NBA's Most Polarizing Contract-Extension Candidates

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 15, 2015

NBA's Most Polarizing Contract-Extension Candidates

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    To sign or not to sign. That's the question NBA contract-extension candidates and their employers will have to ponder over the coming months.

    In a lot of cases, it's a risky move for both parties regardless of which direction they take.

    Teams are often paying for potential rather than production, so finding the right price can be a delicate art. Guess right, and clubs can wind up with some of the league's most valuable deals. Guess wrong, and they can be stuck shelling out a significant salary to a player who can't match that pay rate on the stat sheet.

    The dilemma isn't any easier for players. On one hand, prematurely committing to a pact can leave them with a contract that doesn't reflect their true talent. On the other hand, delaying the decision can prove costly if they fail to prove themselves worthy of a major raise.

    For a select few, the decision has already been made. Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard have already scored max deals from their clubs. Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards are starting to have "serious talks" about his extension, according to CSN Washington's J. Michael, so his situation could have a solution sooner rather than later.

    But for the six players on this list—presented in reverse order of their draft position—the process of determining their worth is only getting started.

Jared Sullinger, PF, Boston Celtics

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Drafted: 21st overall in 2012

    2014-15 Stats: 13.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 17.9 PER

    Calculating Jared Sullinger's value inside the lines would be easier if the burly big man wasn't missing in action as often as he has been. Two of his first three NBA seasons have been sidetracked by serious injury; he had back surgery in February 2013 and then a stress fracture in his left foot two years later.

    Sullinger, who is listed at 6'9", 260 pounds, has admitted his conditioning needs to improve.

    "I got in better shape but there's another level," he said, per Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe. "This year I came back in a little bit better shape but obviously it wasn't good enough. Now I've got to get back to the grit, the grind, break my body down just to build it back up."

    To his credit, his conditioning issues aren't noticeable on the court.

    During his first three years with the Boston Celtics, Sullinger has flashed a well-rounded skill set. He uses his wide body to create havoc on the boards and the low block, and he's comfortable operating away from the basket as a secondary playmaker and occasional three-point shooter. He's one of only nine players to tally at least 700 points, 400 rebounds, 100 assists and 50 threes in each of the last two seasons.

    Sullinger's skills are undeniable, but his injury history is frightening when combined with his weight battles. In addition, there aren't many scoring power forwards who can get by with a career 44.0 field-goal percentage. Plus, it's hard to tell where he'll fit on a crowded Boston frontcourt that features David Lee, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller and rookie Jordan Mickey.

    That's quite a few question marks—enough of them that it would best serve both him and the Celtics to table extension talks until next summer. Each party has hinted such a scenario is "likely to occur," according to ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg.

Terrence Jones, PF, Houston Rockets

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Drafted: 18th overall in 2012

    2014-15 Stats: 11.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 18.3 PER

    The spotlight has been hard to find during Terrence Jones' first three seasons with the Houston Rockets.

    At different times, he has played in the shadows of James Harden, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin. Sometimes, Jones hasn't played at all. He spent most of his rookie year in the NBA Development League and lost a huge chunk of last season to injury (a nerve issue in his leg and later a partially collapsed lung).

    Like a lot of young players, Jones has struggled with consistency. But when he's on, he impacts the game in a variety of ways at both ends of the floor.

    In 2013-14—when he made 76 of his 128 career appearances—he held top-20 rankings in blocks (99, 17th), field-goal percentage (54.2, 10th) and offensive rating (118.8, 12th). He was also one of only five players with at least 900 points, 500 rebounds, 75 blocks and 30 triples.

    Even though his role has fluctuated, he has emerged as a steady source of versatility, hustle and athleticism.

    "He has done a great job of just being consistent so whether he is starting or coming off the bench, his role doesn't really changego out there, produce, rebound the basketball at a really high level and just be active at the defensive end," Harden said, per Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle. "He brings the energy."

    Energy guys are never easy to price, especially someone like Jones, who probably hasn't played close to his best basketball yet. He may want to bet on himself and wait until next summer before signing anything.

    But the Rockets should push hard to get his signature. His ability to play inside and out at either end would look awfully attractive on the open market, particularly if he has an active, productive 2015-16 campaign.

Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Drafted: Ninth overall in 2012

    2014-15 Stats: 13.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 21.4 PER

    This isn't a question about whether Andre Drummond is going to fetch max money from the Detroit Pistons. The 6'11", 279-pound monster in the Motor City's middle has had that rate secured for a while.

    Even if the Pistons don't want to go that high, the market would without hesitation. DeAndre Jordan just landed a four-year, $88 million deal in free agency. Drummond topped or nearly matched Jordan's production last season (11.5 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 21.0 player efficiency rating), and the former (21) is five years younger than the latter (26).

    Pistons coach-president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy hasn't even tried to mask the massive amounts of cash awaiting Drummond.

    "We agreed we would get into this after this free-agency period and after the summer league. There is no rush," Van Gundy said, per Terry Foster of the Detroit News. "What you are talking about there is more timing than anything. It is not like you will be haggling over dollars."

    That timing will make this situation worth monitoring.

