Assessing teams' risk on extension decisions for 2010 first-round picks
The deadline passed Thursday for first-round picks beginning their fourth seasons to sign contract extensions. Six players from the 2010 draft class received extensions: Indiana's Paul George, Washington's John Wall, Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins, Milwaukee's Larry Sanders, Utah's Derrick Favors and Memphis' Quincy Pondexter. Detroit's Greg Monroe, Utah's Gordon Hayward and Phoenix's Eric Bledsoe were among the players who didn't agree to extensions, making them restricted free agents next summer, when their current teams will be able to match any offer.
On the team side, the process of completing an extension is tricky business. Projecting the long-term value of any player in his early 20s is challenging enough, but market influences, salary-cap implications and the sensitivity of the player in question add complexity.
It's a perilous attempt to balance risk and reward, with the former looming over all because an agreement is struck a full year before taking effect. Teams base their valuations on what their extension candidates might eventually be capable of, beginning from a year-out projection of inherent uncertainty. With that risk playing such a prominent role in the very concept of an extension, it's only fitting that we examine the most prominent deadline decisions through that lens -- in order, from the riskiest moves to the safest.
Cousins is at once the kind of talent who makes basketball decision makers giddy and the kind of personality who makes them incredibly nervous. Long-term NBA stardom requires a fundamental level of control that Cousins has seemed to lack. From that, some have inferred immaturity, others self-centeredness. Regardless of the precise diagnosis, the symptoms are undeniable; Cousins has taken out his frustrations on opponents, coaches, teammates and broadcasters, he pouts regularly and he sells out his commitment to his team with atrocious body language.
Even with all of that understood, this extension is still a risk worth taking. But those factors can't be ignored when the Kings have banked a four-year max deal on the notion that Cousins can both keep his emotions in check and conquer the developmental curve. Beyond the disposition problems, Cousins has been a low-efficiency scorer and lacking defender. That Cousins, 23, has the tools to remedy both of those weaknesses should leave plenty of reason for optimism, but there's no denying that the Kings have gambled on a phenomenally productive player in hopes that the rest is worked out later.
That makes sense, given both the rarity of his production and the buoyancy of Cousins' trade value. Some team will always be willing to try its hand with a player this exceptionally talented, giving the Kings an out if needed. Cousins' baggage complicates the Kings' investment, but not to a degree that should have prevented this deal from happening.
• Swingman Gordon Hayward could not agree to an extension with the Jazz.
Utah reportedly engaged in amicable negotiations with Hayward but will let the versatile forward test the market next summer as a restricted free agent. That's a bit scary because the 23-year-old is exactly the kind of burgeoning talent who can thrive in most any style. His do-it-all game is perfectly complementary and appeals to diverse market needs. Come next summer, some teams will prioritize shooting, some defense, some ball handling, some off-ball movement and some youth. Hayward checks all boxes, a balance that could create enough competition to yield an inflated, near-max offer sheet.
Restricted free agency ensures the Jazz an opportunity to match such an offer, but they are risking either losing Hayward outright or overpaying out of necessity. The cost of passing on a deal now could be the difference of a few million a season. That kind of over-investment isn't crippling but inevitably bears team-building repercussions. Such a margin would infringe on Utah's cap space next summer, and with Enes Kanter and Alec Burks due for their own extensions/restricted free agency in 2015, the Jazz will have a finite window in which to use it.
Wall's deal registers a significant risk in its size alone, as he pulled every penny possible in lining up a five-year max extension. Though not as costly as the true max deals that select veteran players have scored in free agency, this is type of contract that weighed down Rudy Gay (who signed for five years and $82 million in 2010) to the point of making him an unmanageable luxury in Memphis. The same shouldn't be the case with Wall, but signing a work-in-progress player to this kind of deal carries that level of risk.
As a prospect, though (and at 23 with only 185 career games, that's exactly what he is), Wall is relatively safe. At worst, he figures to be a fringe All-Star for the foreseeable future because of his scoring and playmaking ability. His defensive work is still a bit raw, but intangibly Wall seems to say and do all the right things in taking his development on that end of the floor seriously. Aside from the inevitable uneasiness in doling out $80 million to a player with such evident holes in his game (shooting, defense, etc.), this is a sensible gamble for someone who could eventually justify a max salary.
Milwaukee was wise to lock up Sanders, who turns 25 this month, at a deal that seems likely to be below his market rate. Big men tend to get paid, especially elite interior defenders. But any hefty, long-term commitment to Sanders brings the same fundamental concerns:
1. Offensive development. Sanders is technically a pick-and-roll threat -- a lanky, athletic finisher who can streak down the lane and finish when unattended. Unfortunately, he has trouble beyond such immediate scoring. He struggles if forced to maneuver through a crowded lane, change his driving angle or manipulate a defender.
