Contract-year phenomenon is still a big deal

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/orl" data-ylk="slk:Orlando Magic">Orlando Magic</a> center <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4897/" data-ylk="slk:Nikola Vucevic">Nikola Vucevic</a> is your 2018-19 Contract Year MVP. (AP)
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic is your 2018-19 Contract Year MVP. (AP)

There have been many examinations of The Contract Year Phenomenon, both statistical and subjective, but it is very much a real thing, and there are few better examples than this NBA season.

“Players are definitely conscious of it, prepare better, are more sensitive,” a longtime NBA agent told Yahoo Sports. “I think it’s fair to say guys put more pressure on a situation — and most of all themselves — in a contract year, and then once they are paid, they coast more. Human nature.

“So, the answer is yes,” the concept of a contract year is extremely real.

It is also extremely difficult to measure, because the pressures of impending free agencies yield a wide variety of results. For example: Two players show up to training camp in the final years of their contracts in peak shape, complete with a new arsenal of skills honed in preparation over the summer; one increases his production accordingly, the other presses so much that he hinders his performance. There are plenty of players with the competitiveness to exert maximum effort regardless of the years left on his contract, so statistical measures are often inconclusive. There are also less obvious reasons that quantifying contract years is an inexact science, and some teams might even prefer it that way.

“Teams are conscious of it,” the agent said, “and either they’re OK with it and play him normally or cut his time in subtle ways to save money, call less plays for him. So, it exacerbates a nervous situation.”

Contract-year performances are most easily identified when the going gets good. A quick look around the league reveals handfuls of players exceeding expectations entering their free agencies. Here are 10 over-performing players who jump out — a group I’d like to call the 2018-19 Contract Year All-Stars:

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/cha" data-ylk="slk:Charlotte Hornets">Charlotte Hornets</a> point guard <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4890/" data-ylk="slk:Kemba Walker">Kemba Walker</a> is laughing his way to the bank. (Getty Images)
Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker is laughing his way to the bank. (Getty Images)

2018-19 Contract Year All-Stars First Team

Kemba Walker: An All-Star each of the past two years, Walker has made another leap into All-NBA range this season. His 26 points, 6.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game all top his career averages, which is timely for a player who has been wildly underpaid over the course of his current contract.

It is difficult to decipher whether Walker’s jump is the result of a 28-year-old entering the apex of a career spent working to max capacity or an All-Star putting finding new ways to elevate his , but that extra step could elevate his max contract from roughly $190 million to a supermax $235 million over the next five seasons, so long as the Charlotte Hornets are willing to meet the asking price of a player who up until this season had been a borderline All-Star and the de facto franchise player on a lottery team. (Read ESPN’s Zach Lowe on how even Walker didn’t see this superstar turn coming.)

Khris Middleton: Always one of the league’s most underrated players, Middleton emerged as a bona fide second option alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round series against the Celtics this past spring, and that transformation has taken hold under new coach Mike Budenholzer’s guidance this season. He too is playing at an All-Star level and could be in line for a max contract from a Bucks team desperate to maintain a competitive core around its MVP candidate.

Tobias Harris: As old friend Dan Devine wrote for The Ringer recently, the Los Angeles Clippers are the rare team full of players who decidedly do not stink, and Harris has been the best of the bunch. His 21 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, along with his shooting percentages (50.8 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from 3-point range), are all career highs, just in time for another fat paycheck in 2019.

Harris’ last contract followed The Contract Year Phenomenon to a tee. After signing a four-year, $64 million extension with the Orlando Magic in 2015, he took a step back in Year 1 of that deal, got shipped to the Detroit Pistons, and then steadily progressed into peak form in time for the next deal. A lot of that is the natural progression of a player entering his prime, but the Clippers have to wonder whether Harris will continue to be an All-Star-caliber forward or the very good one he was before.

Marcus Morris Sr.: Once consider the lesser Morris twin, Marcus has developed into a legitimate weapon under Celtics coach Brad Stevens. He is shooting 41.6 percent from distance on nearly five attempts per game after being a relatively average 3-point shooter for the first seven years of his career. He has arguably been Boston’s most consistent performer all season, and his averages of 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in 26.6 minutes off the bench might make him a Sixth Man of the Year candidate if not for the reputation that precedes Morris twins, baggage both real and perceived. After accepting the smaller portion of a weird split deal with brother Markieff in 2014, Marcus could be in line to triple his salary from the $5 million he’s owed this season in the final year of his contract.

Nikola Vucevic: An empty stats monster for the first seven years of his career, Vucevic is playing like one of the 25 best players in the league through the first two months of this season, anchoring a team currently in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. His 21 points per game are easily his highest-ever average, and he’s shooting 41.3 percent from distance after entering this year as a career 30.8 percent 3-point shooter — numbers that put a guy who was once Enes Kanter Light into a conversation with the likes of Kevin Durant and Karl-Anthony Towns. He is easily this season’s Contract Year MVP.

2018-19 Contract Year All-Stars Second Team

Derrick Rose: Having played out the final year of his max contract in 2017, Rose took his time entering Contract Year Mode. Last season was a wakeup call for the former MVP. After being dumped by the Cleveland Cavaliers and waived by the Utah Jazz, he had nearly played his way into unemploument before former coach Tom Thibodeau extended one final NBA olive branch on the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rose seized it and salvaged a career that seemed bound for China a few months ago.

