anderson is playing. He's nearly doubled his court time from last year, and LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green are the only Spurs getting more overall run.
Kawhi Leonard's return will eat into Anderson's spin, but he's faring well enough to remain part of the bigger picture when the Spurs are at full strength. Though he'll never grade out as a premier offensive weapon, Anderson is finding ways to remain a net plus. He's a crafty passer, with the patience to wait out defenses once he gets into the lane.
Picture DeMar DeRozan knifing into traffic...at quarter speed....and you have Anderson. He leverages that poise under duress to offset the absence of a dependable three-point stroke. And he keeps defenses on their heels with budding accuracy inside the arc. He's shooting better than 67 percent within three feet of the hoop and putting down 50 percent of his looks between 15 and 19 feet.
Dredging up some extra offense has rendered Anderson's defense so much more valuable. He can switch across every ball-dominant position and mirrors Joe Ingles' smarts when tackling explosive assignments. He's a sneaky-good deterrent on the block as well.
Now the Spurs can keep him on the floor without worrying about stark offensive tradeoffs. They're a wash with him in the lineup for the season and scoring like a top-three offense whenever he's punching his time card over the past 10 games.
Four other players are clearing 10 points, eight rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block per 36 minutes while matching or exceeding Anderson's total run (557 minutes): Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green and LeBron James. Good company to keep during a contract year, wouldn't you say?
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 16.6 PER, -0.74 RPM, 8.38 TPA
Meet your should-be favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.
Will Barton opted to roll the dice rather than sign an extension with the Nuggets last summer, and boy oh boy did he make the right call. His 14.4 points are coming on career efficiency (free throws excluded), and he remains a relentless attacker.
Over 27 percent of Barton's offensive plays come in transition, and among players who've churned through at least 70 of these touches, only Kevin Durant, James Harden and Klay Thompson are yielding more points per possession. Barton has a knack for finishing tough shots around the rim, at times forcing them through a swamp of outstretched arms and colliding bodies.
He doesn't journey to the foul line with remarkable frequency, but not one of the Nuggets' non-bigs gets a larger share of his looks from inside three feet, where Barton is shooting 64.6 percent—second-highest clip for his career. He has winnowed down his long twos even further and transitions seamlessly into a trailer's role when operating off the ball.
Suitors will overlook seesaw-y defense thanks to his complementary passing—including the Nuggets. They let him run shop off defensive rebounds and outlet passes and still score like a top-10 offense when he's playing without Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray.
Someone, somewhere, is getting ready to stage an ambitious pursuit for his services. He was looking at an extension from the Nuggets worth roughly $39 million over four years, per ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. His progressing ability to work as a 2 or 3, plus a makeshift 1, should guarantee him a shot at $50 million on the open market.
Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 43.7 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 13.1 PER, -1.35 RPM, -21.80 TPA
On-off splits never seem to love Avery Bradley. His team hasn't been more efficient at the defensive end with him in the game since 2013-14—a wildly unnerving trend for someone routinely in the All-Defense conversation.
This blip hasn't worked itself out with the Detroit Pistons. Bradley's new squad is posting better marks on both offense and defense when he doesn't play, and he has the second-worst net rating among everyday rotation players, in front of just Stanley Johnson. The discrepancy has settled down in recent weeks, but only a teensy-tiny bit.
Detroit's most-used lineup—and current starting five—is enabling these wonky results. Bradley, Johnson Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson are being pummeled by eight points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. This deficit has also stabilized over the past 10 games, but they remain a net negative with a league-worst defensive rating.
Diving this deep into the data won't do much to damage Bradley's stock, though. He's shooting a career-best 43.3 percent from downtown and almost 70 percent on cuts. His shot selection needs to get better off handoffs, but his sub-38-percent clip in these situations says more about opponents' continued unwillingness to take Detroit's surrounding shooters as serious threats.
Excuses are slightly harder to come by on defense. His covers incur too much variance. He's not the best team defender. He can be conservative with his fouls. Every justification feels inadequate—infinitely so when he passes the eye test, on most nights, with flying colors.
