Each NBA season arrives with a flurry of transaction news as teams and players whose rookie contracts are about to expire agree (or don't) on terms for extensions by the Halloween deadline. This year, a good-sized portion of the 2013 NBA draft class is dancing an especially uncomfortable tango as they negotiate with their respective franchises: a few months from now, either the league or the player's union (or both) is expected to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement.
If that happens, several of the NBA's salary-cap rules will likely change, retroactively altering how we view most of the league's long-term contracts. Some front offices may deal with this uncertain future by sitting on their hands. Others may try to get out in front of the chaos with aggressive action.
Beyond the long-term financial implications, let's take a step back and acknowledge that this is the most mortifying draft class in recent NBA history. Anthony Bennett was its first overall pick; Michael Carter-Williams was its Rookie of the Year. That matters.
Even this class's best players have exploitable weaknesses—Giannis Antetokounmpo's faulty jump shot, C.J. McCollum's defensive limitations—handcuffed to their elite strengths.
As it happens, Antetokounmpo and McCollum are the only two who've signed extensions so far. The Greek Freak agreed to a four-year, $100 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks shortly after McCollum signed a four-year, $106 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers.
The fate of the rest of the class is still up in the air. Players who have yet to show much consistency, like Alex Len, Otto Porter, and Victor Oladipo, will need their general managers to take a leap of faith. Others have already proved themselves to be nothing more than tantalizing disappointments; Carter-Williams, Ben McLemore, and Trey Burke find themselves entering make-or-break seasons.
Here's a look at seven of the better potential signees who find themselves in particularly unpredictable and meaningful situations, plus a few guesses as to how their teams will approach negotiations in October.
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Gobert embodies everything Utah strives to be: a soul-crippling brick wall who makes opposing offenses feel like they're covered in wet cement.
He's 24 years old, with a 7-foot-9 wingspan and 9-foot-7 standing reach—physical tools that have helped make him both the most intimidating safety net in the NBA and the most likely player on this list to sign a max contract.
Utah's defense was at its worst than when Gobert didn't play last season, allowing a team-high 103.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the sidelines. Why? Layups basically aren't an option when he's on the floor. Opponents shot a pathetic 41 percent at the rim when Gobert was the closest defender, compared to 46.9 percent for the Heat's Hassan Whiteside and 46.4 percent for the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, two notable paint protectors.
The numbers are staggering on their own, but it's even easier to absorb Gobert's impact by watching how fast he moves in and around the paint. Whether he's already in position or scrambling to plug a hole, would-be scorers have no choice but to be aware of Gobert's presence at all times.
It's a question of when, not if, Utah will give Gobert as much money as the NBA will allow. Will they want to preserve next summer's cap space and wait until he hits restricted free agency to finalize a deal, a path recently taken by Andre Drummond and the Detroit Pistons, as well as Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs? Or will they make him its designated player with a five-year agreement sometime this month?
If the Jazz shuffle their feet and don't extend Gobert, he could sign an offer sheet from another team that's fewer than four years, or that includes a player option/trade kicker—elements that don't work in Utah's favor. But, because none of this is easy, patience might actually be the Jazz's smartest play.
Gobert's cap hold is only $5.3 million, which means if the Jazz wait to sign him and the cap stays at $102 million, the team will head into free agency with plenty of room to shop around. They'll need to take care of Gordon Hayward and George Hill, and Derrick Favors is a free agent in 2018, but if the Jazz are willing to spend money they'll have enough flexibility to do so.
In addition to how much financial breathing room a delay for Gobert's next contract will bring, it also lets Utah study his development on the other end.
Nearly all Gobert's points are scored either in the paint or from the free-throw line (where he quietly shot just 56.9 percent last season). Don't expect much when he's beyond an arm's length from the rim: Gobert knocked down nine baskets outside the restricted area last season, at a 20.4 percent clip.
His post moves are meme-worthy, his hands sometimes turn into feet, and, over the past three seasons, he has 50 more turnovers than assists.
