$24 billion in the bank can turn good men greedy. This huge cash injection courtesy of a brand new television deal that is now in effect has transformed the NBA from a rich league to a mega-rich one through one signature on a piece of paper.
Valuations are resembling the dot com boom of the early 2000s, with a 36-year old power forward Pau Gasol cashing in $31.7 million for two years at San Antonio, while little scrapper Matthew Dellavedova went from the Cavaliers bench to the Milwaukee Bucks for a four-year, $38.4 million contract. Madness!
If Delly and Pau can make so much from free agency, what is to stop players in form with age on their side making record fees and bonuses? The landscape has changed forever with many franchises now looking to free agents to create a winning side rather than build through young College talent in the draft.
2016-17 is going to be fascinating viewing for NBA fans for a myriad of reasons, not least because these opposing theories will be put to the test. The Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers have scored big in the draft acquiring Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram respectively; will they be able to make more headway than the Bulls with Dwyane Wade or the Knicks with Derrick Rose?
Entourages, agents and representatives of NBA athletes are licking their lips regardless. Centers, point guards, small forwards – anyone with value who was banking $2 million prior to 2014 can expect $5 million now, the $10 million players now $15-$20 million and so on. This will turn into an arms race to get the ballers who run their contracts down, pure and simple.
The spending frenzy will irk many outside NBA circles, but those inside the bubble will have one eye on their contract and the other on the calendar to see when exactly it runs out. One thing is for sure, these 20 players are already crunching the numbers and adding zeroes to the fattest contract they have ever signed. Let the bidding begin!
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20 Chris Paul
How much would NBA franchise value a 33-year old Chris Paul (Paul will be 33 upon entering free agency in 2018)? Given the current transactions and payments for players in their mid 30s, the typical rolling one-year contracts provided on incentives is a thing of the past. The veteran Los Angeles Clippers point guard is showing that age is no barrier, putting in his best season in four years since the 2011-12 campaign to post 19.5 points per game and 10 assists for good measure. In 2018, his five year, $107 million contract will be no more and Paul will be best placed to judge how the Clippers will be tracking for that long awaited championship. Nine NBA All-Star appearances is nice, but he wants a title before he hangs the boots up. Chances are the Staples Center will not be the place to make that happen for Chris Paul beyond 2017, but after the Cleveland Cavaliers, who can predict these things?
19 Mason Plumlee
Most rookies come into the league without a lot of life experience, but, at 26, Mason Plumlee is mature for only having played three seasons in the NBA. The 6 ft 11 flexible center/power forward demonstrated versatility for the Portland Trail Blazers and his four-year, $6.4 million rookie contract comes to a close in 2017. While he would be best advised to stay with a young, emerging franchise in Oregon, Plumlee should have a lot of options and offers on the table if he wants to explore what his value is on the market. Given the money splashed on other players of comparative talent, he would be crazy not to. 2017 will be a make-or-break campaign for Plumlee as many observers will decide if his 2015-16 was either a purple patch or his breakout season in the NBA. The 22nd draft pick from the 2013 Draft only needs to replicate another season like the last to make the agents come calling to him.
18 Rudy Gobert
What price do you put on a rebound machine? Every successful franchise requires role players that master the basics and fit a framework, a description that fits the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert perfectly. Every side requires points machines from outside and inside the circle, yet the players that gravitate close to the rim often decide the close encounters. His modest points haul of 9.1 per game is not overly relevant when he maintains 11 rebounds where the French center uses all of his 7'1" frame to his advantage off the paint. He's also only 24, meaning it's entirely possible that he'll improve his shooting game near the rim and become a valuable scorer as well.
Those numbers are favorable to most other NBA athletes in his position and contradicts his modest four-year, $5.5 million contract that expires next year, when he'll become an RFA.
17 John Wall
The number one NBA Draft pick of the Washington Wizards in 2010 is performing a starring role for his franchise, but can’t help them break beyond a .500 record. At 25, on a contract worth $84.8 million over five years in DC, Wall has all-round quality in assists (9 per game) and points (18 per game) without having much quality around him, stats that should put him up there with the best in his age group. Unfortunately though, the Wizards do no seem to going anywhere in the foreseeable future and when he becomes a free agent in 2019, no one could blame him joining a side that is at least a Playoffs player. This will be as much about what the Wizards want, taking into consideration Wall's own motivations and goals for his career. He could stay comfortable in DC, but will the rings follow? Not likely.
