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To Max or Not to Max: Dwight Howard and Other NBA Stars Facing Uncertain Paydays

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2016

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 20:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets defends against Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks during their game at the Toyota Center on December 20, 2014 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Get ready for a wild and crazy and wholly unpredictable NBA offseason.

For the record, that's a summary of Commissioner Adam Silver's words, not mine, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt:

Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt

To that end, Silver also said, "As crazy as Twitter was last summer, next summer we’ll blow up Facebook & Instagram" https://t.co/LG3GeJ1OEF

The Association's salary cap is set to explode over the summer, increasing by more than $20 million and ultimately reaching a $90 million-plus baseline. And that in turn means a throng of teams will enjoy ample cap space, which in turn means the max-contract champagne will be flowing in near-endless supply, which in turn means there are a bunch more max-deal candidates than normal.

Some of the prospective beneficiaries are formalities. Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant is going to get a max contract. Restricted free agents like Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal and Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond are just about guaranteed to re-sign with their respective teams for the maximum allowed amount. Big names like Charlotte Hornets swingman Nicolas Batum and Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo might generate some buzz, but it's pretty certain they won't be getting maxed out.

Things get a bit dicier when you move beyond the obvious—because there's so little that's obvious ahead of a free-agency period rife with uncertainty.

  

Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors (Restricted)

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 31:  (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)    Harrison Barnes #40 of the Golden State Warriors in action against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 31, 2016 in New York City. The Warriors defeated the Knicks 116-95.  NOTE TO U
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Common sense suggests Golden State Warriors forward Harrison Barnes shouldn't be in the max-contract discussion. He is the fourth option on his own team and has never posted an above-average player efficiency rating.

That same Harrison Barnes nonetheless turned down a $64 million extension offer from the Warriors in September, per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical. And why? Because he's going to get more. It's a formality at this point.

As Bo Churney of HawksHoop.com put it after the Orlando Magic's moves ahead of the trade deadline:

Bo Churñey 🇨🇦 @bochurney

So Orlando is going to be the team that gives the max to Harrison Barnes, eh?

All of that extra money being funneled into the NBA will fund widespread imagination. Teams will look at Barnes and see a player who turns 24 years old in May, guards three positions and uses his below-board status to torch defenses, and they will envision how he might fare in a larger role.

His per-36-minutes splits already suggest he's capable of more. But even they are just a small screenshot of a bigger picture. 

Eighty-seven qualified players are averaging 14 points and two assists per 36 minutes, and Barnes ranks 87th in usage rate. More than 70 percent of all his buckets are assisted on, and nearly 40 percent of his field-goal attempts come as a standstill shooter.

There isn't room for him to do much more with Golden State, even though he can. Barnes ranks in the 82nd percentile of post-up efficiency and is shooting almost 50 percent on pull-up jumpers.

No other team will give him the safety nets he has in All-Stars Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, but just as they make life easy for him on offense, he makes it possible for the Warriors to eschew size when deploying lineups.

Barnes is more important to Golden State's success than most realize.
Barnes is more important to Golden State's success than most realize.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The famed small-ball "Death Squad" of Curry, Green, forward Andre Iguodala, Thompson and Barnes doesn't exist without the latter. He is quick enough to switch onto guards but strong enough, if deceptively so at 6'8'', 225 pounds, to impede contemporary and traditional forwards.

Those five are outscoring opponents by more than 48 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. Replace Barnes with center Andrew Bogut, and that differential drops (plus-37.7). Replace him with backup center Festus Ezeli, and it plummets (plus-26.5). Use veteran guard Shaun Livingston instead of Barnes, and the Warriors, by their own standards, become statistical fluff (plus-6.3).

We're talking about Barnes being essential to perhaps the best lineup in NBA history, so this matters. He is, in many good ways, an unknown commodity. And once the biggest free-agency dominoes fall, those looking for starry consolation prices will happily fork over a max deal to find out what he can become away from Golden State.

This isn't to say the Warriors won't match Barnes' max offer sheets. They probably will. If they don't, it's most likely because Durant is coming to town.

It's just to say that Barnes will get max offers. And in the new salary climate, given all he can do, it's tough to argue that he doesn't deserve it.

Verdict: Max

Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies (Unrestricted)

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 21:  Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies is seen during the game against the Denver Nuggets on October 16, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Bart Young/Getty Images

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is officially the Alex Smith of the NBA: a borderline-elite game manager who is no longer criminally underrated but seldom gets recognized as a star.

