BOSTON, MA - MARCH 09: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers tries to keep the ball from Nenad Krstic #4 of the Boston Celtics on March 9, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
When the early extension period for 2012 comes around, Blake Griffin is likely the only maximum contract player, though James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Ty Lawson could reach those heights.
Having now completed a rather touchy early extension period with very few contracts doled out, it's time to look at next year. But first, a review: Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook were the only two players from the 2008 NBA Draft to get full-blown max extensions in this period, as Kevin Love took a shorter deal reportedly just under the max. Danilo Gallinari grabbed a solid non-Designated Player extension (four years, $42 million) and Kosta Koufos received the league's only low-dollar early extension. This generally matches recent years of action: if there's considerable debate about a player's value, chances are that player's incumbent team will put its trust in the market and the built-in advantages of restricted free agent.
That's going to come into play even more this summer when 2009-10 rookie first-round picks are eligible for Early Bird extensions.
The only sure-bet max extension player is Blake Griffin. The power forward didn't play a second of the 2009-10 season, but he was under contract, which means that he is, by the letter of NBA contract law, currently in his third season and, as such, eligible for an early extension as of July 15. If the L.A. Clippers do it right, Griffin will sign a five-year max extension as soon as he's able to. You lock up players like Griffin for as long as possible, assuming his knee checks out.
Ricky Rubio, we should note, will not be up for an extension -- he didn't officially join the NBA until 2011 although he was drafted in 2009. He won't be eligible for an early extension until July 2014.
Other players ineligible: Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Jordan Hill and Terrence Williams, who will instead be unrestricted free agents as Houston declined their fourth-year options to open up cap space; Earl Clark, who is unsigned currently; and DeMarre Carroll, who has already been a free agent on account of being waived.
Here's a look at the top remaining players who will be eligible.
James Harden, Thunder. Having locked up Kevin Durant and Westbrook, Harden is next up. Unlike the others, he won't likely be a max extension player -- Oklahoma City can't extend a five-year offer regardless, having given its only Designated Player contract of this collective bargaining agreement to Russ. But Harden is such a high-value player that there could be a standoff between the club and guard. The Thunder have to be concerned about reserving enough salary cap space for Serge Ibaka (eligible in 2013) and Kendrick Perkins. Harden has to know he can get huge offers if he waits for restricted free agency in 2013. That's a recipe for potential conflict.
Tyreke Evans, Kings. It would be very Sacramento Kings to offer a five-year max on Day 1 of the early extension period, even without knowing which Tyreke Evans is the true version. Evans had a wash of a second season due in part to injury and in part to Paul Westphal's painful lack of player development. This third season isn't looking a whole lot better. I'd be hesitant to offer Evans much more than what Gallinari received at this point, but teams like the Kings can't really afford to consider life without their best players.
Stephen Curry, Warriors. Curry's ankle is the big question, and how much he can play the rest of this season might be (for better or worse) a leading indicator of Curry's salary level and the Warriors' willingness to extend him early. At his best, Curry is there with Harden and Evans at near-max value. But if he's going to struggle to stay healthy due to a chronic issue ...
DeMar DeRozan, Raptors. DeRozan isn't having a confidence-inspiring season in T-Dot, and if it continues like this, the Dinos are going to have to wait for 2013 and restricted free agency to make an educated decision on the guard. Regardless, DeRozan won't be getting a Designated Player contract in 2012 -- that will be reserved for Jonas Valanciunas or Toronto's 2012 pick. (Players drafted in 2012 will be eligible for extensions in 2015, well within this collective bargaining agreement, which will likely end in 2017.)
Brandon Jennings, Bucks. Like DeRozan, Jennings has struggled to make clear his value to Milwaukee, and seems more like a restricted FA case study every day. The difference between Jennings and DeRozan: the Bucks aren't terribly young or stocked for the deep future, unlike Toronto. Milwaukee expects to compete for playoff spots every year. That could factor into the Bucks' decision on what to do with Jennings.
Gerald Henderson, Bobcats. Henderson won't be Charlotte's Designated Player, but there should be a smart four-year extension the team can offer to its best wing defender and roleplayer. Henderson can be the next Arron Afflalo, and Charlotte would be wise to handle him before he reaches restricted free agency. We saw how much Afflalo picked up.
Tyler Hansbrough, Pacers. Indiana is going to be focused on bigger fish this the summer, namely the restricted free agency of Roy Hibbert and possibly Eric Gordon. Hansbrough isn't so highly thought of that his own restricted free agency in 2013 would be make-or-break for the Pacers, so there's little reason to pre-empt it. Given that Indiana didn't seem too intent on extending Hibbert early, it's hard to imagine the strategy changing for Hansbrough.
James Johnson, Raptors. The same applies to Johnson, who is bouncing in and out of Dwane Casey's rotation in Toronto.
Jrue Holiday, Sixers: Holiday is one of the most promising young point guards in the NBA, but Philadelphia has shown an inclination to allow restricted free agency work its magic. If the Sixers finish strong this season, locking up Holiday to a Gallinari-type deal could make good sense.
Ty Lawson, Nuggets: Here's Denver's Designated Player candidate, the engine who looks like the best lead guard of the 2009 draft at this point. The Nuggets under Masai Ujiri have obviously shown a favorability toward locking up players long-term (Gallinari, Koufos) instead of depending on the market. That could lead to Lawson joining Griffin as a no-brainer early extension, though Lawson shouldn't be on the max level based on current production and potential. Something more like $55-58 million over five years seems closer to true.
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