16 Nikola Vucevic
Since Shaquille O'Neal left town all those years ago, the Orlando Magic have struggled to remain relevant in the NBA. That glory period of the 1990s could have been the start of something special but for a myriad of reasons, but never fulfilled their full potential. Finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference this past season, the Florida franchise does have an asset on their roster in the form of 25-year old center Nikola Vucevic. His four-year, $53 million contract becomes void by 2019 where he will be 28 and playing the best basketball of his career. Averaging 18.8 points per game in the last two seasons on the back of a strong rebounding game, Vucevic will either stay in Orlando with a major bump in salary or take his talents elsewhere. Orlando has spent a lot of money this offseason, so we'll bet on Vucevic going to free agency and cashing in.
15 Kristaps Porzingis
One of the surprise stories in the NBA last season, Porzingis emerged from Latvia as a giant in physical stature to make 14.3 points a game as a rookie and elevate a mediocre New York Knicks roster to become something more respectable, at least initially. The inevitable drop off in form could be attributed to many things and given his inexperience, blaming Porzingis should not be one of them. At 7'3" on a two-year contract of $8.4 million that expires in 2019, the 20-year old and his agent will keep their fingers crossed that he progresses as well as he did in his first 12 months to be one of the better power forwards in three years time. If that happens, he could make 10 times the money he is on now, whether that is at Madison Square Garden or elsewhere.
14 Andrew Wiggins
Modern day small forwards aren’t exactly “small” these days. At 6'8", Andrew Wiggins has a lot of skill and time on his side at 21 years of age. Like so many of his compatriots, his next contract will coincide with a lot more zeroes on the end of the terms and conditions especially after posting 20.7 points per game in just his second ever NBA campaign for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Wiggins’ three-year, $17 million rookie contract ends as of 2018 and any franchise would be mad not to consider approaching him. The Timberwolves might have something special brewing beyond 2017 and if they can convince Wiggins they are the right destination for him, they will have to pay for the privilege. Historically Minnesota has not been the most boutique of destinations to either play basketball or for non-locals to assimilate, yet keeping Wiggins long-term would send out a strong message to the rest of the NBA that they are serious about establishing themselves.
13 DeMarcus Cousins
DeMarcus Cousins is outgrowing the Sacramento Kings, pure and simple. Plenty of observers would say that happened years ago, so hats off if you are one of those cynics. Coming in as the fifth pick of the 2010 NBA Draft, the University of Kentucky product was always labelled as being the single savior of the maligned California franchise and while it has been something of a roller coaster, the stats are starting to speak for themselves. Playing for the 10th best side in the Western Conference, Cousins posted 26.9 points a game and 11.5 rebounds in 2015-16, outshining the rest of the Kings roster to make the 25-year old center one of the best in his position. Sitting on a $65. million contract over four years, he will have no one to answer to once 2018 rolls around, when he can pick and choose his suitor. Sacramento can consider themselves incredibly fortunate to still have him around in all honesty. Expect movement on this front.
12 Jeff Teague
Jeff Teague’s move from the Atlanta Hawks to the Indiana Pacers only just came into effect, but it still seems that he missed out on the big dollar contract move. The 28-year old point guard from Indiana joined the Pacers after moving from his four-year, $32 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks, yet he still maintains his base salary of $8 million a season. The 19th pick of the 2009 NBA Draft ended up hitting 15.7 points and 5.9 assists a game last season, a fact that would probably not have franchises falling over themselves, but he will be 29 and a free agent next season, and sides looking to top up their roster with impact players will see Teague as a quality option. He knows his role and limitations, so transitioning to a franchise with a set structure and method of playing ball, Teague would fit into mots scenarios quite effectively.
