Wednesday is the deadline for teams to agree to contract extensions with 2008 first-round picks or “risk” watching them enter restricted free agency this summer. The word “restricted” is the most important one in this discussion because teams have the right to match any offer for such players, provided they first tender a one-year qualifying offer — a no-brainer decision in lots of cases.
The headliner here is Kevin Love, with the Timberwolves reportedly dithering over whether to offer him a four-year $60 million contract — right around the maximum money for a deal of that length — or a package with a fifth year, a bonus only Minnesota can offer under the new collective bargaining agreement. The clause in question is called the “designated player” rule, which allows teams to offer a special five-year, max-level deal to a player coming off his rookie contract. Teams can have only one such player on their roster at a time, meaning the only major deterrent from the Wolves’ perspective (unless they don’t think Love is worth the max) is that assigning him the “designated player” label means they cannot give it to Ricky Rubio down the road.
I addressed the Love contract issues in depth last week, so I won’t belabor the point: Love is worth a max contract, but the Wolves are well within the bounds of reason in testing whether they might be able to retain him at something less than a five-year, max-level deal. This is the point of restricted free agency and matching rights. If another team pursues Love in restricted free agency, the Wolves know they will be able to keep him anyway. The only risk for Minnesota is in Love’s signing a shorter offer sheet with another team — which the Wolves would then match — or doing the unthinkable and signing a one-year deal for the amount of the qualifying offer, a decision that would allow him to enter unrestricted in the summer of 2013. That move would also involve Love’s taking something like an $8 million pay cut for the 2012-13 season, which would be essentially unprecedented.
Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis has the latest, and he reports that the Wolves are still debating between the four- and five-year offers. He adds this intriguing tidbit:
New Orleans shooting guard Eric Gordon told Yahoo! Sports Monday night that he’s waiting to see if NBA commissioner David Stern — not Hornets GM Dell Demps — will extend him a contract offer by Wednesday night.
Now remember that Wolves owner Glen Taylor is the chairman of the NBA Board of Governors who has Stern on speed dial and it’s very possible he’s waiting to for Stern to move with Gordon before he finalizes any deal with Love.
I got the distinct impression from Taylor last week that he doesn’t believe the league, which owns the Hornets, is willing max out Gordon.
If Gordon does get a five-year max deal like Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook did last week, all that’s left for Love to do is sign that five-year contract.
It’s not precisely clear whether Taylor might be waiting on Stern so as to avoid jacking up Gordon’s price, or to avoid having Gordon’s deal jack up Love’s price. Either way, let’s be clear on this: Gordon is not worth a max contract right now, not even to the Hornets, who have only about $32 million guaranteed on the books next season — a number that doesn’t include Gordon’s cap hold or several team options New Orleans will likely exercise.
Huge deals so early in a player’s career almost always involve some level of pay for future (and thus unknown) performance, but that dynamic would be extreme in Gordon’s case. And that’s coming from someone who ranked Gordon the 29th-best player in the league last summer and has referred to him repeatedly as the heir to the title of “NBA’s best shooting guard” once Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade age out of that status.
A max deal for Gordon would be based on about 2½ months of All-Star-level play last season, from November through late January, when a wrist injury derailed his season. Gordon was a machine during that stretch, averaging about 25 points on efficient shooting from all over the court, drawing a bunch of fouls and emerging as a reliable pick-and-roll ball-handler. Gordon is undersized for a shooting guard, but he’s strong and competitive, and that has been enough to make him a competent defender.
But you don’t hand out max contracts based on 35 games’ worth of production, especially when you will have matching rights. Aside from that stretch, Gordon has been decent and injured; his Player Efficiency Rating was around the league average until last season, and he has missed major time in every season but his rookie year because of shoulder, groin, wrist and knee issues. A bruised right knee has kept Gordon out of all but two games this season in New Orleans, robbing the Hornets of a chance to see how he might function as an undisputed No. 1 option on offense — a role he shared last season with Blake Griffin.
As for the other extension-eligible players facing a stressful next 24 hours, Steve Kyler of HOOPSWORLD has a useful rundown for you. He lists players who appear unlikely to get extensions, either because their teams are being careful with money (Memphis’ O.J. Mayo, Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, Charlotte’s D.J. Augustin), or because they simply haven’t earned them yet (Minnesota’s Michael Beasley, Washington’s JaVale McGee, Phoenix’s Robin Lopez). Besides Gordon, the two diciest cases probably are Danilo Gallinari and Nicolas Batum, productive young players whose teams want them back but must negotiate in that murky area of annual salaries between $7.5 million or so (on the very low end) and $12 million (on the very high end). Reports indicate that Denver and Portland and engaged in talks with Gallinari and Batum, respectively.