Winderman: Trying to make sense of rookie contract extensions

76ers president Daryl Morey and Rockets star James Harden
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On many levels it makes sense that the NBA’s deadline for rookie-scale extensions is Oct. 31.

Because while there are many treats (for the players involved), there also can be more than a few tricks (down the road when it comes to teams’ salary caps and luxury taxes).

James Harden? He deserved as much as anybody (although the max is another issue, and we’ll get to that later).

DeMar DeRozan and Jrue Holiday at $10 million plus per season? Really?

For that matter, more per season for DeRozan and Holiday than Taj Gibson, a player who actually has helped drive his team deep into the playoffs, even if as a reserve?

First let’s start at the crux of all NBA contracts: the presence of a maximum salary.

NBA negotiations no longer are about per-for-performance, at least not at the top end. Instead, it’s a matter of a player essentially saying, “How much you got?”

With established maximum-salary levels, players know exactly how much their own teams have, since the salary-cap, even in its post-lockout draconian form, still allows teams to exceed the cap to retain incumbent free agents or impending free agents.

To the Thunder’s credit, Sam Presti drew a line in the sand, computed Harden’s request for five years at $80 million and balked.

It was the right move, because with the Thunder, Harden never would reach leading-man status, not behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

In Houston, he yet could prove worth the money.

And that’s something hard to say with just about every other rookie-scale extension negotiated outside of Gibson, and perhaps Ty Lawson.

Even if Gibson hits his incentives and reaches $38 million over four seasons, he already has proven to be worth considerably more than Carlos Boozer (which is why Boozer will be amnestied after this season and Gibson will receive a role commensurate with his new deal).

Otherwise?

Stephen Curry at $44 million over four seasons? To what, miss shots and sit out games for the Warriors? Yes, he has shown he can be special, he just hasn’t done it over an extended period, the perfect reason to allow him to become restricted, which still would have had the Warriors in control, while also getting another season to get a read.

DeMar DeRozan at $40 million over four seasons? This is why the Raptors are the Raptors, consistently living in fear that they won’t be able to lure prime free agents (they won’t), so they instead squander on anyone willing to stay north of the border. And continue to chase a No. 8 seed and one-and-done playoff fate in perpetuity.

Jrue Holiday at $41 million over four seasons? Question: Is Holiday among the top half of point guards in the league? Answer: No. Question: Will he ever be? Answer: The 76ers are gambling eight figures a season on that prospect. A nice player? Sure. But the NBA’s new economy supposedly is not a place for nice players to make very-nice money.

Ty Lawson at $48 million over four seasons? We’re not talking Harden money here, but something closer to it than the other extensions in this rookie class. And yet, based on the star-less system the Nuggets supposedly are constructing, there is something to be said about making sure the motor of the offense is sated. In many ways, the Nuggets are Lawson, the little team that could. In Denver’s economy, this is a move that makes more sense than some of the above.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at @IraHeatBeat.

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.