Who Gets the Max? Predictions for Big Money Ballers in 2018 NBA Free Agency

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2018

Who Gets the Max? Predictions for Big Money Ballers in 2018 NBA Free Agency

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    NBA teams won't hand out max contracts like candy on Halloween during free agency this coming summer, but some players won't leave them with any alternatives. 

    Plenty of big names are set to hit the open market, whether they're doing so through expiring contracts or opt-out clauses. A number of organizations have worked to clear cap space for the financial frenzy, with the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks on pace to boast the most spending power. 

    But the league can only offer so many max deals. 

    Players such as Zach LaVine, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker may be brimming with upside, but they aren't likely to command exorbitant paydays because of injury histories and on-court limitations. Though Tyreke Evans and Derrick Favors should become coveted commodities, they aren't max players, either. For that matter, a few big-name free agents will fall just shy as well.

    As the 2017-18 regular season winds down, only five men are tracking toward a coveted max contract.

The Near-Misses

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    DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans

    Had DeMarcus Cousins remained healthy throughout the 2017-18 season, he still might not have been guaranteed a maximum contract. That holds true regardless of whether he remains with the New Orleans Pelicans or winds up leaving to start from scratch with his third NBA team. But now that he's rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon, getting max money seems even more unlikely. 

    As dominant as Cousins can be with his sensational blend of physicality and finesse, three factors are now working against him.

    First is the aforementioned injury, since Achilles ruptures are notoriously devastating and players often never reach their previous heights. He also still has never consistently helped a team win—a trend aggravated by the Pelicans going on a tear with Anthony Davis leading the charge as a solo star. Whether that's fair or not, he'll have gone eight seasons without logging a single minute in the playoffs. 

    Finally, this year's free-agent class is loaded with adequate big men, including Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, Nerlens Noel, Alex Len, Jusuf Nurkic and Clint Capela. Given the relationship between supply and demand, it's unlikely someone will pony up for Cousins when so many options exist at lower and cheaper (but still impressive) tiers. 

          

    Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets

    No matter how effective Chris Paul has been for the Houston Rockets while enjoying a clean bill of health, he can't continue to combat Father Time forever. Point guards typically have trouble staving off declines after they turn 31, and Paul will turn 33 in early May. 

    If he does ink a max deal, it'll only be for a short period. No team will risk having to pay Paul boatloads of money two seasons down the road, given the drop-off that's eventually bound to occur. And since the Rockets should be doing everything in their power to retain him and keep their dynamic backcourt together, the Point God is likely looking at a longer deal for slightly less money. 

    Paul could've signed a max contract this past offseason, but he instead chose to pick up his 2017-18 player option and facilitate a trade to Houston. That's a clear-cut indication money isn't his top priority at this stage of his career, and that shouldn't change going forward. Even if it does, he's now going to be coming off a year in which he missed (at least) 18 games due to injury—a bad sign for an aging floor general. 

          

    DeAndre Jordan, C, Los Angeles Clippers

    We have to mention DeAndre Jordan because of the likelihood that he opts out of his final year with the Los Angeles Clippers and becomes one of the most prominent players on the open market. But he isn't going to get a max deal, and he won't be able to play at the same level as the other two near-misses. 

    Jordan is quietly enjoying a strong season for the Clippers, even though he's flown so far beneath the radar in 2017-18 that he's rarely been mentioned apart from trade-deadline connections. Nonetheless, he's posting the highest total rebounding percentage of his career. He's shown flashes of growth as a passer. He's even hitting a drastically improved 61.8 percent of his freebies. 

    But the big man is still a traditional center in a league veering away from valuing that role. The interest just won't be there, given his enduringly limited skill set and the plethora of attractive options who will command far lower price tags. Plus, Jordan is a high-flyer with a game predicated upon extreme athleticism, and he'll be moving into his 30s this summer. 

    Paul and Cousins could unexpectedly get max offers. We can't rule out that possibility. Jordan, however, unequivocally won't. 