That should change this offseason, at least financially. Conley's salary next season should more than double the $9.6 million he's making now, and as Grizzlies vice president of player personnel Ed Stefanski made clear on SiriusXM NBA radio, the team seems prepared to foot that bill:

SiriusXM NBA Radio @SiriusXMNBA

"We love Mike Conley he's one of the best PGs out there..we intend to do everything we can to keep him" Ed Stefanski #Grizzlies

Incumbent interest inherently drives up Conley's market value. Outside suitors cannot offer him the fifth year that Memphis can. It might take a four-year max just for him to consider leaving the Barbecued Pork Capital of the World—a deal that looks every bit as lucrative as it sounds, per Basketball Insiders' Tommy Beer:

Tommy Beer @TommyBeer

If Knicks/Phil Jackson want to lure Mike Conley away from Memphis, here is the max contract they'll need to offer: https://t.co/dBU7FLUrxg

Doling out max contracts to players at the league's deepest position is tough to justify if teams aren't landing a patented megastar. Conley isn't that.

Yes, he's one of just 10 players—eight of whom were All-Stars this season—averaging 15 points, six assists and one steal per game. And sure, he has one of the six best turnover ratios among guards with a usage rate greater than 22.5.

But Conley has never piloted a top-10 offense. The Grizzlies have yet to rank better than 13th in points scored per 100 possessions with him at the helm (2009-102014-15). He does make Memphis' offense better when on the floor, but it isn't by much, and the overall impact he's had on the team's performances since 2013-14 is underwhelming:

Conley might be able to accomplish more on a different team, within a system that prioritizes spacing and features its point guard. But he will be 29 years old when next season tips off and has yet to even lead his own team in usage for the entire year.

Banking on a youngster in his early 20s to make a max-contract leap after the fact is one gamble. Counting on a fringe star to make a late-career jump is another—an unnecessary alternative when it means financing a max deal.

Verdict: Don't max

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors (Player Option)

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 22:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors during the game against the New York Knicks on February 22, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

There is no bigger max-contract enigma among this group than Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. We've gone from wondering if his four-year, $40 million extension in 2012 was an overpay to the likely possibility, according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe, that multiple teams will throw max deals his way this summer.

This buzz is not unwarranted by any means. DeRozan is one of just seven players hitting 23 points, four rebounds, four assists and one steal per game. The other six are Curry, Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, Houston Rockets guard James Harden, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook

Close to 40 percent of DeRozan's shots still come from mid-range, but he is drilling a career-best 34.9 percent of his triples and has been even better off the catch, burying a remarkable 45.5 percent of his spot-up treys.

Defenses continue to sag off DeRozan, attempting to coax him into low-percentage pull-up jumpers. The Raptors have combated this by deploying spacier lineups and running a ton of two-man sets with DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas.

Only point guard Kyle Lowry has assisted on more of Valanciunas' baskets, and just the threat of their offensive rapport either opens up lanes for DeRozan or enables him to sling bullets to wide-open shooters:

Still, while this is the best-ever version of DeRozan, he often does revert back to one-on-one action.

So much of his comfort is rooted in those situations that it's difficult to build a passing-packed offense around him. He ranks inside the top five of isolation possessions but falls outside the top one-third of efficiency.

Even this year, as the Raptors have assembled a top-10 defense, DeRozan is posting a sub-zero defensive box plus-minus (DBPM). He has never notched a positive DBPM, and it's difficult to pay max money for an inconsistent defensive wing unless he's paired with a first-rate rim protector.

In the end, if DeRozan's improvement as a spacer holds, the max contract should come—be it from Toronto or another team. But it only makes sense to max him out if it's under the assumption he won't be the team's best player.

Verdict: Don't max

Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 20: Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on January 20, 2016 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or usin
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford initially didn't make this list. But only because his max-contract candidacy was deemed a no-brainer.

Except it isn't a no-brainer. Horford, 29, isn't mentioned in the same breath as max-contract locks like LeBron and Durant. But he should be.

There isn't a more versatile big in the NBA. He has always been an understated passer and scorer, and now he's shooting threes. He has already swished more deep balls this season than he did through his first eight combined, and he's shooting them at a nearly average 33.5 percent clip.

Very few players are able to strike Horford's offensive and defensive balance. Chicago Bulls center Pau Gasol is the only other player clearing 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks per game, and just six players are matching Horford's offensive box plus-minus (OBPM) and DBPM scores.

Horford's two-way value is pretty much unprecedented when you circle back to his role as a stretch 5. He is on pace to eclipse 1,000 points, 250 assists, 100 blocks and 80 made three-pointers—something that, until this season, has been accomplished a mere three times:

More impressive production from a relatively low-usage big man doesn't exist. Horford embodies the direction in which NBA frontcourts are headed, has shown he can be a double-ended plus for a conference contender and still has a couple of years left on the front end of his prime.

The only reason he wouldn't get max money is if he decides, on his own, to take a pay cut and chase championships with the Hawks or another team.

