Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Commitment-phobes Rule the League

In a normal offseason, contract extensions for 2008 draftees would have been completed by October 31st, 2011 and no later. However, thanks to the now-pummelled lockout, no transactions could be completed last summer, and the contract extension deadline has been moved to January 25th, i.e., tomorrow. Strangely, we have not heard much news of contract extensions lately: compare this to October of 2010, when Kevin Durant and Al Horford and Mike Conley, Jr. and Joakim Noah all extended their deals, or the fall of '09, when Rondo, Roy, Bargnani, Aldridge, and Rudy Gay all re-upped with their teams. Thus far, from among the 2008 draftees, only Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have signed contract extensions, both committing through the 2016-17 season. What of the un-extended players?

Let us consider every first-round draft pick from 2008 (different contract rules apply to second-rounders), ignoring Rose and Westbrook. I will ignore players who have not succeeded as regular rotation members: this set includes Joe Alexander, Anthony Randolph, Marreese Speights, Alexis Ajinca, Kosta Koufos, and J.R. Giddens. (Of late, Speights has earned some starting time in Memphis, but that is due to injuries to the Grizzlies' two other power forwards, Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph. Speights earned no floor time in Philadelphia, a young team with no backup big men.)

  • Michael Beasley: This is an easy one. Beasley has proved personally and athletically mercurial. The Timberwolves have a power forward from the 2008 draft in Kevin Love (discussed below), a small forward from the 2010 draft in Wesley Johnson, and a "tweener" forward from the 2011 draft in Derrick Williams. With this array of talent, the Wolves need not keep Beasley beyond this season (recall that they obtained him in 2010 for merely a second-round draft pick, so they have little psychological investment in him). Perhaps they could try to trade him during this season, or next July in a sign-and-trade when he becomes a restricted free agent.

  • O.J. Mayo: Despite frequent trade rumors during the past 12 months, Mayo contributed to Memphis's surprising playoff run last spring and is sniping the ball with rare accuracy this season. The Grizzlies reportedly will not extend his contract this week, but they still hope he will stay around for a few more years. This is likely a wise move; Mayo will expect money worthy of the third pick in the draft, but with Tony Allen expertly manning the shooting guard position with "grit and grind" for Memphis, paying him that salary would be daft. Mayo will likely command more in the restricted-free-agent market than Grizzlies management wishes to pay him.

  • Kevin Love: Well, of course. If the insane scoring and rebounding are not persuasive, how about the unusually skilled passing and shooting for a big man? The Timberwolves reportedly will offer Kevin Love a four-year extension through 2015-16. SI.com's Zach Lowe assesses this potential deal and finds it fair. If the Wolves' refusal to include a fifth year deters Love from signing, general manager David Kahn should be fired. At any rate, NBA.com's Steve Aschburner has a good discussion, published here today, of the negotiating dynamics between Love and the team.

  • Danilo Gallinari: After the trade of Carmelo Anthony, Gallo has emerged as Denver's best player. He scored 37 points in a double-OT win over Anthony and the Knicks last Saturday -- "out-Meloing Melo", as the Denver Post termed it. Denver has a strong young core with Ty Lawson, Nene Hilario, Corey Brewer, and Arron Afflalo already under contract (and Wilson Chandler likely returning soon). Extend Gallinari and continue developing a roster of swift young colts.

  • Eric Gordon: Gordon has been injured with a bad knee for most of this young season, and he missed 20 games in 2009-2010 and 26 games in 2010-11. His fragility can't help his case. Still, in his third season with the Clippers, he averaged 22 points and over 4 assists, dueling with James Harden for the honor of best young shooting guard in the league. He is the Hornets' best player, though he was unhappy about being pushed out of Los Angeles and reportedly felt in December like leaving New Orleans as soon as possible. More recently, with big money about to slip through his fingers and wash over the deadline cliff, Gordon has expressed interest in signing an extension. With the Hornets co-owned by the other 29 owners, however, and the joint owners trying to minimize long-term financial obligations for the next owner, team GM Demps has a difficult time negotiating and executing big transactions like this one, as we saw in the Chris Paul trade talks. If I were Demps and I had any kind of authority, I would ink Gordon to a contract extension. The injuries are worrisome, but it has been a different body part in each season (groin, wrist, knee) and he can really go when healthy.

  • D.J. Augustin: Augustin has played decently this season (check his numbers) but the Bobcats' drafting of NCAA champion Kemba Walker does not evince much confidence in Augustin at the point guard position. The Bobcats hardly know if their team can win more than ten games this season or next. Extending Augustin would be a mistake.