The trick to reconciling these divergent slants: viewing Bradley's splits as collateral damage of a greater aim. He handles the toughest assignments so others don't have to. Isaiah Thomas was a primary benefactor in Boston, and Jackson is reaping the rewards now.
Bradley doesn't always have the luxury of gambling for steals or playing within the team scheme when he's chasing around premier wings. His three-and-D label is rooted in a tireless work ethic on the less glamorous end and his general disinterest in dominating the ball on offense.
Relative to that exact role, he's crushing it. He'll be paid handsomely by the Pistons or another wing enthusiast.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks, 67.1 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 26.0 PER, 1.69 RPM, 53.32 TPA
Clint Capela has arrived, kind of like he did last season, yet even more so.
"When you say what the modern center should look like, it'll have his picture there," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.
"We'll have him here as long as he'll have us," general manager Daryl Morey added. "He couldn't price himself out."
What lovely compliments. And they come with enough time for Capela to print them out, frame them and march into contract negotiations toting them as gifts for D'Antoni and Morey.
Houston's suits aren't blowing smoke. Well, fine, they technically could be. Doling out blank checks, as Morey effectively did, is considered taboo ahead of free agency. But the sentiments come at a time when bigs who don't have mythical horns protruding from their forehead bask in little to no leverage.
Capela isn't a three-point shooter or quintessential like-sized switcher, so the Rockets can promise to offer the moon knowing full well they won't have to shell out more than one of those name-a-star certificates.
That doesn't mean these kind words are solely for posterity's sake. They're not. Capela is pivotal to what the Rockets do, in large part because he understands his role. He sets screens, rolls toward the basket, cleans up misses, protects the rim and completes the occasional switch. The Rockets aren't asking him to do more, and he's not interested in straying beyond what works.
About 35.1 percent of Capela's offensive possessions come as the pick-and-roll diver—fifth-highest share among every player to make at least five appearances this season. He's shooting 71.9 percent on these looks, and contrary to other bigs, Houston doesn't have to reward him for his screening and slashing with catchpenny post-ups or ceremonial jumpers.
Barely 3 percent of Capela's usage is dedicated to low-block sets, and he's attempted just four shots outside the paint all year. His rim protection is spottier than usual so far, but that speaks more to the league's fondness for dragging skyscrapers out to the perimeter.
He holds his own away from the basket better than many classic 5s and hasn't let contemporary floor balance—or a spaghetti-noodle frame—crimp his presence on the glass; he owns the league's third-highest rebounding rate.
All told, according to NBA Math's TPA metric, Capela shakes out as the second-most valuable player for one of the NBA's three best teams. He may not price himself off the Rockets, but he's not Nerlens Noel either. They'll have to ante up to keep him.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.6 blocks, 46.2 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 23.3 PER, 5.47 RPM, 81.34 TPA
Scheduled inclusion? Absolutely.
Superstar centers should be killing it during contract years. DeMarcus Cousins entered the season as a max-contract formality and remains a max-contract formality. Floating the status quo doesn't qualify as a groundbreaking accolade.
Yet, even by the loftiest standards, Cousins is showing out. His numbers are almost unprecedented. A 28-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only player to ever match his per-game minimums.
Cousins isn't establishing himself independent of Anthony Davis. The New Orleans Pelicans are a minus-38 in the 221 minutes he's spent without his frontcourt partner, compared to the plus-18 they've eked out when Davis plays on his own. But Cousins has seen more time than Davis within bench-heavy units, and, well, his 24-year-old co-pilot isn't the lone bar he should be measured against.
Besides, Cousins is putting forth stronger efforts at the defensive end. That nagging tendency to quit for possessions, quarters and games at a time persists, but he's been active enough for Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal to crown him an early Defensive Player of the Year dark horse:
"He's blocking more shots than in previous seasons, preventing opponents from registering any second-chance opportunities and displaying far more discipline when tasked with defending the interior. [Twenty] games into the season, he's actually the clubhouse leader in ESPN.com's DRPM, outpacing running mate Anthony Davis by a surprisingly wide margin."
