There are just two days left till the Halloween deadline to sign fourth-year players to extensions — or risk the contracts they could receive in restricted free agency — and only two eligible players have deals. Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka were locked up this summer (because Ibaka didn’t have a contract until 2009 despite being drafted in 2008, he is eligible now), and James Harden has been reported as likely to sign a long-term contract with Houston within 72 hours of landing in southern Texas.
Of the 2009 rookie class and Ibaka, a half-dozen player at maximum are expected to get the offer, and that holds with the five each who won extensions from the 2008 and 2007 rookie classes. Fourth-year extensions are not the same as picking up the option on a rookie contract’s third season, for the obvious reasons of the investment in both money and (with so few earning these deals, it’s usually for a star who commands a significant amount of money) franchise philosophy. With the exception of Kostas Koufos‘ extension in Denver last season, those from the class of 2008 who scored deals (those would be Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Danilo Gallinari) are considered franchise centerpieces. This deal is the first chance from a business standpoint where teams can offer to build around a young player, not simply watch them grow. The chance to move from evaluating a player to transitioning into building a team around that player. If teams don’t sign a promising player now it isn’t a knock on their potential — just look at Roy Hibbert and how much the Pacers committed to him in the offseason once they were pushed by Portland, or the same with Eric Gordon. It just involves more risk in restricted free agency for both sides should a player exceed expectations and drive up the price, or perform poorly and leave the team with leverage.
Outside of Harden, whose deal is expected to happen, there is only one player who fits the criteria to be signed now: Ty Lawson. Few are the NBA matches between system and player that fit so well outside of Lawson in George Karl’s fast-paced attack, but the success is in Lawson’s ability to play within the offense. Compared with Russell Westbrook, Lawson is a superior player by advanced statistics, including the wins per minute and total wins Lawson contributes. He does it through shooting much better and keeping his turnovers low compared with Westbrook, a player whose $78 million deal, albeit much-deserved, is based on his incredible athleticism. The mistakes he makes, and that he shot more than any other player on the Thunder last season while being the sixth-best shooter — even in an NBA where shoot-first points are the norm, he’s an outlier — is the cold water splashed on arguments about Westbrook’s worth. Not talent, which is unquestionable, but worth.
Lawson isn’t perfect or elite yet, but his development is striking by the eye test or by statistics. He has increased his assist percentage to 30 percent (from 24) while dropping his turnovers to a career low 14.7 percent last season (from 15.4 as a rookie). Again, his standout achievement is that he can have such an effect while playing within the offense, as measured by his usage percentage. Only three other starting guards last season played as many minutes while having a little usage percentage, and of Lawson, Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo, Mike Conley Jr., Lawson had the highest win shares. Despite having the ball in his hands a relatively little amount, he is that offense’s unquestioned engine as the best key penetrator in the NBA. He drove from 20 feet out to within 10 feet of the basket 9.1 times last season per game, the highest of anyone found by new tracking cameras.
The praise of Lawson stands alone, but he’s not the only one deserving simply because he’s that much better; it involves the flaws of those probable to earn deal, too. Chicago’s Taj Gibson and Golden State’s Stephen Curry have just enough flaws in their games that teams would have reason to be wary about locking them up now (Jrue Holiday is not part of this discussion). For the players, they have just as much motivation to believe they could earn more money on the market by playing well this season and disputing the problems with their games. For Curry, it’s simply his health. His ankle surgery last spring, and subsequent ankle injury in preseason, is not a sprain able to be walked off. The guard’s longevity, despite the attractiveness of his 44 percent shooting from three, 90 percent from the free-throw line, and 47 percent from the field, is a major concern.
Gibson is an incredible athlete at 6-9, and is just $2 million apart with Chicago annually on a new deal, per the Chicago Tribune. The odds he gets signed is likely because not only is he a tough forward who 7.9 points and 6.2 rebounds since his rookie season, but on account that Chicago has so little left of the teams that made it so successful the past two seasons. It lost Omer Asik to restricted free agency and Gibson would find similar attention. While he’s not seeking money as Harden and Ibaka have found, is he worth a major deal? His total rebounding percentage since 2009 ranks 74th, just ahead of Lavoy Allen and right behind Troy Murphy. Chicago has been down this road before by extending Joakim Noah, whose usage percentage last season was lower than Gibson’s but whose rebounding percentage was higher. He’s valuable but would it be smarter to test his worth in free agency? It’s the question that faces each front office in a player’s fourth year.
What do you think?
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