Kevin Durant, SF, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 29

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 25.5 PER, 3.28 RPM, 229.53 TPA

    The Golden State Warriors haven't always handed out max salaries while building the superteam that's carried them to a pair of championships, and Kevin Durant himself has been one of those who's sacrificed. Remember when he gave up nearly $10 million to retain the current core and land a few veteran free agents this past summer? 

    Now, it's time to cash in. 

    If Durant opts out and hits free agency once more, he'd still be almost certain to re-sign with the Dubs. You'll surely hear at least one story about him potentially teaming up with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers, but this former league MVP has no reason to leave his current situation when he'll have a shot at one title after another in perpetuity. Plus, Golden State will now have his early Bird rights, giving it an opportunity to hand him a max deal without harming the rest of the roster construction. 

    Could the 29-year-old choose to take another discount? Sure. He isn't about the dollar signs at this stage of his career, as he recently told The Athletic's Anthony Slater  (via Brady Klopfer of Golden State of Mind): "The money is not important to me. I've made so much over my career. But I do know that I want to be here, I love playing here...Who knows what'll happen, what we'll need at that time? But like I said, money is not my concern, I'm concerned with my joy and happiness."

    But now that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell and Damian Jones are already under contract for 2018-19, this is the ideal time for him to Durant paydirt. The better question isn't about the coming yearly number, but instead whether he'll sign a short-term max deal with an opt-out clause that sets him up for a five-year supermax in the summer of 2019. 

Paul George, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 27

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 19.5 PER, 3.76 RPM, 143.21 TPA

    Given the dizzying levels of success he's had with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul George will be able to command whatever salary he wants this summer. 

    Maybe he'll stick in OKC, giving it another shot after spending a year building chemistry with Russell Westbrook and the rest of the incumbent troops. He keeps delivering quotes that indicate an inclination to remain put, with this quip about Westbrook's defense of his All-Star worthiness serving as the most recent example (via ESPN.com's Royce Young): 

    "It was awesome for a teammate to have your back and to stand up. And to be honest, he should be a starter. He's been the MVP, been the best player at his position. He should've been a starter, but that's another story. But the fact Russ had my back, that's my guy forever, and it's more apparent what this decision needs to be made when it comes down to it."

    George staying with the Thunder is far from guaranteed, especially if the brutality of the Western Conference race proves too much for a team operating without ace perimeter defender Andre Roberson. The Los Angeles Lakers remain a distinct possibility, and teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers should be dialing up George's agent as soon as they're legally able to do so. 

    In any situation, he'll be getting max money. 

    George has established himself as a go-to offensive option who can create off the bounce in key situations and knock down 41.1 percent of his triples. He's also a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, wreaking havoc with his long arms and the quick instincts that allow him to jump myriad passing lanes and pace the Association in deflections per game with room to spare. In other words, he's one of the leading examples of a two-way superstar. 

    Players of that mold tend to fill up their bank accounts expeditiously, particularly when they're still in the midst of their athletic primes. 

Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic

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    Age: 22

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 16.9 PER, 0.45 RPM, 3.16 TPA

    After a blazing start to the 2017-18 season, Aaron Gordon has cooled off. Since the beginning of January, he's averaging 16.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 36.9 percent from the field, 24.1 percent from downtown and 66.2 percent from the stripe. Compounding concerns, he also missed nine games with a strained left hip flexor. 

    But that won't dissuade someone from buying into the astronomical potential of this 22-year-old forward. 

    Gordon hasn't shown off the necessary level of consistency at this stage of his career, but he's put so many different individual tools on display. Though the experiment to turn him into the Orlando Magic's version of Paul George failed, it still gave him the confidence necessary to become a willing perimeter shooter and display comfort handling the ball around the three-point arc. His athleticism hasn't gone anywhere. He can buckle down on defense and guard small forwards, power forwards or centers on any given possession. 

    If he's ever able to link all of those skills together simultaneously, he'll make good on his enduring superstar potential, no matter how mediocre his current advanced metrics may look. Plus, working for a team with more established talent will do him good, as the Magic have been forced into overextending their young 4 and asking him to fill roles he has no business occupying at this point in his stretched-out developmental curve. 

