File them in somewhere between Jerome James and LeBron James.
Back in ’05, Jerome James was in a contract year with the Sonics, and even as a full-time starter averaged only 4.9 points and 3.0 boards in the regular season. But in the playoffs, ‘Rome broke out: Starting with a 17-point, 15-board, 5-block line in Game 1 against Sacramento, he averaged 12.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg in the postseason. Solely on the strength of those three weeks, he signed a 5-year, $30 million deal with the Knicks. And you know the rest.
Then there’s LeBron James. If you haven’t heard, he’s in a contract year this year, but he doesn’t have to prove himself to anybody. ‘Bron could do a full face-plant and get swept out of the first round of the playoffs, and he’d still get Diddy money this summer even if he had The Stallionaires as his agents.
In between Jerome and LeBron are the 2010 free agents who can use this postseason to springboard themselves — deservedly, we’d all hope — to a higher tax bracket next season.
1. John Salmons — After back-to-back years of playing the “hired gun” role better than Charles Bronson, the 30-year-old Salmons is setting himself up for one last big contract. He’s put up 19.9 points a night since coming to Milwaukee in a deadline trade, and couldn’t have asked for a better first-round playoff matchup: In the three times he faced Atlanta while playing for the Bucks, Salmons averaged 30.6 points on 56 percent shooting from the field, regularly dueling with Joe Johnson in crunch time. Six or seven games of putting up big numbers on the Hawks on the big stage should be enough for Salmons to opt-out of his $5.8M deal for next year and seek a hefty raise.
2. J.J. Redick — It wasn’t that long ago when J.J. looked like he’d be joining Trajan Langdon in Russia before he’d ever be an impact player in the NBA. It took four years, but now he’s finally getting enough minutes and shots to show what he can do. Granted, 9.6 points in 22 minutes a night doesn’t make J.J. the next Dan Majerle, but he’s proven he can be a valuable bench guy on a contender or even a starter on some teams.
3. Shannon Brown & Jordan Farmar (tie) — When Derek Fisher is getting ripped up by Russell Westbrook and Chauncey Billups and whoever else he won’t be able to guard, Brown ($2.2M player option) and Farmar (restricted) will get their time to shine. Whether it’s the Lakers re-upping with one or both to replace Fisher full-time, or another team offering more responsibility, somebody will step up and pay one or both of L.A.’s backup point guards.
4. Tyrus Thomas — Literally from the moment he hit the floor with the Bobcats, Tyrus has been a spark of energy and defensive intensity. More importantly, under Larry Brown he’s been able to prove that he’s coachable. The offensive game still isn’t where some would want it to be, but Tyrus turns 24 this summer and still has the athleticism and potential to draw a lot of attention on the market.
5. Channing Frye — Call him a product of the Phoenix system if you want, but that label didn’t stop Joe Johnson, Q-Rich, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and a few other guys from getting major paid thanks to numbers they put up with the Suns. Add Frye to the list.
6. Matt Bonner — Don’t let his looks fool you; Bonner is not Brian Scalabrine or Brian Cardinal. He is, however, a classic case of a guy who is 18 times better when he’s playing for a good team and borderline useless on a Lottery squad. If Bonner winds up on the Clippers or the Wizards this summer, you might as well call him Steve Novak.
7. Joel Anthony — In addition to Dwyane Wade re-enacting the Season 1 marathon of “Deadliest Warrior,” Miami’s only chance of beating the Celtics in the first round is if their front line consistently out-works and out-hustles Boston’s big guys. Anthony will be crucial in that respect. He’s short for a center at 6-9 and not talented enough for a power forward, but if he sticks to his game by blocking shots and playing solid D and he helps give Boston a scare, he’ll do well for himself come free agency.
8. Wesley Matthews — The undrafted rookie has started every game for Utah since Ronnie Brewer was traded at the dealdine, throwing in a couple of 20-point scoring nights along the way and taking on some tough defensive assignments. Weak defensive teams with money to spend like Sacramento, Minnesota and New York should give him a look.
9. Dorell Wright — He’s still only 24 years old, he’s still a 6-9 small forward with athleticism, and you could say he still hasn’t found the right opportunity to showcase his game yet. Potential will take you a long way in the League, and Wright still has that. He’s played well in the month of April, too, scoring in double-digits in six of Miami’s seven games this month. A couple solid postseason games and he’ll get another lease on his career.
10. Ray Felton — He’d rank higher, only I don’t see him having a postseason breakout while the Bobcats are getting smoked by Orlando. Felton has played well against the Magic this year, averaging 13.5 points and 5.0 dimes in four meetings, but barring a sudden explosion, nothing he does this postseason will have too much impact on his free-agent fortunes. But just getting those playoff games under his belt certainly won’t hurt his case.