Verdict: Max

Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets (Player Option)

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 29: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets leaves the game after he was ejected during the third quarter of a NBA game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on January 29, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Okl
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Somewhat lost in the trade-rumor frenzy is that Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard is playing well this season.

It's OK if you forgot or didn't even notice. That can happen when the Rockets were offering him up to anyone who would listen, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.

Howard is averaging a respectable 14.6 points, 12 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Though Houston's defense is worse than porous, it's better with Howard in the game, and he has been reliable on an individual level.

Opponents are shooting under 49 percent against him at the rim, a solid showing considering he contests seven point-blank opportunities per game. New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, Drummond and Philadelphia 76ers forward Nerlens Noel are the only other players averaging one steal and 1.5 blocks, and Howard's DBPM ranks second among Houston's everyday rotation players.

Every sign imaginable points to Howard declining his player option and leaving Houston in the offseason. League sources told CBS Sports' Ken Berger that James Harden "angled" for the Rockets to trade their big man. Team CEO Tad Brown denied that report, per the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, but there's typically no coming back from these failed auction attempts.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 18: Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets is defended by Paul Pierce #34 of the Los Angeles Clippers during the first quarter of the basketball game at Staples Center January 18, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER:
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What Howard fetches on the open market is anyone's guess. It will not—or at least should not—come anywhere close to a max deal.

After serving as the billboard for durability during the first 10 years of his career, Howard missed 41 games in 2014-15 and has been absent from 11 thus far this season. He is 30 and on the decline, and a max deal would, per Sam Amick of USA Today, pay him about $31 million in 2016-17.

No team can afford to hand the ebbing Howard almost 30 percent of its cap. He can perhaps increase his annual income potential by signing a shorter deal rather than demanding a four-year pact, but even then, a $30 million price tag is much too high.

Howard, truthfully, shouldn't even receive a raise from the $22.4 million he's earning now—not when the NBA has started to pass him by. He still has value as a pick-and-roll finisher and rim protector, but he doesn't distinguish himself as a passer and can't score if he's not inside eight feet of the basket.

And his continued love affair with post-ups doesn't help matters. Almost 29 percent of his offensive sets come as back-to-the-basket touches, and he barely ranks in the top half of points scored per possession.

There is a home out there for Howard, and he can still have a positive impact. His max-contract days are simply behind him.

Verdict: Don't max

Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat 

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat reacts after a dunk during the game against the Golden State Warriors at the American Airlines Arena on February 24, 2016 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside's impending free agency gets more complicated by the game.

His numbers are good. Grand, even. He is the first player since Hakeem Olajuwon to average more than 12 points, 11 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game, while his block percentage is tied for the third-highest mark in NBA history:

Rival offenses are shooting just 47 percent at the rim with Whiteside in the vicinity—no small feat considering he challenges more than 10 shots at the iron per game.

It was popular to suggest these numbers were empty not too long ago. The Heat defense was worse with Whiteside on the floor, and a center can't be a defensive anchor if his team is statistically better without him.

But the Heat are now almost even with Whiteside in the game and haven't been able to survive without him since Jan. 1. They're allowing 96.9 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup, compared to 104.6 when he sits. That 7.7-point difference represents a larger gap than the one separating the Association's third-best defense (Hawks) from its 29th-place unit (Phoenix Suns).

Some of Whiteside's defensive tendencies remain infuriating. He doesn't always look to keep the ball in play when chasing blocks, and his pick-and-roll stances are inconsistent. He struggles to make the right reads on ball-handlers and sags too far away from the action when guarding against screens:

Whiteside ranks in the bottom one-third of defense against roll men and doesn't have the mobility necessary to change direction against crafty ball-handlers. That makes it exponentially harder to build a team around him the way the Orlando Magic did with Howard.

Constructing a viable offense with him as a focal point is even harder. Whiteside's touch from beyond 14 feet of the bucket is nonexistent, and while he ranks in the 94th percentile of roll-man efficiency, his post-up game lacks polish. He is shooting under 44 percent with his back to the basket and doesn't even rank in the 30th percentile of points scored per possession.

Sprinkle in one of the worst passing seasons on record and Whiteside loses some of his luster. Miami's offense is already better when he rides pine, and his production could plummet elsewhere if he isn't placed beside savvy dribble penetrators and a stretchy big.

Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes summed up this dilemma nicely while watching Whiteside square off against the Warriors on Feb. 24:

Grant Hughes @gt_hughes

@fromal09 Yep, this game is a microcosm of his (short) career. Looks awesome in the right light, but maybe more harm than good ultimately.

For all Whiteside has done, there is more that he hasn't. Fewer and fewer teams are assembling rosters around bigs who can't shoot to begin with, and he poses enough questions elsewhere that it would be irresponsible to give him max money.

Verdict: Don't max  

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on Feb. 26.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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