Contract year: Which free-agents-to-be are helping/hurting their stock?

Contract year: Which free-agents-to-be are helping/hurting their stock?

Free Agency

Contract year: Which free-agents-to-be are helping/hurting their stock?

The contract year is an all-important phenomenon in sports.

Athletes performing for their next deal tend to play just bit harder on a nightly basis than those who have already secured their life-changing contracts.

That’s not to say players who have already gotten paid don’t exert any more effort, as there is still team glory to chase, but the fact of the matter is, especially for young guys, that first payday is a crucial personal stepping stone.

This season, there are a few players around the Association who are doing a great job of raising their stock in this, their contract year. By the same token, there are others who have hurt their value at this vital time.

Let’s take a look at ten players who fall into each category.

Who’s helping their stock?

Kyle Anderson , San Antonio Spurs

Before spraining his meniscus, Kyle Anderson was enjoying a career season. With averages of 8.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest, the San Antonio Spurs wing was finally blossoming into the do-a-bit-of-everything role player many thought he’d be coming out of college.

Provided he regains that form once he returns from injury, Anderson’s impending restricted free agency should be quite interesting, as his play could earn him a decent-sized payday.

Will Barton, Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets swingman Will Barton is on a similar trajectory to Anderson. The 6-foot-6 dynamic scorer is putting up a career-high in points this season, but on top of that, he’s also distributing the ball better than ever before. Now that he’s becoming a more well-rounded player, his stock is at an all-time high.

And making things even hairier for Denver, Barton is an unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason. Odds are, he’s about to get paid rather handsomely.

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

Another player finally reaching his ceiling at just the right time, Clint Capela has become one of the best centers league-wide in 2017-18.

Capela leads the NBA in field-goal percentage, making an obscene 68 percent of his shot attempts. And according to NBA Math, he’s the third-most productive player among anyone 23 or younger.

The seven-footer is a restricted free agent next summer, but it would not be shocking to see a rival team hand him an offer sheet so huge that the Houston Rockets will have no choice to but to let him walk.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon is yet another young player hitting his peak this season. The fourth-year pro is putting up 18.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists per outing while converting a career-high 40.1 percent of his threes.

The Magic may end up regretting not signing him to a contract extension last offseason. Though he’s a restricted free agent, it could turn out quite expensive for Orlando to keep him.

Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

Although the injury concerns for Rodney Hood persist, when he has been able to suit up this year, he’s been exactly the player the Utah Jazz expected when they drafted him back in 2014. Hood is putting up career-best clips in both points (17.6) and three-point percentage (41.2 percent) and has really seemed to find a niche coming off the bench as an elite sixth man for Utah.

If he can maintain some semblance of health, Hood’s next contract could range anywhere between $12 million and $15 million annually.

Enes Kanter, New York Knicks

Among players with at least 20 games played, New York Knicks center Enes Kanter ranks No. 1 in offensive rebound rate. His ability to both clean up on the glass and get buckets in the post has turned the Turkish big man into an above-average starter.

Kanter owns a player option on the final year of his deal (2018-19) – one in which he’s owed $18.6 million. Despite his career campaign, would a rival team really be willing to shell out more than that annually for the 25-year-old center? Considering the current landscape, with most teams’ cap space filled to the brink, probably not. Kanter would be wise to consider opting into the final year of his deal, before testing the open market in the summer of 2019.

Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies

Unlike most of the prior players we discussed, Tyreke Evans headed in 2017-18 a bit more established. However, his recent play prior to this season was far from impressive, and it seemed like constant nagging injuries had sapped him of the athletic ability that once made him so special.

But judging by his play thus far this year, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Evans is currently enjoying his best season since his magnificent rookie campaign, averaging 18.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per night. The former Rookie of the Year product could end up being a valuable trade chip for the Memphis Grizzlies if they end up deciding to tank.

Either way, his next contract will be far larger than his current one-year, $3.3 million deal.

Luc Mbah a Moute, Houston Rockets

Although much wasn’t made of the Houston Rockets signing Luc Mbah a Moute to a minimum contract last summer (one year, $2.1 million), his deal appears to be the steal of the offseason. Mbah a Moute’s raw metrics aren’t eye-popping by any means (6.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest), but his advanced numbers tell a different story.

Mbah a Moute’s worth shows itself by the way his team plays when he’s in the game. With the veteran forward on the floor, Houston outscores its opponents by 4.2 points per 100 possessions. He likely won’t garner anything near a max deal next offseason, but Mbah a Moute has definitely helped himself financially with his play this year.

Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers

According to Win Shares per 48 (WS/48) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM), Los Angeles Lakers big man Julius Randle is having his best year in 2017-18. The fourth-year pro is no longer starting, but he has been able to carve out a nice role coming off the bench for Luke Walton.

With Randle in the game, the Lakers are nine points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. On top of that, the Kentucky product should be commended for having the willingness to play a key reserve role; most players his age, with his pedigree, wouldn’t be as disposed to leave the starting lineup.

That team-first attitude, along with his finishing near the basket and ability to switch on defense, should have Randle lined up for a nice payday next summer.

Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

While most players regress with age, Lou Williams has done the opposite. Over the past two campaigns, the veteran scorer has set career-highs in points per game. What’s more, this year, he’s also knocking down triples at a career-best rate of 40 percent.

There’s a solid chance he won’t finish the season with the Los Angeles Clippers, especially if they can’t get healthy enough to make a legitimate run at the playoffs. Whether he gets moved or not, Williams’ play this year should alleviate any worries teams may have about Father Time taking its toll on him, and he should be rewarded with a nice contract this upcoming summer, despite the fact he turns 32 when next season rolls around.

And who’s hurting their stock?

