With sports, we’re all clock watchers. Its lure doesn’t go away once the season is over — it might even make it worse. The day after Miami won the NBA championship in June, power rankings were already being discussed for the 2012-13 season, much the same how a 2013 top-10 was already being mulled while Kentucky danced under confetti in April. Well, we’re looking ahead again. The free agency class of 2013 has been discussed since 2010′s sweepstakes finished, a discussion that has crept up again in light of Serge Ibaka‘s four-year contract with Oklahoma City over the weekend. It cements a third column to hold up the Thunder’s future chances, while leaving one more — James Harden — still unsecured. Harden, however, is expected to get a maximum contract and with it, his chance to guide a team as its keystone for years to come. Should he stay with the Thunder he would be on a team earmarked for a deep playoff run for possibly half a decade or more. Not everyone will have Harden’s luxury.
Whether unrestricted or restricted, these 10 players face make-or-break seasons; they are part of the mid-level of free agents. Why talk about the borderline players’ contract years? It’s possibly the most crucial season of their careers. This season will be a chance to confirm or even add to the best parts of their games (and drive up an asking price) or become, in the worst-case scenario, also-rans who won’t see their roles increase in the future. To put it simply: a “break” scenario could turn them into cameo artists in the future. With a 2012 salary included and a qualifying offer added, if applicable, here’s a breakdown of where these players stand, what will make or break, and what kind of contract they could expect if they’re up to the task.
10. NIKOLA PEKOVIC, Minnesota, Restricted Free Agent — $4.8 million ($6.1 million qualifying)
As the class of the league in rebounding, Kevin Love is a no-doubt, check-your-brain-if-you-disagree lock there for Minnesota, as well. He won’t be in danger of giving back that title until he’s in his early 30s; however, the gap between him and the second-best Timberwolves’ big man closed some last season. In just his second season, the 26-year-old Pekovic improved from 5.5 points to 13.9 and 3.0 boards to 7.4 as a sophomore. Per 36 minutes, he was 0.1 of a rebound shy of a double-double last season. The word you’ll hear about him is rugged, which is a nicer way of saying he’s far from polished, but there were signs he was becoming more confident on offense. Take a March 13 game where he had 15 points in the game’s first quarter against Phoenix. By the end he was calling for the ball every time down the floor. That’s what a suitor will want to see, with his rebounding and defense already obvious strengths. It’s not the biggest concern should his offensive game stall because as Omer Asik proved this offseason, teams will pay large for one dimension done well. However, Pekovic’s defense isn’t up to Asik’s par, meaning his offense will make or break his offers.
If he makes it: Offers from $8.3 million (Brendan Haywood) to $10.5 million (DeAndre Jordan).
9. KEVIN MARTIN, Houston, Unrestricted Free Agent – $12.4 million
Martin was a miss by Houston when it wanted him to be their centerpiece guard. Not that he hasn’t been productive, it was just too optimistic of a goal to have him turn points into wins as a lead guard. He’s seen Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic outshine him in the last two seasons on his own team before they left, and there is no way he’ll get that role back with Jeremy Lin in the fold now. It isn’t a question of whether his deal will fall, because he’s not getting that kind of money anymore. But what can he show this year to salvage a palatable future role? First, he can shoot the three better. At just a 37 percent average from behind the arc, he needs to be more of a consistent threat from that distance. Stepping inside the arc is an issue, too, at just 41 percent last season from two (part of reason his scoring dropped 6 points per game). If he is going to stick to being a gunner, he needs to be a better shot.
If he makes it: $8.1 million (John Salmons).
8. JARRETT JACK, Golden State, UFA $5.4 million
Jack quietly had one of the best unsung seasons by a point guard last season. He joined Lowry, John Wall, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Tony Parker as the only guards to average at least 15 points and six assists a game. Coach Monty Williams liked Jack’s effort when both were in Portland and allowed him to take the reins on a team with nothing to lose last season. He should have plenty more targets this year with Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Austin Rivers running alongside him. Those additions should bode well not only for his assist numbers, but his own production given the attention the other players will get defensively (none of those aforementioned players are incredible distributors relative to their positions, however, which means more work he’ll have to do with the ball in his hands). Given those tools to work with it would be surprising to see his play diminish — and it would be lethal to his career as a budding, consistent leader. If he can stay in the 15 and 6 range, or bump up the assists to 8 per game even, he could receive more than tepid offers.
If he makes it: $8.5 million (Rodney Stuckey) $10.5 million (Jose Calderon).
7. DEMAR DEROZAN, RFA $3.3 million ($4.5 qualifying)
We know DeRozan likes to shoot and that he’s the Raptors’ best in that regard, but is that all there is? It has to be a bit troubling for him that Toronto’s lottery pick, Terrence Ross, is essentially a scoring clone of DeRozan and a better defensive player when he wants to be, too (though motivation waned in losses at Washington). Like Martin, he needs to improve his efficiency with the ball if he is going to stick to being a gunner. He shot just 42 percent from the field and 26 percent from three last year. His biggest selling point is his ability to get the basket and finish (he shot 58 percent at the rim and 43 percent from 3 to 9 feet last year, per). His inability to find consistency past that range is what will sink his chances at landing a bigger contract or role. The defensive issues (poor positioning off ball; saves energy for offense) can be looked past if he can develop a stop-and-pop jumper from the free-throw line ala Kobe.
If he makes it: $5.2 million (Jamal Crawford)
6. TIAGO SPLITTER, San Antonio, UFA $3.9 million
*A disclaimer there is some discrepancy as to whether Splitter is a restricted free agent or unrestricted from various sites, but the majority of trusted sources say, unrestricted.
Splitter was the best non-American big man when he was drafted in 2007, but he waited to make his debut until 2010. What was the wait for? A guy who has become quietly very solid if given enough playing time, with 17.6 points and 9.8 boards per 36 minutes. And that’s the part of his game that has improved most, while his defense has held San Antonio together when Tim Duncan is out of the game. I would be very cautious to say he’s in the Asik mode because his interior defense isn’t as advanced. He will get pushed around by several of the West’s best big men this year — but if he can learn to score on them with a nice jump hook or another move, he could be seen as worth a bump in pay.
If he makes it: $6.7 million (Samuel Dalembert) to $7.8 million (Kendrick Perkins)