Again: Cousins isn't earning himself a larger-than-anticipated payday. He'll get maxed out, as expected. But he is dominating in enough areas, despite blotchy three-point shooting, to generate godfather trade offers at February's deadline solely for the sake of netting his Bird rights. And given the lukewarm returns on blockbusters over the past year, we can offer no higher praise for someone on an expiring contract.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Free-Agency Status: Player Option
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.1 blocks, 52.9 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 24.5 PER, 2.96 RPM, 53.17 TPA
Kevin Durant isn't switching teams over the summer. We can't even be sure he'll opt out of his contract after he accepted nearly $10 million less than he was eligible to make this season to keep the Golden State Warriors' nucleus intact.
Nor can we be fully paralyzed by his blend of efficiency and volume. Toying with a 50/40/90 shooting slash while pouring in around 25 points per game is standard practice for him.
Blah, blah, blahdy, blah.
Universal numbness in the face of steadfast enormity is no excuse for marginalizing the marvel that is Kevin Durant. And hell, you don't have to appreciate his offensive detonations to find unique value in his performance.
Looking at his defensive impact takes care of that on its own.
The average team gives up about 63.9 percent shooting at the rim. Durant is holding opponents to a 48.7 percent clip on these looks. Among the nearly 150 players who have faced 40 or more shots near the basket, Durant ranks seventh in total value saved, trailing only DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid, Alex Len(!), Paul Millsap, Jusuf Nurkic and Kristaps Porzingis.
Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 49.4 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 22.4 PER, 1.29 RPM, 44.89 TPA
The Memphis Grizzlies should start sussing out trades for Tyreke Evans now, in advance of his free-agent restriction expiring Dec. 15. He's too good for them to keep.
This sounds counterintuitive, and it sort of is, because as FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine wrote, Evans has clearly been their best player:
"These days, though, Evans is looking like the biggest bargain of the summer—and he may have pulled his career back on track in the process. On a roster with stars such as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, Evans is leading the Grizz in Box Plus/Minus, Player Efficiency Rating and NBA.com's Player Impact Estimate (basically an accounting of the percentage of "good things" a player does while on the floor).
"He has been the primary spark plug for one of the league's best second units, a crucial element behind Memphis' surprisingly solid start. If Evans keeps this up, he'll be a sought-after free agent next summer, rather than an afterthought. He'll also have done it as a different—and more modern—type of player than the one he was supposed to become."
Around 81 percent of Evans' looks are coming inside three feet or from beyond the arc—a shot profiler's dream. He remains a coin-toss finisher around the rim, but Memphis' brick-laying offense doesn't invite many clean looks, and he's downing threes with career-best efficiency.
Evans' renaissance hasn't slowed down amid the Grizzlies' collapse. The bench isn't nearly as potent due to injuries and shifting lineups, but he's getting his. He averaged 20.2 points on 50.4 percent shooting (40.4 percent from distance) through the 2-11 stretch that, ostensibly, cost head coach David Fizdale his job.
Why move him then? Especially when he's re-emerging as an elite pick-and-roll ball-handler? And when his bi-annual exception money, coupled with his upcoming free agency, won't allow for primo inbound assets? Because Memphis isn't a market that can prop up a full-blown tank, and the Grizzlies have no business trying to re-sign him this summer.
They won't hold his Bird rights. If they're lucky, they'll get him for whatever version of the mid-level exception they own. And even then, the Grizzlies shouldn't be investing up to $8.6 million (non-taxpayer mid-level) across multiple years in any one player when they're seemingly on the brink of implosion.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Free-Agency Status: Restricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks, 50.4 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 20.3 PER, 0.71 RPM, 37.26 TPA
As the Orlando Magic have slowed down, so too has Aaron Gordon. But what he's doing now, if it holds, would still arm him with a ton of leverage this summer.
