By Ben Golliver
Contract years are the closest the NBA gets to Robert Frost's famous two roads diverging in the yellow wood. Entering the final season of a deal offers the promise of untold riches to players who put up career highs. But what if injuries, shooting struggles, position battles or off-the-court issues intervene? Well, then free agency starts to look like a much darker, more foreboding path.
Many potential key members of the 2013 free-agent class handled their business early: Blake Griffin, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Jrue Holiday, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson all signed deals before they reached the proverbial fork in the road. Here's a look at 12 players who entered the season with free agency looming on the horizon. Are they counting down the days until July 1 or wishing they could borrow Kris Humphries' time machine to go back to training camp?
Upcoming free agents who hurt their stock
Andrew Bynum, Sixers: If real estate is about location, location, location, NBA contracts can often simply be a matter of timing, timing, timing. If Bynum's contract had ended last summer, he would have been sitting pretty. Unfortunately, his career year in 2011-12 -- 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 22.9 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) -- now feels like it happened a decade ago and the surefire max contract that would have been waiting for him is now in question.
The only good news for Bynum in an otherwise lost season is that the Sixers went all in to acquire him and lack an obvious backup plan. With no other impact centers expected to become available, Philadelphia is staring down two terrible options: 1) commit big dollars to a 25-year-old center whose best days could very well already be behind him, or 2) cut their losses and move on, taking a major public relations hit straight on the chin.
Darren Collison, Mavericks: Let's never forget those precious few months in early 2010 when Chris Paul went down with an injury and Collison, then a rookie, stepped in for the Hornets and caught the league by surprise with his quickness and confidence. Two teams later, Collison entered this season holding the keys to the Mavericks' offense. Although he lost his starting job in Indiana, the possibility of a big payday in restricted free agency this summer was still there, assuming he took a major opportunity in Dallas and ran with it.
Unfortunately, "I briefly lost my starting job to a 38-year-old Derek Fisher" doesn't play very well during contract talks. Neither does the fact that the Mavericks are slogging their way toward the draft lottery for the first time since 1999-2000. It's not all Collison's fault, but his command of the offense and the consistency of his jumper have both wavered. The other point guards in his draft class -- Holiday, Curry, Lawson, Jeff Teague and Brandon Jennings -- have left him in the dust. There's no shame in that, as 2009 was loaded at the position, but there's also not as many dollars headed his way as there could have been.
Lamar Odom, Clippers: To be frank, Odom's stock was already of the penny variety after he whined his way off of the Lakers and then rolled over on the Mavericks last season. The Clippers saw a buy-low opportunity, though, and with an extra point guard to spare in Mo Williams, they constructed a three-team deal that gave Odom a shot at redemption.
Some may choose to celebrate Odom for losing a significant amount of weight this season. Others, smartly, will wonder why he needed to lose that weight in the first place and why the conditioning hasn't paid off in his production. Odom is averaging just 4.1 minutes and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 39.9 percent and posting a PER of 10, measly numbers compared to his 53 percent shooting percentage and 19 PER in 2010-11. Rarely do impact players fall this far, this fast without a career-altering injury. If the Mavericks represented his second chance and the Clippers represented his third chance, who out there will be brave enough to offer Odom his fourth chance this summer, and how much will they realistically be willing to invest in the effort? Odom will have earned more than $115 million in his career when this season ends, having taken home at least $7.5 million every year since 2004. The fall will be fast and steep. A best-case scenario for Odom likely finds him back with the Clippers at a big discount; the next two-to-three months will serve as an audition that he's still worth their time.
Dwight Howard, Lakers: Intentionally or not, Howard has spent this season testing the limits of the long-held assumption that premier big men are worth every dollar that you can legally throw at them. As the Lakers have struggled, his game has been compared to Timofey Mozgov's, his effort level has been questioned, his public comments have produced one disaster after another, his personality has created extensive friction and he has played through a back injury only to incur a shoulder injury. Howard remains a no-brainer max guy if only because the prevailing sentiment is that it can't get any worse.
Bottoming out for Howard has still meant major production. Although his offensive touches have taken a hit this season, he's averaging 16 points, a league-leading 12.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. His defense, quite clearly, hasn't been the same as it was in Orlando, but there's reason to believe he will regain his form on that end if and when he returns to 100 percent health. Capped out to a ridiculous degree, the Lakers have hitched their wagon to Howard's horse and have no reasonable means for replacing him. Howard, then, is the rare NBA player who can kill significant portions of his own reputation on and off the court without doing any damage whatsoever to his market value, thanks to the ceiling created by the salary cap. It's scary to think about how much Howard's earning power would have dropped over the last six months if the NBA operated with an uncapped system.