11 Gordon Hayward
Gordon Hayward doesn’t think of the film White Men Can’t Jump as a classic 90s basketball movie, but an affront to his abilities. The Utah Jazz small forward from Indiana built on a top 2014-15 season with another impressive campaign in the NBA with 19.7 points per game and 5 rebounds for the ninth placed franchise in the Western Conference. But when it all came down to it, the only thing the Utah Jazz will be remembered for in the season just gone is their participation in Kobe Bryant's last game at the Staples Center, allowing the Lakers legend to have his way on the court and sink baskets from wherever he pleased. Hayward's $63 million contract over four years will run out in 2018 and while the ninth pick of the 2010 NBA Draft is not in the superstar class at this point in his career, Hayward can expect a healthy bump on the next piece of paper he signs.
10 Brook Lopez
Strong players on poor teams are always bait for trades and free agency, that is just how the sporting world works – survival of the fittest. 28-year old Brook Lopez will be a free agent when he turns 30 in 2018, where his $63.5 million, three-year contract will expire and the market will expand beyond what the Brooklyn Nets can offer. Their 14th place finish in the Eastern Conference demonstrates how long-term this building process has to go and Lopez is not getting any younger. The 10th overall pick of the 2008 NBA Draft is posting healthy numbers at 20.6 points per game with 7.8 rebounds, an asset in the center of the court plenty of franchises will look at seriously. If he has any ambition of winning a championship in the near future then free agency will be his ticket out of Brooklyn. Recent rumors linking him with a switch to the Los Angeles Lakers, however, are not exactly the ideal destination for a championship in their current state.
9 Eric Bledsoe
What to make of the mess that is the Phoenix Suns? Not since Steve Nash was on the scene has the Arizona outfit been a player that the league stood up and took notice of. Eric Bledsoe is arguably the only reason to tune into this franchise, as they finished with a dismal 23-59 record in 2015-16. At 26, Bledsoe is on a five-year, $70 million contract which runs out in 2019. Posting 20.4 points per game in a desperately poor side, either the Suns have to throw the kitchen sink at the point guard to stay around as well as convincing him that they will get better players, or he will leave. Bledsoe has gone public to the press to say that the 2017 Playoffs is the goal and it is achievable - requiring an improvement of epic proportions if that dream is to be realized. Either way, Eric cannot wait for 2019 to come around because he has the Suns over a barrel.
8 Dwight Howard
Should Dwight Howard keep his body fit and his mind motivated to continue his legacy in the NBA, he will desperately want that elusive NBA Championship. The chronic back problems could be the major stumbling block, needing constant treatment and rest to get it ready for a rigorous season ahead. Eight years with the Orlando Magic, one forgettable stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, three years in Houston and now joining the Atlanta Hawks, what can Dwight hope for at the end of his $70.5 million, three-year contract in 2019? At 33, he will transition into more of a defensive asset and will look at a guy like Pau Gasol to see what he could expect to earn, even into his mid 30s. Atlanta is a decent side, yet the chances of them winning the championship seems a bit far-fetched if the 2015-16 NBA season is any guide to the upcoming campaign, making it confusing that Howard just chose to sign there. We expect him to regret the decision rather quickly and look forward to free agency, again.
7 C.J. McCollum
C.J. McCollum’s current rookie contract of $10.4 million over four years will get a major boost whether he stays or leaves the Portland Trail Blazers. The 24-year old shooting guard posted 20.8 points per game last season in the toughest conference in the division. For a lot of people in roster management around the league, C.J. will be a huge acquisition in free agency by 2017 if the player feels like Portland won’t help him fulfill his potential. The Trail Blazers are an iconic franchise, but historically they have been more about developing talent that eventually leave Portland. Will McCollum break the mold and establish himself there for life? The dynamic with Damian Lillard is an interesting one, as salary cap space has expanded in tune with the egos inside NBA locker rooms. Having pulled out of the Rio 2016 Olympics, McCollum should utilize this free time to do some serious thinking.
6 Isaiah Thomas
22.2 points per game in the current market for a point guard should equate to more than a $27 million contract over four years. The Boston Celtics man will be a free agent in 2018 at the age of 29 and the Washington College product will wait to see where the franchise is placed in a couple of years time. Finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference last season, the Celtics went 48-34 and were tied with the third placed Miami Heat. Progress is being made, but is it being made quickly enough for Thomas’ liking? The Celtics are in a very tenuous position and decisions in the board room over the next couple of seasons will predicate if they tumble back down to the cellar or skyrocket into Finals contention. Thomas has recently been spotted fraternizing with Tom Brady out in Las Vegas, so by the looks of it, he is not stressing about the situation to any degree.