Gobert is a foul-drawing machine on rolls to the basket, though. So that's ... something? Ultimately, any team in the league would happily swallow his offensive woes to take advantage of that Defensive Player of the Year-level dominance on the other end.
2. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Steven Adams is a pearl. He's rugged and graceful at the same time, seven feet tall with touch, balance, and athleticism. Adams also only averaged 8.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in just over 25 minutes per game last season, but raw stats are less important than overall impact.
One year younger than Gobert, Adams has already evolved beyond his reputation as a world-class instigator. He can rebound, protect the rim, switch out to cover guards on the perimeter, and finish around the basket. This type of big man is welcome on just about any team in the league, and the poise and discipline he displayed during Oklahoma City's near-run to the NBA Finals screams max contract.
Adams, like Gobert, has a low cap hold that incentivizes Oklahoma City to hold off on an extension as a way to preserve next summer's cap space. One key difference between Utah and OKC's starting center is the Thunder can't offer Adams a five-year contract extension because they already made Russell Westbrook their designated player a few years ago. So, if Oklahoma City wants to keep Adams that long—something they should definitely do regardless of what the rest of the roster looks like—they must wait until he becomes a restricted free agent.
That scenario should be fine with Adams, who'll have the opportunity to pad his box score stats on a Kevin Durant/Serge Ibaka-less team this upcoming season.
3. Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City Thunder
Here's where things get interesting for Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who has never seen Victor Oladipo play a minute for his team and has no idea how he'll mesh beside the Tasmanian Devilish tornado that is Russell Westbrook. Olapido wants a max contract, but it's foolish to give him one that's solely based on his uninspired production on the Orlando Magic.
But even the obvious route is fraught with risk: What if Oladipo thrives off the ball as a valid secondary playmaker who defends multiple positions and helps lift the Thunder to the playoffs? There's a decent chance then that he'll receive max offer sheets next summer, forcing Presti's hand, a la Enes Kanter.
The other question, of course, is space. Oladipo's cap hold is a little over $5 million more than Adams', but it's still about $12 million less than the first year of a max extension. The Thunder hope they can add another star in free agency, but doing so will be difficult enough with all the money/cap holds already on their books.
If they can get Oladipo to take considerably less than a max deal, great. If not, it's highly unlikely both sides come to an agreement.
4. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
Few teams are more interested in preserving their core than the Pistons. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn't the most famous, flashy, or talented player on the team, but he's arguably the most reliable.
Caldwell-Pope is a rangy and versatile defender who averaged an exhausting 36.7 minutes per game last season, more than everyone in the NBA except Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and James Harden. The Pistons outscored opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. They were outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when he sat.
There's little about Caldwell-Pope's game to excite the casual fan, but he's long, smart, athletic, and committed. He knows where both he and each one of his teammates are supposed to be at all times, possesses unteachable instincts and leadership qualities, and doesn't give up on possessions some other players might.
That last part is easy to see whenever he trails his man over a screen—Caldwell-Pope is close enough to whisper in the shooter's ear but somehow stays disciplined enough not to commit a foul.
All that makes him highly valuable on a team that limits three-point attempts by clamping down on the perimeter and guarding pick-and-rolls with only two defenders.
So what's the downside? Last season, Caldwell-Pope shot 30.8 percent from behind the three-point line, and 33.9 percent when no defender was within four feet—a historically poor effort. Detroit may want to wait and see if that average bumps up in Year 4 before making a long-term commitment, but they'd be wise to try and lock him down for anything slightly lower than the max before he gets the opportunity to increase his open-market value.
(Related: Caldwell-Pope is a Rich Paul client, which means he's getting paid.)
5. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
Porter's $11.7 million cap hold means the Wizards will operate above the salary cap next summer (assuming it's $102 million) regardless of whether they sign the former third overall pick to an extension.