Upcoming free agents who helped their stock
David West, Pacers: One of the biggest injustices in the coverage of the NBA this season (ourselves at The Point Forward included) is the saturation treatment given to Josh Smith's free agency compared to the occasional whisper afforded to West. While Smith lit up the trade rumor circuit for months, West has quietly gone about his business in a small market as one of the best players on one of the most successful teams. Paul George gets most of the Pacers' headlines, and rightfully so, but West has recaptured his All-Star form after a 2011 knee injury, stuffing the box score to the tune of 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, three assists, 1.1 blocks and one steal while posting a PER (20.8) that's among the best at his position.
West has been a rock for the Pacers this season, a crucial veteran leader, an important component of the NBA's No. 1 defense and a dependable scorer. At 32, he's heading for free agency in a very different place from where he was in 2011, when he signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Pacers. This time there's no lockout mucking things up, and he's proved that he can produce at or near his pre-injury levels. He's also playing for a winner that will be highly motivated to retain him, rather than a New Orleans team that was moving into a rebuilding cycle. If the Pacers want to keep winning, they will need to pay the man.
Josh Smith, Hawks: Surveying the upcoming free-agent class at the start of the season, knowing that big names like Chris Paul and Howard would almost certainly be staying put, Smith's advisers surely gave him a simple message: Keep doing what you've been doing. Smith, 27, has been putting up big numbers for a half-decade now. Athletic and intriguing, Smith was well-positioned for a major payday and perhaps even for the max contract that he believes he's worth.
So far, so good. Smith's numbers -- 17.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2 blocks and 1.2 steals -- are in line with his production from recent years. His shooting percentage, always a touchy subject given his haphazard shot selection, hasn't nosedived. With the Hawks seemingly headed in the rebuilding direction, Smith was mostly playing defense against a catastrophic falloff. That hasn't happened, and the teams that were linked to him in trade rumors before last month's deadline -- especially the Bucks and Suns -- should be right there blowing up his phone once free agency begins. That the Hawks have remained firmly in the playoff picture after losing Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams to trades and Lou Williams to a season-ending knee injury in mid-January should only help the perception of his worth.
Jeff Teague, Hawks: Smith's teammate Teague is doing exactly what Collison hasn't been able to do. In his second year as a full-time starter, Teague has upped his scoring and assist numbers (to 14.5 points and 7.1 assists), creating a larger portion of Atlanta's offense with Johnson no longer in the fold. He's come on even stronger as of late: Teague averaged 18.3 points and 9.3 assists in February, and his PER is now at a career-best 16.6.
With virtually empty books and a need for a long-term solution at point guard, the Hawks should be both willing and able to make Teague their man. The restricted free agent shouldn't break the bank, as he still has work to do to enter the discussion of the NBA's top 10 point guards, but he can expect to be rewarded for the progress he showed this season and the potential he still possesses at age 24.
Nikola Pekovic, Timberwolves: There haven't been too many winners in the disaster that has been the Timberwolves' season, but Pekovic, who will be a restricted free agent, is surely one of them. With teammates dropping like flies all around him, Pekovic has averaged career highs of 15.9 points and 8.8 rebounds and put up a PER of 19.5, tops among Timberwolves who have played at least 200 minutes. He's battled minor injuries but has mostly remained fairly healthy and shown that he can handle a workload of at least 30 minutes per game.
Pekovic's timing here is perfect and aided by his unusual path to the NBA. The 2008 first-round pick did not enter the NBA until 2010-11. A starting-caliber center with good size (6-foot-11) and solid numbers, Pekovic, 27, is entering the prime of his career and is playing for a team that lacks any other options at his position. In other words, ka-ching. He's the early leader in the clubhouse to become the "guy whose contract makes you immediately double-take."
Quick thoughts on four other upcoming free agents
Jarrett Jack, Warriors: Jack's season in Golden State has played out perfectly for both team and player. The 29-year-old point guard is in the Sixth Man Award mix, he's proved to be an ideal backcourt complement to the emerging Curry and he brings a consistency and veteran perspective that sets the tone for a team that has a number of younger players. Retaining Jack should be a top priority for the Warriors.
J.J. Redick, Bucks: The biggest name to move at the trade deadline, Redick is making the most of his contract year, putting up career highs in points and assists while shooting a career-best 45.2 percent. Milwaukee could view the 28-year-old shooting guard as a long-term solution next to Jennings should Monta Ellis walk, but he's likely to have a number of outside suitors who value his range, work ethic and team-first personality.
Brandon Jennings, Bucks: Jennings, 23, didn't receive an extension like many of the bigger-name point guards in his draft class, but the Bucks seem destined to match any offer he receives in restricted free agency. J.J. Hickson, Trail Blazers: He's put up monster rebounding numbers as a stopgap solution at center for Portland, but his defensive deficiencies have been exposed time and again this season. Hickson, 24, failed to generate much interest last summer, opting to sign a one-year, $4 million deal with the Blazers, and he will likely expect that patience to be rewarded after the most consistent season in his vagabond career. We'll see if it happens.