5 Paul George
The Indiana Pacers have invested a huge amount of time and resources into building their team around Paul George. His current five-year, $91 million contract runs out in 2019 and the 26-year old will weigh up his options. Fast forward to then, when George will be 29, and he will presumably have a hefty amount more experience and understand the limitations of his game to make him an even greater asset than he is today. Averaging 23.9 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game are not staggering numbers in 2015-16, but George is often fighting a lone battle with the opposition. If the Pacers aren’t a serious Playoffs outfit by 2019, chances are Paul George will be plying his trade elsewhere. Three years is more than enough time for the Pacers to convince him of staying. The Rio 2016 Olympics is being used by George as redemption on a national front for the injury suffered in 2012, so we know he has the character and personality to drive himself far in this crazy game.
4 Blake Griffin
Is this class of LA Clippers the one that will fulfill their potential and become the next power in the Western Conference? Given the movements of the Warriors and Spurs in free agency so far, that appears to be an uphill battle. Blake Griffin is the jewel in the crown of the Los Angeles Clippers, albeit with various off-court problems to deal with. The 27-year old power forward is on a five-year, $94.5 million contract which expires in 2018. If Kevin Durant swapped OKC for the Bay Area, the notion that Griffin could make a controversial move away is not beyond comprehension. Amid all the chatter and speculation happening outside of Staples Center, he still managed to post 21.4 points per game and 8.4 rebounds for good measure. Imagine the numbers if he had a new contract, new franchise and clear conscience?
3 Kyrie Irving
One championship into a back-to-back Finals series with the Warriors, what will Kyrie Irving want at the conclusion of 2017? The Melbourne-born point guard was the shining light in the dying moments of Game 7, proving that he is Grade A talent in NBA circles. Two years ago, he signed a $90 million contract extension with the Cavaliers that expires in 2020, at which point he will be 28 and at the peak of his powers. Playing on LeBron James’ team is great, but it is exactly that – LeBron James’ team. Does he have the desire to break out from his shadow? Plenty of franchises will pay big dollars for a point guard that consistently sinks baskets under pressure. He will certainly want to cash in on a fatter contract than the one he is on and given his current form, he will warrant the upgrade.
2 Steph Curry
Convention tells us Steph Curry is the humble superstar, the point guard who is all about playing with his Golden State teammates and putting them before himself. But the 2016 Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers illustrated a different side of his personality, one that became feisty with the opposition, officials and the media. The aftermath of the Finals didn't quell those concerns either, as he fought off Adam Silver's opinion that Golden State's new addition takes them to a dangerously noncompetitive level that other sides cannot reach. If the Warriors start to operate around Durant and more money is on offer somewhere else, why should Curry not test the waters? His contract expires in 2017, so if it was such a sure thing that he would remain, wouldn’t Curry have signed on the dotted line by now? If he continues his form of 2015/16 where no one could stop him sinking 3s from downtown, then he can virtually write his own cheque. Whether it's in Golden State or elsewhere, Steph will definitely cash in.
1 Russell Westbrook
Without his partner in crime Kevin Durant to kick around with in OKC, the temptation to spread his wings could be too big for Russell Westbrook to turn down. Trade buzz right now starts and ends with the name Russell Westbrook and given the fact he has posted 23.1 points per game in 2015-16 and 28.1 the season before, his status as an elite player is difficult to match. Assuming he goes on to set scoring records in Oklahoma now that he is the kingpin of the franchise, suitors will be lining the block to acquire the services of one of the hottest properties in the NBA. His five-year, $78.6 million contract expires at the end of next season as the 27-year old will contemplate signing the biggest contract of his life. With the Golden State Warriors the only destination he surely will not go to, perhaps switching to the Eastern Conference could be the recipe to restore the likes of the Knicks, Bulls or Celtics to former glories.
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