With no cap space to fill, Washington doesn't have a ton of options. Porter is a client of David Falk, the same agent who boldly instructed Greg Monroe to take the qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent a few years ago, and if he feels his 3-and-D physical makeup is worth, say, Evan Turner money, then there's a good chance nothing happens until next July, when the Wizards have another season's worth of evidence to consider.
But if Washington doesn't think Porter is a long-term starter beside John Wall and Bradley Beal, it's possible they low-ball him today and watch him walk tomorrow. And that may not be the worst thing for either side.
6. Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks
Next summer's free agency market is flush with exceedingly desirable point guards, and the Hawks will have max cap space. Will Atlanta want to make a run at Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry, or even Patty Mills, Mike Budenholzer's old pal from San Antonio? Or will they officially kneel at Dennis Schröder's Temple of Mercurial Allure?
With Jeff Teague traded to the Pacers, here's all we know about Atlanta's new starting point guard:
• He just turned 23.
• He's a career 32.2 percent shooter from behind the three-point line (which is well below average and too low to demand a defender's attention).
• He's one of the worst finishers at his position.
• He ranked 22nd in Defensive Real Plus-Minus among point guards last season, and 68th in 2015.
• Atlanta's net rating was 7.8 with Schröder on the floor (higher than any Hawk who played at least 1,000 minutes) and 1.7 when he sat (lower than every Hawk except Kyle Korver) last year.
• He was a "skateboard addict" growing up in Braunschweig, Germany. (IMPORTANT!)
• He has the most confusingly magnificent hair in the NBA.
• Out of 115 guards who averaged at least 20 minutes and appeared in at least 30 games in 2016, only six had a higher turnover ratio than Schröder's 13.1.
• He just turned 23.
In other words, all we know is that the Hawks—a franchise that doesn't fancy off-script self-expression—are handing their offense over to a cocky, unpredictable spark plug who plays basketball like he was just struck by lightning.
But in a clearly defined role, without Teague in his way, Schröder could blossom into exactly what Atlanta needs this year: a fearless ball-handler who can create quality looks for himself (and others) as the shot clock winds to zero; a burst of color; youthful exuberance; a starter who has yet to peak.
If the Hawks improve, and Schröder's pull-up jumper suddenly forces defenders to chase him above screens, there's a good chance he'll receive a heavy offer sheet from some point guard-less team that misses out on the Paul–Curry–Lowry derby. (The New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, and Philadelphia 76ers are all interested.)
In the meantime, a long-term commitment from the Hawks would be quite the gamble. That said, this is the same franchise that essentially swapped Al Horford for Dwight Howard, so clearly their front office is content with living life on the edge.
7. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
Nerlens Noel's contract negotiation is heavily influenced by two important factors he probably views with supreme frustration: 1) Philadelphia's decision to draft two traditional centers with Noel already on the team, and 2) an unprecedented rebuild that intentionally ignored players who would complement Noel's skillset and help him grow.
Thanks to those two things, what we now have is a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate who's been forced to repeatedly expose his offensive weaknesses to the rest of the league. We also have an imbalanced roster with prized prospects who can't play at the same time: Noel's field-goal percentage was 5.0 points higher when Jahlil Okafor wasn't also on the floor last season, and Philadelphia's net rating went from -20.0 to -6.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
Noel is a competent finisher around the basket, but anything beyond five feet is a death sentence. He also turns it over a ton, but he should be fine on a normal team, with normal point guards who won't pass him the ball 18 feet from the basket with ten seconds on the shot clock.
Out of every player on this list, Noel is most likely to be traded, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he will be. Philadelphia's epic frontcourt logjam—Noel, Okafor, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, and Ben Simmons—doesn't jibe with the NBA's positional direction, making it hard to envision a scenario where more than two of those players can be on the floor at the same time.
But questions remain, mostly pertaining to Embiid's health. Shipping a starting-caliber center like Noel out of town before the Sixers find some answers would be a mistake. In a vacuum, the 22-year-old is worth a max contract or something close to it, but it's highly unlikely the team that drafted him will foot that bill.
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