Yes, Gordon's accuracy from long range and around the rim are reacquainting themselves with solid ground over the past 10 games. And sure, the Magic are hemorrhaging close to 121 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during this same span—the worst mark on a team fraught with turnstiles. But his production hasn't exactly plummeted.
Through this 10-game stretch, over which Orlando is 1-9, Gordon is averaging 15.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 45.7 percent shooting, including a bad-not-terrible 32.1 percent clip from behind the rainbow. Team-worst plus-minus in mind, he's still playing well enough to get cornerstone money in restricted free agency.
Gordon looks more comfortable handling the ball and is making quicker decisions. His jump shot is better, period. He doesn't need to toss in 40-something percent of his threes or long twos all season to prove it. He's not a terrific defender, but he's flashing some physicality in the post, occasionally stepping in to derail rim-runners and looks the part of someone who will survive, maybe thrive, when pulled into space.
Sound the alarm for the Magic. Stick a fork in their playoff chances if you like. Fire up the trade machine and stage a mock fire sale. Just don't subject Gordon's performance to the same abject freakout. He is still among this season's biggest surprises.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Free-Agency Status: Player option
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks, 57.9 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 31.2 PER, 4.68 RPM, 173.27 TPA
LeBron James isn't shooting 80 percent from the free-throw line as promised, but we're free to cut him some slack.
Because he's doing everything else.
Going on 33, in his 15th NBA season, with more regular-season miles to his name than anyone his age not named Kobe Bryant, James is scoring above his career average while collecting a personal-best true shooting percentage, block rate and assist rate.
Factor in the points he's generated off assists (437), and he accounts for 44.2 percent of the Cleveland Cavaliers' total offense—up from 39.7 percent last season, 37.2 percent in 2015-16 and 35.1 percent in 2014-15. Isaiah Thomas' eventual return will dilute James' offensive monopoly, and this progression isn't one teams should turn to in aging players.
But still: holyhotdamnwut.
Keep this up, and James will record a PER north of 30 for the fifth time in his career—surpassing Michael Jordan for the absolute most in league history. Holyhotdamnwut, again.
Free agents on the wrong side of 33 aren't worth roster deconstruction. Suitors won't bend over backward to accommodate a 33-year-old Chris Paul this summer. But James isn't Paul or, for that matter, anyone else. He'll have his pick of the litter when he hits the open market. And projected cap space doesn't matter.
Say the word, and just about any team with semi-keen basketball sense will do whatever it takes to clear the decks for the right to acquire a multiyear Conference Finals ticket.
Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers
Free-Agency Status: Unrestricted
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.6 percent shooting
Advanced Stats: 20.3 PER, -0.92 RPM, 11.12 TPA
Lou Williams' tradition of capitalizing on a roster in limbo is raging on.
Injuries to Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and, now, Blake Griffin have warped the complexion of the Los Angeles Clippers offense. They're thin on efficient attackers and thinner on pick-and-roll triggermen.
Enter Williams, a threat to tally 18 points and four assists on a 45/36/85 shooting slash in perpetuity.
No one on the Clippers is jumpstarting more pick-and-rolls—mostly out of necessity, but also because the surge of converging defenses in response to the Clippers' shooting shortage does nothing to hinder Williams' efficiency. He's posting a 55.8 effective field-goal percentage on these plays. Only three players who have run 100 or more pick-and-rolls are hitting that mark: Bradley Beal, Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
Losing Griffin for the foreseeable future will test Williams' output. The Clippers' supporting cast won't get much better even after Gallinari dusts off his jersey. And with Beverley also on the shelf, the front office might opt for a midseason teardown, further disemboweling the roster. Williams himself could be shipped out.
Turning to the numbers doesn't help. Williams has logged 121 minutes without Beverley, Gallinari, Griffin and Teodosic, through which he's shooting under 23 percent from deep and the Clippers are scoring like a bottom-five offense.
Still, admit it: You want to see what a fully, totally, wholly unleashed Lou Williams can do on his own. If anyone can turn Los Angeles' precarious circumstances into a major payday, it's him.