Five players with their next big contract on the line this season

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Nothing motivates like a contract year.

With shorter contracts and player or team options at the end of many deals, more players than ever are entering free agency each summer. Players come into free agency with big dreams, but often we know the range a player will be in — “he’s a near max player” or “he’s going to get around the mid-level exception” — and the player doesn’t have as many choices as hoped.

Sometimes, however, a player enters a contract year that will have a big say in their next deal — did they make a giant leap forward, or hold off father time for another year? Here are five players in that boat, five players whose seasons will go a long way to determining their next contract.

Russell Westbrook (Lakers)

Westbrook is going to take a haircut next summer — nobody is paying him near the ballpark of the $47 million he will make this season.

How much he gets paid will depend on how much he follows the advice of his former agent Thad Foucher, who said on his way out the door that Westbrook’s “best option is to stay with the Lakers, embrace the starting role and support that Darvin Ham publicly offered.” At the time, Westbrook was privately pushing for a trade away from LeBron James and company, what Westbrook found was a cold market that saw him more as a contract than a player. There wasn’t interest in him as a true No.1 option on a team anymore, the teams willing to take him just wanted Los Angeles’ picks, not the player (most would have waived him).

Westbrook is back in Los Angeles and, at least so far in camp, embracing Ham’s role for him — putting in more energy on defense, setting picks at times, shooting corner threes at times, and picking his spots to be the old, aggressive Westbrook. How that goes this season will color how teams see him next summer when Westbrook is a free agent.

James Harden (76ers)

Harden chose to be a free agent this past summer, and the league is investigating that choice. Remember, Harden opted out of the final year of his deal with the 76ers, worth $47.4 million. Philadelphia GM Daryl Morey quickly used that cap space to sign P.J. Tucker to a three-year midlevel exception contract (one minute into free agency), bring in Danuel House, and trade for DeAnthony Melton. After all that was done Harden re-signed with the 76ers for “what was left” of the cap space the team had under the hard cap, which was $33 million. That threw up red flags around the league — teams saw it all as a “wink-wink” deal where Harden would get a big payday next summer.

Harden, at age 33, has a player option next summer and could have a bounce-back season running the Philly offense (he still averaged 22 points and 10.3 assists a game last season, but his efficiency dropped). If he puts up impressive numbers while leading the 76ers deep into the playoffs (and he doesn’t wilt in those moments), then a big payday is warranted. But is Harden still that guy? Is he still an All-NBA level player who can be a No.1 option? How well Harden plays this season will determine his next deal — and a lot of people will be watching.

Kyrie Irving (Nets)

Another player who — like Harden — pushed for a trade this offseason and found the market for him very cold.

With Irving, the questions are not around his skill set — he still has the best handles in the league, and nobody questions his ability to get into the lane or get buckets — but rather his commitment to the team and the game. Irving will argue that it’s not fair to question his commitment last season based on the vaccine mandate in New York (he could have played a full season for most NBA teams), but his critics will counter he went AWOL in the previous season and his commitment was in question before the vaccine came into the discussion.

Irving is a free agent next season, and the first questions are does he want to stay in Brooklyn, and will the Nets want him back? How broad the market for Irving will be depends on the perception of his attitude. The Lakers are known interested suitors, but will not have max money (more like around $30 million), so Irving will have decisions to make about his priorities.

Josh Hart (Trail Blazers)

Barring a significant injury, there is no chance he is picking up his $12.9 million player option — Hart is in line for a major pay raise. His balanced, two-way game that can plug into almost any system has fans in front offices around the NBA.

Hart has earned the starting small forward spot in Portland this season — he thrived after being traded to Portland last season and averaged 19.9 points a game — what he does with that spot next to Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant will ultimately determine how big his payday gets. But he’s got a nine-figure contract in his future if this season goes well for him, whether he wants to stay in the Pacific Northwest or move on. Hart will have options.

Dillon Brooks (Grizzlies)

If Khris Middleton reaches a new deal with the Bucks and Andrew Wiggins signs an extension with the Warriors — both things more likely to happen than not — Brooks might be the best two-way wing on the free agent market in 2023. That is a strong position to be in — but Brooks is going to have to earn it.

People’s first memories of him might be a rough playoff run where he shot 34.9% last season, or him making what Steve Kerr called a “dirty play,” injuring Gary Payton II. Brooks needs to remind people this season he plays a physical, tough-minded game on both ends — he likes to attack downhill on offense, and is a physical 6’7″ switchable defender on defense — and the kind of presence every team needs. That includes the Grizzlies, who will want to sign and keep Brooks and could reach an extension with him before the season starts. But if he gets to free agency, Brooks will have options.

Other players to watch in a contract year: Myles Turner (Pacers now but likely traded before the season is out), D'Angelo Russell (Timberwolves), Kevin Love (Cavaliers), Kristaps Porzingis (Wizards), Al Horford (Celtics), Harrison Barnes (Kings).

76ers blow 9-point lead in final :34 seconds, then hang on to beat Lakers in OT

Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers
Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
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It was almost a legendary comeback win for the Lakers — and a legendary blown lead for the 76ers.

Philadelphia had the game in hand, up 18 in the fourth quarter, and while Los Angeles staged a comeback the 76ers were still up by nine inside :45 seconds. And yet…

The 76ers took care of business in overtime — aided by the Lakers settling too much and going 0-of-5 outside the paint but also 1-of-5 in the paint in OT — and picked up the 133-122 win.

In a battle of two teams that have been inconsistent all season, they lived up to that billing – both teams had huge lapses and stretches of impressive play. It led to streaks, including the wild final minutes.

Joel Embiid started out hot scoring 13 of the Sixers’ first 15 points and finishing the night with 38 points on 14-for-19 shooting and 12 rebounds.

James Harden looked better than his first game back and finished with 28 points and 12 assists.

However, Philly’s breakout star of the night was DeAnthony Melton, who grew up a Clippers fan and said he wanted to take it to the Lakers — he scored 33 points with eight made 3-pointers.

Anthony Davis finished with 31 points and 12 rebounds for the night. Austin Reaves came off the bench and hit 4-of-6 from 3 on his way to 25 points, while LeBron James had 23 points on 9-of-22 shooting.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.