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

It may be a tad bold to say Marcus Smart has hurt his value this season. After all, the Boston Celtics are an obscene 11.7 points per 100 possessions better with their two-way guard in the game, and a large part of the team’s hot start (24-6 record through 30 games) is Smart having a tendency of making the right play at the right, especially when the contest is up for grabs.

But at the same time, it should be acknowledged he’s having the worst year of his career according to most of the advanced metrics, including WS/48, BPM and Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

If Smart had shown a modicum of improvement as a shooter in 2017-18, we would have included him in the prior group. But he hasn’t – and although it’s hard to fathom a career 35.8 percent shooter getting even less effective, Smart has somehow managed it. And at the end of the day, that will affect the size of his next contract.

Derrick Rose, Cleveland Cavaliers

Derrick Rose’s biggest issue hasn’t changed: The former league MVP is still having trouble staying healthy.

This season was worse than usual for Rose, though, as he even took a long hiatus from the team while deciding what his next move was going to be. That will assuredly weigh heavily on the minds of teams around the league this summer, as they consider whether or not to sign the 29-year-old Rose.

Avery Bradley, Detroit Pistons

Avery Bradley is scoring at about the same rate he has in his prior two breakout seasons, hovering around 15.6 points per game. But the Detroit Pistons two-guard is shooting merely 42.3 percent from the floor – his worst mark since 2012-13.

And the Pistons have somewhat inexplicably been 6.4 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor.

Regardless, Bradley is still an above average starting shooting guard, and he’ll be compensated as such. But his play hasn’t helped matters in the slightest regarding his next contract.

Brook Lopez, Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers center Brook Lopez started off the season on fire (by most big men’s standards) from beyond the arc. Over the first 10 games of the season, the seven-footer was converting 40 percent of his three-point attempts.

Since then, however, Lopez has gone ice cold, hitting just 24.2 percent of his triples. Already nearly 30 years old, if Lopez isn’t going to space the floor from three his value will plummet, as he doesn’t rebound like someone his size should, and cannot defend in space.

If Lopez wants to cash out this summer, he’s gonna need to get hot from deep again. And soon.

Dante Cunningham, New Orleans Pelicans

Prior to 2016-17, Dante Cunningham was a career 26.9 percent three-point shooter. Then, last season, the Villanova product hit an impressive 39.2 percent of looks from deep, providing value as a corner three-point specialist.

The New Orleans Pelicans were smart not to fall for the one-year sample size, though, and brought the veteran power forward back on a one-year, $2.3 million deal.

This year, Cunningham is down to hitting just 32.9 percent of his triples. In all likelihood, his next contract is going to bear a strong resemblance to his current one.

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic

One Magic forward, who we already covered, is reaching every bit of his vast potential this season. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their other young forward, Mario Hezonja.

The 22-year-old is averaging a career low in points (3.7) and more importantly, minutes (12.0) per contest, which has all but killed his value heading into unrestricted free agency.

There’s time for the former Barcelona gunner to figure it out, but the clock is ticking.

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

Like Smart, it’s hard to say Jusuf Nurkic has really hurt his stock this season considering the Portland Trail Blazers are statistically a better team when he suits up.

But the Bosnian big man is still having trouble staying healthy, and even besides that, is shooting 45.5 percent from the floor this season. For a center to shoot that poorly while also not functioning as a three-point threat is almost unheard of.

A max deal is likely out of the question, but Nurkic should still garner a deal with an annual average of value in the seven-figure range.

Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks

Yogi Ferrell busted onto the scene last season for the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 assists over 36 games (29 starts) per contest for Rick Carlisle’s men.

Dallas was so excited about their find that they decided to waive veteran lead guard Deron Williams and make Ferrell their starting floor general to close 2016-17. Just read the following via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to see how high the team was on the former Indiana Hoosier:

The Mavericks are hedging their bets that Ferrell, who eventually signed a two-year contract with Dallas, can be their starting point guard for many years to come. By waiving Williams, that process stats immediately. So what exactly are the Mavericks expecting from Ferrell, who turns 24 on May 9? “Continued improvement, continued aggression, continue to get integrated more and more into the mentality we like to play with,’’ coach Carlisle said. “He’s going to have a lot of tough defensive assignments along the way. “There’s a lot of good players coming in at the point guard position, and he’s going to have the responsibility of playing those guys, at least why he’s a starter.”

Thus far this year, Ferrell hasn’t really maintained that form. The Mavericks drafting another explosive point guard in Dennis Smith Jr probably hasn’t helped matters.

Whatever the issue is, Ferrell landing a large deal this summer would be surprising, unless he somehow finds that 2016-17 magic.

Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks

One of the most disappointing marriages in recent memory, Nerlens Noel and the Mavs have been about as ill a fit as possible.

Through 18 games, Noel is averaging 4.0 points and 12.5 minutes nightly; even worse, he hasn’t seen the floor at all in Dallas’ last eight outings.

There’s no shot the Kentucky product stays with the Mavericks past this season, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him moved before the trade deadline. If that does happen, it’s possible he can regain some of his value by actually getting playing time and producing with another team.

But if he stays in Dallas and remains glued to Carlisle’s bench, his next contract will probably be of the minimum variety.

Brandan Wright, Memphis Grizzlies

Once upon a time, Brandan Wright was a sorely underrated big man who knew his limitations and aptly scored near the rim while being a plus rebounder.

Although he’s still pretty efficient and the Grizzlies are a far better team when he’s in the game, Wright has missed 12 of Memphis’ first 27 contests with a groin injury.

At 30 years old, this was probably the former North Carolina star’s final chance at a decent payday.

Now, it looks like he’ll remain on the minimum wherever he suits up next.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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