    That upside will make him a wealthy man this offseason. Some team will be willing to hand him a max offer sheet once he hits restricted free agency, forcing Orlando either to match or let him walk and follow in the footsteps of other former Magic players who have blossomed after joining new organizations. As for landing spots, keep an eye on the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets and, if their top targets fall through the cracks, the Los Angeles Lakers.

LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Age: 33

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 28.0 PER, 3.93 RPM, 437.69 TPA

    Reinvigorated by the trade-deadline acquisitions of Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and George Hill, LeBron James could end up staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers beyond the 2017-18 season. That'll be doubly true if the Cavs somehow manage to flip the switch yet again, advance through an increasingly perilous slate of Eastern Conference opponents and then topple the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets for a second title in three years. 

    However, remaining with his hometown organization is far from guaranteed. 

    James could join the Philadelphia 76ers, teaming up with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons to form yet another Big Three. He could walk to the Los Angeles Lakers and attempt to pull that franchise out of the dumps. He could team up with Chris Paul and James Harden on the Houston Rockets. Maybe he'll surprise everyone and go to a team with which he hasn't already been heavily linked, since every organization in the Association inevitably will covet his services. 

    Regardless of his destinaton, he'll be getting max money over a variable amount of time. His stance on that front hasn't changed, as ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst reported in December: 

    "James has signed three deals with the Cavs just since 2014. In each of those deals, [agent Rich] Paul and his partner Mark Termini have prioritized getting James maximum money, not just for that season, but timing the deals so James can maximize his earning potential for the rest of his career.

    "Their position has always been to sign for the max and to maintain maximum leverage over both James' career and the franchise. In fact, when James left the Miami Heat and returned to Cleveland in 2014, there really wasn't a negotiation at all. Paul and Termini met with his suitors -- the Suns, Lakers, Bulls, Mavericks, Heat and Cavs -- and told them to be prepared to offer a max contract and not a penny less. If James chose their franchise, he would subsequently decide how many years he'd sign for. Several of the teams walked into the meeting without max cap space, including the Cavs, and it forced action. (Cleveland traded three players and offloaded $10 million to clear space for James in 2014.)

    "The middle of the regular season is not the time for final decisions, but James' position on maximum contracts hasn't changed, sources said."

    Just go ahead and book another one. Even if James were no longer in the running to be called the league's best player, the sheer force of his marketing appeal would make him worth well more than whatever ceiling the NBA's collective bargaining agreement places upon his earning potential. 

Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets

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    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 23.2 PER, 4.62 RPM, 231.27 TPA

    Because the Denver Nuggets unearthed Nikola Jokic in the second round of the 2014 NBA draft, they now have to make a tough decision. 

    They could pick up his team option for 2018-19 and pay him just $1.6 million for the coming season, potentially setting the stage to make another free-agent acquisition during the 2018 offseason. But doing so would make him an unrestricted free agent one summer later with no guarantees of returning. On the other hand, they could turn down his option at the conclusion of this campaign and allow him to enter restricted free agency. 

    The latter ensures he can't escape. He'd either agree to a max extension just seconds after the moratorium lifts or sign a max offer sheet with another organization and wait for the Nuggets to exercise their rights of first refusal. He'd be 100 percent certain to continue wearing a Denver uniform—a changing one, no less—throughout the foreseeable future. 

    However, some downside exists to making the obvious decision and paying him as soon as possible. Putting his max salary on the books would push Denver toward the luxury-tax threshold and force it to think about cutting ties with other veterans. It might have to hope Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur opt out and free up a bit more space, or it could look into consolidation trades that ease financial pressures. 

    Still, this should be a no-brainer. Zero risk is better than letting Jokic hit unrestricted free agency in 2019, especially since putting off his payday might also upset him.

    Jokic is a star, offering Denver a bright future as he continues to grow alongside Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. This summer, the Nuggets have to pay him like one. 

            

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games on March 7.