  • Brook Lopez: This one perplexes me. Why hasn't NJ signed Lopez to a speedy re-up? New Jersey wants to trade Lopez for Dwight Howard. But Lopez is of little value to Orlando if not signed beyond 2011-12. If Lopez wanted to leave Orlando, then under the CBA rules, Lopez could accept Orlando's qualifying offer for 2012-13, then sign anywhere as an unrestricted free agent in July of '13. Sure, Lopez would be leaving some money on the table in 2012-13 and risking that injury during the 2012-13 campaign might ruin his long-term value. But under league rules, a determined player can leave his team fairly readily. So again, why would Orlando trade for a player whose contract will soon end? New Jersey should extend Lopez's contract if it is at all serious about building a winning squad. He is the best player on the team save Deron Williams, and Williams looks set to leave later this summer as an unrestricted free agent if the team cannot land Howard. So if the Nets can trade for Howard, an extended Lopez is valuable; and if the Nets cannot trade for Howard, an extended Lopez is still valuable. Do this deal. Lopez's broken foot is worrisome, but this injury should not dog him beyond this season.

  • Jerryd Bayless: No. Amazing to think that Bayless and Westbrook were considered interchangeable options leading up to the '08 draft.

  • Jason Thompson: Thompson has drifted in and out of the Kings' starting lineup during the past four years. Sacramento now fields two power forwards from the 2008 draft, in Thompson and J.J. Hickson (mentioned below). They surely cannot extend both-- but could they extend one and not the other? That sounds disastrous for team chemistry, and probably not justified on basketball grounds, as neither player has consistently excelled. Put it this way: Could Thompson or Hickson be a starter on a championship-level team? Well, Hickson actually did start for a title contender in Cleveland in 2010, so I suppose anything is possible, but neither man has impressed much in Sacramento. I would wait to see how Thompson and Hickson perform with DeMarcus Cousins in new coach Keith Smart's system before making long-term decisions on their contracts.

  • Brandon Rush: Rush, the 13th pick in the 2008 draft, is a middling bench player for Golden State, having been recently traded from Indiana for "energy guy" Louis Amundson, who brings little more than defensive disruption. Rush is performing well this year, shooting the ball at 50% from the field and over 50% from 3-point range, but he looks at Monta Ellis manning his position during player introductions every night. Nor is Rush a handy sixth starter like Jason Terry or James Harden: Rush hardly rebounds or assists, and he failed to impress while starting for Indiana last season. So long as the Warriors remain committed to Ellis, extending Rush would be a mistake.

  • Roy Hibbert: The local paper in Indy reports that the Pacers will not offer Hibbert an extension. Odd decision, as the Georgetown product is killing it this season, most recently helping his team edge out the Lakers by 2 points on Sunday in Staples Center. Hibbert averages 14 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and a number of defensive intimidations every night. The Pacers have a solid young roster with Darren Collison, Tyler Hansbrough, George Hill, Paul George, and Hibbert. (Other starters Danny Granger and David West are still solidly in their prime, but could not be reasonably deemed "young".) I can't understand why the Pacers would not want to lock up Hibbert, unless they are seeking to retain salary-cap room for a significant free-agent signing (Eric Gordon? Heck, Dwight Howard?) later this summer.

  • Robin Lopez: With Marcin Gortat excelling as their starting center, Lopez is not a vital cog to the Suns. And team president Lon Babby told a reporter yesterday that he does not intend to extend Lopez.

  • JaVale McGee: McGee is the Wizards' only young big man with promise (I exclude Andray Blatche from that category). Though his defense positioning is sometimes wanting, he averages 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks in this young season, making him statistically an apparent top-10 center. (For the curious, the others would include Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, Andrew Bogut, Samuel Dalembert, Marcin Gortat, Al Jefferson, and Roy Hibbert, with Tyson Chandler just excluded.) The Wizards fired their coach, Flip Saunders, earlier today after a 2-15 start. With a new helmsman taking over in DC today, perhaps McGee will further develop his offensive game. However, I don't believe McGee should be rewarded at this time for contributing to such a wretched squad. The Wizards can likely retain McGee by matching any offer sheet he signs as a restricted free agent this July.

  • J.J. Hickson: See Thompson discussion above.

  • Ryan Anderson: Another writer has already considered the question of Anderson's extension: Oh hell, yes. With Dwight Howard, Anderson is a terror on the perimeter and a solid rebounder. Extending him could help persuade Howard to stay past this season. Without Dwight Howard, Anderson's role could shrink, as he has not yet developed much of a post-up or face-up game. Anderson is a good man to have on your roster with Dwight Howard in the middle, but I cannot determine his value in the counterfactual world without Howard. (As a Net rookie in 2008-09, his numbers were poor in 20 MPG, but [A] he was a rookie, and [B] it was the Nets.) Strangely, I have not read any reports of a looming contract extension for him. The case is close, but given the uncertainty over Howard's tenure, I would not extend Anderson. Likely, the team can match a RFA offer for him next summer.