    If Drummond signs something this offseason, he would eat up about $21 million of the cap in 2016-17, as Foster noted. But if the big guy waits to ink his next deal, he'd only count as an $8.1 million cap hold next summer. The Pistons could use that extra wiggle room to improve their supporting cast before locking down their centerpiece.

    But it would take some risk on Drummond's end. If he suffered a serious injury next season, that guarantee of a Powerball-type payoff would evaporate. Even if he'd like to see more roster upgrades, he might value security more.

    If the Pistons extend a max offer soon, it will be hard for him to pass it up.

Harrison Barnes, SF, Golden State Warriors

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Drafted: Seventh overall in 2012

    2014-15 Stats: 10.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 13.4 PER

    Harrison Barnes started 82 games (103 including the playoffs) for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. He also ranked fourth on the team in win shares and fifth in scoring.

    That sounds like a key piece of their championship puzzle. But it's tough to tell how much of their success is tied to him and how much of his success results from the wealth of talent surrounding him.

    "Barnes notched all those starts only because [Andre] Iguodala agreed to a bench role," Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote. "And as a member of the first unit, Barnes was routinely the fourth or fifth option on offense. Then again, Barnes was key to Golden State's small-ball attack."

    Some of Barnes' greatest strengths play perfectly into the Warriors' system. He can defend bigger players in the post and then pull them out to the perimeter at the other end.

    "We feel like big guys battling against Harrison, as strong as he is, isn't as much of an advantage as them trying to guard Harrison on the other end with how quick he is and shooting from the outside," Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton told Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard.

    He is versatile and selfless, two of the necessary traits to succeed under head coach Steve Kerr. Barnes' growth as a shooter—he hit 48.2 percent of his field goals and 40.5 percent of his threes last season, after converting just 41.9 and 35.2, respectively, his first two years—helped open passing lanes and relieve some of the defensive pressure on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

    But Barnes doesn't create most of his own shots, and he rarely finds them for others. Despite being only 23 and loaded with athleticism, those weaknesses could prevent him from moving into a full-fledged featured role.

    That could be motivation for both Barnes and the Dubs to strike a deal, something sources told Bay Area News Group's Marcus Thompson each party would like to do. The Warriors should be able to keep him on a contract that reflects his standing on the team's pecking order for now, but another leap next season could escalate his future salary.

Jonas Valanciunas, C, Toronto Raptors

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Drafted: Fifth overall in 2011

    2014-15 Stats: 12.0 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 20.6 PER

    The Toronto Raptors spent a top-five pick on Jonas Valanciunas and then waited an entire year for his NBA debut. Clearly, there's something they like about the 7-footer.

    But no matter what they think of him, they don't use the big guy like a franchise player.

    Last season, he averaged only the sixth-most field-goal attempts on the team (8.2 per game). Despite starting 80 games, he logged just the 10th-most fourth-quarter minutes (5.1 per game). His 19.1 usage percentage was the same mark posted by complementary bigs Donatas Motiejunas and Zaza Pachulia.

    Judging by Raptors coach Dwane Casey's comments, there's not a lot of reason to believe those numbers are going to change.

    "I would love to be stubborn and just try to have (Valanciunas) guard a smaller, quicker center when a team goes small, but it's difficult to do now in this stage of his career," Casey said, per Alex Ballingall of the Toronto Star. "The day of the centers has gone by."

    What, then, should Toronto do about its potentially pricey center?

    Valanciunas looks like someone worth keeping. His production hasn't been the most consistent, but that could be tied to his involvement. When he had double-digit shot attempts last season, he averaged 17.1 points on 57.6 percent shooting. For context, Dwight Howard is the only player to average at least 17 points on 57 percent shooting during any of the past five seasons.

    If the Raptors pay big to keep Valanciunas around, they have to utilize him better. If he's not going to be one of their primary offensive cogs, then his defensive limitations could make a major-money deal feel burdensome. And if Toronto won't feature him in the offense, he might seek out a team that will.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Charlotte Hornets

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Drafted: Second overall in 2012

    2014-15 Stats: 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 15.1 PER

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won't be short on ammunition at the negotiating table.

    He fits the physical profile of an NBA star, with the requisite size, length and athleticism needed to play the part. He hasn't even celebrated his 22nd birthday yet, and his incredible work ethic makes an ideal partner for his age.

    He also boasts otherworldly abilities at the defensive end. The Charlotte Hornets played like the NBA's top defense when he took the floor (96.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the 20th-ranked unit when he didn't (104.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). His 3.63 defensive real plus-minus trailed only Draymond Green, Tony Allen and Kawhi Leonard among small forwards, per ESPN.com.

    "I don't like getting scored on. I take it personally," Kidd-Gilchrist said, per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. "I hate getting scored on and I hate losing basketball games."

    That's the perfect attitude for a franchise centerpiece to have. But how comfortable can Charlotte be labeling him as such when his player efficiency rating sits so close to the league average? And how much should anyone pay a perimeter player in today's pace-and-space game who doesn't have the three-point shot in his arsenal (3-of-18 for his career).

    The Hornets won't skimp on Kidd-Gilchrist's next salary. They can't afford to sacrifice youth, athleticism or perimeter defense. But this investment would feel significantly safer if his improved jumper made even occasional appearances beyond the arc.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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