By Rob Mahoney
Oct. 31 is the deadline for former first-round picks beginning their fourth seasons to sign contract extensions. Without new deals, these players can become restricted free agents next July, with their current team having the opportunity to match a rival's offer. Let's take a look at what several members of the 2009 draft class have or haven't done to warrant an extension, and whether a sizable financial commitment makes sense for their respective teams. (Note: Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka have already signed extensions with the Clippers and Thunder, respectively. Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, the fifth pick in 2009, isn't eligible for an extension yet because of his delayed arrival to the NBA.)
James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
It's odd that Harden -- who is a lock to receive a max offer sheet should he become a restricted free agent -- isn't already signed and sealed, but that has more to to with financial specifics than the Sixth Man Award winner's intrinsic value. General manager Sam Presti and the Thunder are likely pushing for every bit of savings they can get at the negotiating table (as they should, given the compounding costs of the ensuing luxury-tax penalties), but ultimately they'll need to come to terms with the fact that there's only so much room to bargain down a player this young and this talented.
Harden's effortless combination of star-level production with a complementary offensive style is remarkable and far too valuable for the Thunder to let him go via free agency or even trade. The bill will undoubtedly be tough to swallow, but contending in the NBA comes at a cost, and for the Thunder Harden's extension -- on top of their other commitments -- is it.
Curry's injury history is surely enough to give the Warriors pause, but only for a moment. He has been outstanding offensively on a team for which he's asked to do an awful lot, and his linear statistical improvement in his first three seasons point to a player who is hardly done developing.
In the past two seasons, Curry has quelled any concerns over his ability to run an offense full time, improved his shooting, taken marginal steps forward as a defender and established himself as a perfect fit alongside the Warriors' other young pieces. The turnovers are a bit high and his defense is still a bit wanting, but Curry has made an on-court case that's tough to impeach.
Lawson's value can be traced rather clearly through his scoring and playmaking, but perhaps better yet through all of the things that he doesn't do. It's incredible to see a young, scoring point guard with Lawson's well-developed conscience; his shooting discretion is top-notch already, and despite his ability to penetrate and open up opportunities for himself on a whim, Lawson opts to fire only in select situations. His turnover numbers are surprising given how often he has the ball in his hands and how fast the Nuggets play, and his assist numbers are indicative of a good primary initiator in a balanced, free-flowing offense. Even on a Nuggets roster with so much talent and versatility, Lawson's smart orchestration is absolutely crucial.
Too Good To Lose
In a sense, this decision has already been made. When the Bulls opted not to match center Omer Asik's three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet with the Houston Rockets, they essentially obligated themselves to keep Gibson one way or another. It may as well be on their terms. Waiting to see what a smart, defensive-minded big man could command on the open market next summer may not be in the Bulls' best interests, thus making a preemptive extension a wise alternative.
Gibson has carved out a role as far more than a Carlos Boozer alternative at power forward. Gibson's work on the back line of the Bulls' defense has been stellar since his earliest days in the NBA, and together with Asik he gave Chicago an unthinkable combination of reserve defensive talent. Gibson will be asked to shoulder an even larger defensive responsibility this season when running with the second unit (the acquisitions of Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, and Vladimir Radmanovic should certainly test his defensive acumen), all while becoming an increasingly valuable part of the Bulls' core. An extension would be money well spent considering the defensive payoff, and a natural cost of the desire to keep a terrific player around over the long term.
Worth Considering, But Not Extending
Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
The void between Holiday's max-salary expectations and Philadelphia's more conservative estimates is problematic enough in its own right, but far more troubling is his lack of substantive development. The point guard has posted three straight solid seasons but failed to make the kind of statistical improvement necessary to merit a sizable extension.
That's ultimately not too distressing. Holiday is still just 22, and he saw much of his playmaking responsibility siphoned off to Andre Iguodala and Evan Turner. That said, Holiday will need to find some way to build on his game (more aggressive scoring, even better long-range shooting, improved off-ball defense, etc.) if he's going to raid the Sixers' coffers. He's absolutely promising enough for Philadelphia to plan to build around him, but not demonstratively productive enough to warrant re-upping without first testing market value.
It's almost impossible to predict how Evans might be valued on the open market, if only because it's impossible to predict how he'll play. We've seen vastly different shades of Evans' game since he debuted with a much-ballyhooed 20-5-5 rookie season, all with no clear pattern for success. He's had issues running the point and clearly limits his team's capacity for efficient offense when controlling the ball. He's had good days playing on the wing and utterly disinterested ones, with seemingly no trigger for either result. One hopes that a team may someday unlock Evans' potential, and that team may very well be the Kings. But with no clear path in taking Evans from where he is now to where he needs to go, Sacramento would be wise to let his contract run its course.
Jennings has played well in his first three seasons but not well enough to close the possibility of restricted free agency. The Bucks will have some tough decisions to make in terms of the direction of their team once the 23-year-old point guard hits the market, but only as a part of a healthy introspection that all middle-class teams must welcome. Whether Jennings is good enough -- and affordable enough -- to push Milwaukee toward its goals remains to be seen, though he's certainly given ample reason to believe in his ability to perform at a high level and improve with experience. The upticks in production and shooting efficiency are great preliminary signs, but why overcommit financially now when another season to evaluate could be so helpful in determining Jennings' value?
Not A Chance
Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks, who have a chance to be huge players in next summer's free-agent market, would do themselves a disservice by using up their cap space prematurely. There's no doubt that Teague is a fine player, but not every fine player is worthy of a multiyear extension with clear opportunity costs.
Darren Collison, Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks won't sign any player to a long-term deal given their reloading goals, but Collison's mixed efforts in Indiana the previous two seasons would likely deter them even if financial flexibility weren't a pressing concern.
Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks: The one-time great hope of the Mavericks has oscillated between injured and inconsistent over his last two seasons. An extension would be impossible given the cap considerations mentioned above, but inconceivable given Beaubois' erratic play.
Tyler Hansbrough, Indiana Pacers: There's no reason at all to duck restricted free agency with a player like Hansbrough. He's a useful player, but fairly replaceable if the market overstates his value.
Eric Maynor, Oklahoma City Thunder: The likely victim of a Harden extension/re-signing. The Thunder will have to cut costs somewhere, and with second-year point guard Reggie Jackson supposedly developing nicely, Maynor could prove to be a luxury.
Gerald Henderson, Charlotte Bobcats: Henderson has turned into a very solid pro, but not one worth the preemptive commitment of an extension -- particularly with the Bobcats in need of all the cap room they can get. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors: I'm sure the Raptors wish that DeRozan had done enough to warrant an extension by this point, but he has yet to build on his basic offensive skills or demonstrate much defensive aptitude.