Thursday February 4th, 2016

The NBA’s salary cap soared to $70 million for the 2015–16 season, marking an 11% increase, but that number pales in comparison to the jump it'll take the next few years. In fact, the cap will likely spike above $100 million by 2017–18.

As a result, players around the league are poised to get paid. Fans caught a glimpse of this last summer when a handful of ‘three-and-D’ wings netted hefty new contracts. The figures we’ll see moving forward will only continue to rise.

While Kevin Durant’s impending 2016 free agency garners headlines, a collection of second-tier, soon-to-be free-agents could be poised to ink max contracts. The PointAfter team pegged three players who fall into that web and picked intriguing numbers tied to what makes them worth top dollar (at least on the surface).

These guys may not boast the superstar label, but their skill sets bring enough to the table to fetch big money during the off-season.

Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network.

More from PointAfter: Best NBA Players by Country | Top 35 NBA All-Star Game MVPs

10.2% of Shots from 3-Point Range

One such player to keep an eye on is DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors shooting guard, who was named to his second All-Star team this year, has a $10 million player option for 2016–17. He’s all but guaranteed to turn that down in search of a more lucrative long-term deal at season’s end.

DeRozan has put himself in a great position to net a rewarding new contract by not only making yet another All-Star team, but also by playing to his strengths. In this case, only 10.2% of DeRozan’s shot attempts have come from beyond the arc this season.

Provided the USC product is a career 27.6% shooter from three-point territory (a true-blue bricklayer), the conscious effort he’s making to shoot fewer threes and attack driving lanes more often shows added maturity from the 26-year-old.

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To be clear, DeRozan limited his long-range attempts last season as well, but his efficiency and scoring output have both made mini-leaps in 2015–16. He’s averaging a career-best 23.2 points and converting 44.6% of his field goals—the highest mark since his second year in the league.

By meshing a career-best season with a contract year, the youngster will have no shortage of suitors if (or, perhaps more accurately, when) he opts out of his player option this summer.

According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, "a bunch of teams, including DeRozan’s hometown Lakers, are prepared to offer him a max deal starting at $25 million per season.”

The 6'7" swingman is looking at an immense (and deserved) pay raise when free agency hits. Where he winds up next season is anyone’s guess, but a return to Los Angeles as Kobe Bryant’s successor—an unenviable task—seems within the realm of possibility.

3.85 Blocks Per Game

Hassan Whiteside’s shot-blocking prowess has become a recurring theme in our weekly Data Dimes columns (see: here and here). And while the former second-round pick brings more to the table—like vicious alley-oop slams off the pick-and-roll and glass-cleaning prowess putting him among the league’s elite rebounders—his remarkable lead in the blocks category remains his most impressive statistic.

By ranking No. 1 in the league in blocks per game and No. 5 in rebounding, Whiteside joins only DeAndre Jordan of the Los Angeles Clippers among big men who land within the top five of each category. For that reason alone, Whiteside will be deemed worthy of a max contract by at least one NBA team. There’s simply no way to overlook his skills as a shot blocker and rebounder—especially since he’ll be just 27 years old in June.

Of course, Whiteside can’t exactly be deemed a complete player. When he gets the ball, there’s little question as to what he’ll do with it. According to Basketball Reference, only Bismack Biyombo of the Toronto Raptors (1.9%) sports a worse assist percentage—an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the floor—than Whiteside (2.0%).

The seven-footer has even been worse than Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kyle Singler by that measure, whom SI’s Ben Golliver literally tracked earlier this season for his uncanny ability to avoid recording an assist (though Singler averages fewer assists per contest overall).

If NBA juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are any indication, having pass-happy players from top to bottom is where the league as a whole is heading. Gone are the days when teams would simply throw the ball into a big man and let him go to work in the post.

Whiteside is incredibly talented (and relatively young), but there’s at least a yellow flag hinting that handing him a max contract could backfire.

+53.8 Points Per 100 Possessions

As one of the unsung heroes on Golden State’s ludicrously talented and balanced roster, Harrison Barnes probably doesn’t strike many as a candidate to receive a max contract this coming summer. The former No. 7 overall draft choice has been solid statistically, but he hasn’t shown much year-to-year improvement on paper.

The raw numbers are misleading, however, as Barnes boasts a particular set of skills that very few players in the league can emulate. As Jared Dubin put it for SI, “Barnes’s ability to make the defense pay for leaving him open on one end, and operate within the Warriors’ switch-happy ecosystem at the other make him a player that is more valuable than he initially appears.”

• MORE NBA: Harrison Barnes Q&A: Warriors' death lineup and more

Perhaps you’ve heard of Golden State's "death lineup," but this is precisely why Barnes is a piece of that foreboding five. The small-ball group of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green is outscoring opponents by +53.8 points per 100 possessions.

The value of Barnes doesn’t often show up in the box score, but it does when watching games. Barnes consistently does the little things the Warriors need to win, such as defending opposing power forwards, guarding multiple positions off screens, knocking down corner threes and acting as a glue guy among his many All-Star teammates. 

But in much the same way DeMarre Carroll proved his worth to the Atlanta Hawks last year—and landing a new contract with Toronto as a result—teams will swarm to sign Barnes this summer.

At that steep of a price tag, the Warriors might have to consider other options and allow the infamous “death lineup” to rest in peace.

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