2. Fouling. Sanders toned down his needless fouling last season, averaging 4.3 fouls per 36 minutes. But his penchant for contact has hindered his ability to stay on the floor. That's a problem for any player drawing an eight-figure salary. Teams can afford to invest that amount of cap space and financial resources in only a few players, making it all the more important that they're available to log the minutes suggested by their pay grade. Sanders is deserving of that cut of playing time, but he still works against himself by picking up touch fouls he'd do well to avoid.
3. Unpredictability. Sanders, while well-meaning, has an emotive streak that makes Cousins seem tame by comparison. He's working to rein himself in, but such explosions aren't exactly conducive to the level execution that defines high-level basketball.
• Power forward Derrick Favors signed a four-year, $47 million extension with the Jazz.
Fouling also plagues the 22-year-old Favors, who hasn't developed the defensive sensibilities to stay down on pump fakes, avoid low-contact fouls while cutting off opponents or contest in the air consistently without earning a whistle. These aren't uncommon problems among young big men, but they could serve to limit the playing time and effectiveness of a player with a skyscraping ceiling.
Favors isn't in Sanders' class as a defender yet, but the fact that he's two years younger warrants patience. He's still feeling his way through the angles of help defense -- the kind of next-level navigation of space that turns great athletes into absolute terrors. Favors has the explosiveness to make up for his mistakes while he tries to take that step, and he's clearly shown enough in that regard to convince Jazz officials of his long-term value.
Plus, there's hope yet for him to become more of a two-way player. It might be too audacious to expect Favors to develop into a really sophisticated scorer, but he's already a more natural finisher than Sanders and will be force-fed touches this season.
• Point guard Eric Bledsoe could not agree to an extension with the Suns.
Bledsoe is an athletic standout at a position of athletic standouts. He streaks down the court and launches himself into the air almost effortlessly. He puts his athleticism to committed, assertive use on the defensive end and flutters easily between working with and without the ball on offense through his remarkable burst speed. Some players are quicker and some are stronger, but few -- if any -- can match Bledsoe's kinetic energy.
Still, the fact that Bledsoe, 23, is such a peculiar player might not be as compelling a selling point in free agency as one might think. He's still a very limited playmaker, for reasons that have as much to do with his inability to shoot jumpers off the dribble as his court vision. If given a chance to set his feet and sling back his catapult form, Bledsoe can be fairly accurate. But hitting those spot-up shots would represent only a fraction of what would be expected of him on a costly new contract.
Beyond that, the majority of teams either have a promising, young point guard or are committed to a veteran at the position. Bledsoe will have his suitors, but there are enough concerns in his game and conditions to his market value to justify the Suns' move here.
• Power forward Greg Monroe could not agree to an extension with the Pistons.
Monroe's agent, David Falk, has made it clear since March that his client would become a restricted free agent in 2014, rendering any talk of a hypothetical extension moot. That's not necessarily a bad thing for the Pistons. With Cousins setting the market early with a max deal, Detroit would likely have been working from that benchmark for a player of lesser potential. Monroe is a terrific player, but making such an unequivocal financial commitment would come at considerable risk -- comparable, in some ways, to that the Kings took with Cousins.
The acquisition of forward Josh Smith, though, gives the Pistons the freedom to consider a wider range of options next summer. Just as Monroe will have the ability to weigh the offers of a host of interested teams, Detroit will now be able to consider whether Monroe is a wholly necessary component to its future. The Pistons would be wise to retain Monroe if for no other reason than to keep a valuable asset, but signing Smith protects them against the outright necessity of matching a max or near-max offer sheet if it's deemed too rich for their liking.
• Paul George signed a five-year extension worth upwards of $90 million with the Pacers.
At 23, George is poised to be one of the NBA's 25 best players this season. That's worthy of a max extension, particularly with George pushing at the limits of his game and likely to grow into a more robust offensive player.
George isn't a conventional superstar yet, but he's significantly expanded his ability to create offense off the dribble. If he continues that progress from the last two years, he'll soon have amazingly few weaknesses. George was already a top perimeter defender at the time of his extension, an important commodity in a league where LeBron James and Kevin Durant figure to be among the Pacers' contending competition for the next half-decade.
For a defender of that quality to also rebound so well for his position, serve as a steady long-range threat, set up his teammates effectively and cut so intuitively is exceptional. Those qualities provide the most compelling basis for an extension of this size; George renders bulk scoring less important because he contributes in so many peripheral ways. Even if George never refines his ball handling and decision making to become a high-level shot creator, he poses little threat of underperforming this deal by any notable margin.
• Quincy Pondexter signed a four-year, $14 million extension with the Grizzlies. Extensions rarely get safer than this. Pondexter is a known quantity for Memphis, a shooter and defender who fits naturally with its existing core. He wouldn't command dramatically more than this on the open market, but with this move the Grizzlies are guaranteed a quality role player on a long-term, cap-friendly contract. Kudos to both for finding a mutually beneficial arrangement, especially considering how rare it is for teams to offer rookie-scale extensions to purely supporting players.