  • Courtney Lee: Lee started on Orlando's 2009 Finals team (and nearly won Game 2 against the Lakers with a spectacular inbound oop-to-layup play that tragically failed) before he was deemed expendable the following summer, traded for Vince Carter. Since then, Lee was a reliable starter for the 2009-10 Nets, but got traded again in the fall of 2010 as part of the four-team, five-man Hornets-Pacers-Nets-Rockets trade. In Houston, Lee has struggled to find playing time behind wing players such as Kevin Martin, Shane Battier, Chase Budinger, and now Chandler Parsons. If you can't beat out a Chase and a Chandler, you may not be that good. And Lee, who played four years in college, is already 26 and may not have much more improvement in him. Needless to say, an extension would be foolish. Here, though, is perhaps the highlight of Lee's career:

  • Serge Ibaka: On a team with two offensive powerhouses, Ibaka plays his role very well: he cleans up missed shots and defends opposing forwards when the slender Kevin Durant cannot. He also produces about 2 blocks per game. Ibaka likely will develop his offensive game further in coming seasons (he is still only 22) but the Thunder seem to win quite well with him right now. Ibaka's contract should be extended... but actually, he will not be eligible for a contract extension until the 2012 offseason, because he did not actually debut in the NBA until November of 2009. Basketball common sense says that the Thunder should certainly extend both Ibaka and Harden later this year, but a P&L statement (with limited revenue in a relatively small market, the Thunder owners simply may not want to add so much salary and luxury tax to their payroll) may decide the team's move.

  • Nicolas Batum: A January 13th report in The Oregonian mentioned negotiations on Batum's extension, but nothing has been concluded yet (a report yesterday indicated that talks continue). Still just 23, Batum has been a sometime starter during his career; this season, Gerald Wallace has supplanted him as the Blazers' starting small forward, though the limited availability of Marcus Camby and the non-availability of Greg Oden has created starter-level minutes for Batum. (It helps that LaMarcus Aldridge can shift to center and Wallace to PF when needed.) While not a dominant scorer like other small forwards (see Gallinari, above), Batum is deadly from 3-point land and shoots free throws at a very high percentage. His long arms also make him a plus defender. With the Portland future of Camby and Oden highly questionable, Aldridge's future may be as a center-- and thus Batum should be pencilled in as the Blazers' small forward of the present and future. With Ray Felton's contract expiring this June, Portland has salary-cap flexibility. Extend quick Nic!

  • George Hill: Reports indicate that the Pacers are discussing the sketches of an extension with Hill's agent. While Hill, who shoots a stellar percentage for a guard, has outperformed Brandon Rush (whom Hill basically replaced as the first guard off the bench in Indiana), I would not extend Hill at this time; budding star Paul George already plays his position. With George's height, he appears bound for a SF role, which would mean the expulsion of Danny Granger-- perhaps for a true shooting guard. At any rate, the Pacers have been very financially careful in recent years since breaking up the Artest-Tinsley-Jackson-O'Neal team, and George Hill, while a very good player, is not worth the obligation it would cost them. They can probably lock up Hill at a reasonable price as a restricted free agent next July, after carefully considering what to do with their current roster.

  • Darrell Arthur: Arthur was a very good first big man off the bench last season for Memphis. However, he unfortunately tore his Achilles tendon last month and will miss the whole season. Were he healthy and still producing, I might advocate an extension, but his injury makes this decision clear.

  • Donte Greene: Greene has shown little excellence in any skill during his four years in Sacramento; he could not beat out Omri Casspi or Travis Outlaw as the team's small forward, and he consistently shoots over two 3-pointers nightly despite a 30% (or less) success rate. Not a chance.

  • D.J. White: White, formerly a benchwarmer in Oklahoma City, has received stepped-up exposure this season for the woeful Bobcats. White can ball (10 points and 5 rebounds in 25 MPG) but with Tyrus Thomas also on the roster, an extension for White seems ill-advised at this time, especially with only a dozen games to judge him on.

  • So to review, I am recommending extensions for six players in addition to Rose and Westbrook: Love, Gallinari, Gordon, Brook Lopez, Hibbert, & Batum. While eight extensions is more than previous draft classes enjoyed, the '08 draft was unusually deep. Why not?

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