With the 2015 NBA draft in the rearview mirror, all 30 teams will shift their focus to the looming free agency period. Big names like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan could be on the move to new teams, but unlike a younger crop of FAs, they won’t be netting gigantic raises this summer.
Instead, that distinction falls upon a handful of guys that are, for the most part, coming off of rookie contracts. Their collectively stellar play, two-way impacts and breakout years will no doubt earn them hefty new paydays by the end of the off-season compared to the salaries they took home for 2014-15.
The 2014 Finals MVP and 2015 Defensive Player of the Year is poised to earn a max contract this summer. Whether that gets offered to Leonard by the Spurs or by some other team—which will then get matched by San Antonio via the youngster’s restricted free agent status—he’s due to earn far more than ever before.
The 24-year-old has improved statistically in each consecutive season. After being selected No. 15 overall in the 2011 draft out of San Diego State University, “The Claw” has developed into one of the best two-way players in the sport.
Even if he starts to level off as a player instead of continuing that yearly upward trend, he’s already earned his keep as a franchise player who can lead the Spurs dynasty into the future.
Chicago’s shooting guard had always been a game changer on the defensive end of the court. He’d always take on the toughest defensive assignments, and while his offense lagged behind during his first season as a full-time starter in 2013-14 (39.7% shooting from the field, 28.3% from three), that all changed with a breakout fourth year.
“Jimmy Buckets” finally lived up to his nickname by pouring in 20 points per contest on 46.2% shooting from the field and 37.8% from long distance. He blossomed on the offensive end of the court at the perfect time—a contract year.
He had only posted at or below the league-average PER of 15 prior to his phenomenal All-Star, Most Improved Player season. That might be concerning to suitors who’d like to see a repeat performance before handing out a big deal, but Butler will make far more than the $2 million he made in 2014-15 regardless.
Michigan State product Draymond Green had his fair share of doubters coming out of college. Critics claimed that he didn’t have a natural NBA position nor the athletic ability needed to compete at the next level. Well, by finishing as Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and collecting a championship ring, it’s fair to say Green has silenced the naysayers.
In addition to his role anchoring the No. 1 ranked defensive team in the league with his ability to guard multiple positions, Green made the Warriors a better offensive team as well. All the while, he earned less than $1 million in salary—far below the league average of approximately $4.1 million.
Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears reports that the Pistons, Hawks and Rockets are all interested in Green’s services. However, as another restricted free agent, Golden State will have the final word in terms of whether or not they’ll match and keep gritty forward. He’s a big part of the Warriors’ collective identity now, so it would be surprising to see him suit up elsewhere next season.
NBA front offices overlooked Khris Middleton back in 2012 when he fell to Detroit in the second round of the draft (No. 39 overall). The Texas A&M product only appeared in 27 games as a rookie for the Pistons and was added as a throw-in to the 2013 Brandon Jennings trade (when Milwaukee fleeced Detroit for Brandon Knight and Middleton).
Middleton remains one of the league’s most underrated players, but analytics geeks no doubt understand the tremendous value he brings on both ends of the court.
When the shooting guard/small forward/power forward was on the court for Jason Kidd’s crew, the Bucks held opponents to 98.6 points per 100 possessions. That defensive rating ballooned to 107.4 when he sat. Moreover, according to 82games.com, Middleton held opponents at every position to a per-48-minute PER of less than 12. Couple the defensive chops with lights-out shooting—he’s a career 40.3% shooter from three-point territory—and it’s more than logical to assume a handful of teams will be looking to add his services at a premium price.
Like Green, Middleton also earned less than $1 million during a great defensive (and offensive) year. At just 23 years old, the restricted free agent still has plenty of time to improve his game. Expect him to see his salary increase in a big way this summer.
Gery Woelfel of the (Racine, Wis.) Journal-Times is reporting that the Phoenix Suns are planning to offer Knight a five-year, $70 million contract once free agency hits on July 1. At approximately $14 million per season, that would be a huge leap from the $3.5 million he made in 2014-15.
It does seem rather odd that Phoenix’s front office would be so committed to Knight as a long-term piece, provided that the 23-year-old really struggled in a Suns uniform. Granted, the sample size was quite small (11 games, nine starts), but the University of Kentucky product shot a woeful 35.7% from the field and 31.3% from deep during that span. His numbers compared to those he posted in Milwaukee during the first half of the season made him look like a completely different player.
On top of everything, the young guard underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle, ending his season.
Knight was a borderline All-Star with the Bucks throughout the first half and certainly deserves a raise on that basis. But the Suns should at least acknowledge the ugly end to an otherwise solid campaign.
Players who get a chance to shine in the playoffs during a contract year have a rare opportunity to drastically improve their off-season stock. Trevor Ariza made it happen back in 2009 when he blossomed in the postseason for the Lakers and then signed a hearty deal to join the Rockets that summer.
In 2015, it appears DeMarre Carroll has the most to gain from his postseason performance.
By averaging 14.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists throughout Atlanta’s deep playoff run, Carroll upped his stats across the board when compared to his regular season averages. He also converted 48.6% of his field goals and 40.3% of his treys.
After making a negligible impact early in his career, his “Junkyard Dog” moniker and evolution into a three-and-D wing player have skyrocketed his value.
As an unrestricted free agent, Carroll is free to sign with whichever team he chooses. If Atlanta doesn’t figure out a plan of action quickly, the tenacious small forward could be long gone via a lucrative deal elsewhere. Replacing his hustle would not be an easy task.
More from Ben Leibowitz:
- 2015 NBA Draft Grades for Each First-Round Pick
- Interview with Drew Hanlen: NBA Skills Trainer Talks 2015 Draft Prospects
- Ranking the Best NBA Finals MVPs of All Time
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