Terrence Ross: In three seasons since signing an eight-figure extension in 2015, Ross fell from a once-promising sixth man on Toronto Raptors playoff teams to below replacement level on a perennial lottery squad in Orlando, culminating in a career-worst 39.8 field goal percentage last season. He is shooting better than that on almost six attempts from 3-point range this season, resurfacing as an intriguing trade target for contending teams before he returns to his overpaid status this summer.

Julius Randle: Upon failing to find the big money he sought as a restricted free agent this past July, Randle signed a two-year deal with an option to reenter free agency and cash in after this season. His 18.6 points per game and 62.1 true shooting percentage for the New Orleans Pelicans even exceed the numbers he put up on bad Los Angeles Lakers teams through his first four seasons. In doing so, he may be proving a theory that likely led many teams to hold back a long-term offer, which is that Randle is the kind of player who could be more motivated by the carrot stick of that next contract.

Noah Vonleh: The former top-10 pick underwhelmed for three different teams on his rookie contract, so much so that a Chicago Bulls team that could afford to take a flier on a 23-year-old once filled with potential declined to extend a qualifying offer to him over the summer. With few NBA chances left, Vonleh signed for the minimum with the New York Knicks and is showing just enough of that potential — 8.6 points and 8.2 rebounds in 25.7 minutes per game on a bad team — to get overpaid in 2019.

Marc Gasol: When healthy, Gasol had warranted All-Star consideration every year since the early part of this decade, until last season, when he all but forced the firing of coach David Fizdale and settled into full-blown tanking mode along with the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies once sidekick Mike Conley suffered a season-ending injury. Perhaps rejuvenated by Conley’s return and maybe motivated by a player option for 2019 that could be declined in favor of his last big contract, the 33-year-old Gasol is enjoying his best season since capturing Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013.

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol and New York Knicks big man Noah Vonleh both crack the Contract Year All-Stars. (AP)
Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol and New York Knicks big man Noah Vonleh both crack the Contract Year All-Stars. (AP)

Front-office skepticism of the contract year

“All of those guys will get paid above their worth,” said the agent, “except maybe Morris.”

(I told you the Morris twins come with baggage, whether they deserve it or not. Marcus, by the way, would be a nice pickup for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers next season. If he and Markieff were to split up one fat contract again, it would be Marcus who breaks off the bigger half this time around.)

The perception of Morris is one example of how teams will hold a player’s past against him in contract negotiations, and we would be silly to think general managers do not consider an uptick in production during a contract year when they sit down to the negotiating table, which can stage a blinking contest.

As the agent said, “Teams always weight that last-year phenomenon.” The payoff of that extra effort depends on the ability of a player’s representative to convince one or more GMs that their client will not revert to his former self. “It depends on the team,” the agent added, “half full versus half empty.”

The Timberwolves and Magic were surely optimistic about Andrew Wiggins and Aaron Gordon after each showed significant signs of progression in the final years of his rookie contract. Minnesota rewarded Wiggins with a max extension prior to last season, and Orlando handed Gordon a four-year, $80 million deal over the summer. The latter’s performance hasn’t followed the upward trajectory the Magic would have liked, but his production has remained fairly comparable. We can debate whether Gordon is worth the salary he earned after a career year, but there is no denying that Wiggins has fallen off a cliff after showing serious signs of improvement in the walk-up to his $148 million deal.

The scarcity of the long-term NBA contract

Gordon is one of few non-stars who earned a long-term contract this past summer. There are a number of reasons for this, namely that teams have had little money to spend following the 2016 cap explosion, when the likes of Timofey Mozgov and Evan Turner were rewarded ridiculously for having promising contract years, and players are hoping to cash in when the cap boons to $109 million next season and $118 million in 2020. There are several Contract Year Phenomena that are resulting.

For one, more players have been in contract years more often. Players are required to remain at peak performance to leverage a series of shorter-term deals. This is good business for personal trainers, as more than half the league is slotted to enter free agency in 2019. In an ideal world, having so many players in top shape should translate into a better league, but this doesn’t always have the desired effect. There are only so many minutes and and there is only so much money to go around, creating some tricky situations for teams trying to satisfy so many players who want to maximize their value.

When contract years go wrong

Take Celtics guard Terry Rozier, for example. I’m not saying his diminished performance and playing time is some conspiratorial plan by the Celtics to re-sign him for diminished value in July, but whether it’s a matter of pressing too much or a lack of opportunity behind Kyrie Irving (also in a contract year) or some combination of all of these things, Rozier is underwhelming in the final year of his deal. He entered this season with reported expectations of a $20 million starting salary on his next contract, thanks to a breakout performance in Irving’s absence during the team’s Eastern Conference finals run.

Rozier’s forthcoming contract negotiations are undoubtedly an underlying factor. He has been open about his desire to be a starter, and reports about his frustration level have become more frequent. The pressure of performing in a contract year can take on many forms, not all of which are great.

Facing the possibility of signing a five-year maximum extension with a team for whom he no longer wanted to play or a four-year max contract with a new team for whom he does, Jimmy Butler instead quit on the Minnesota Timberwolves in an attempt to get the best of both worlds. Soon-to-be free agents like Washington Wizards wing Kelly Oubre Jr. and Chicago Bulls forward Jabari Parker have both tried to expand the scope of their roles to the detriment of their teams. Dragan Bender, the former No. 4 overall pick whose fourth-year option was declined prior to this season, came out with it publicly this week: “I worked my ass off over the summer. To be sitting on the bench is kind of frustrating.”

Then, there’s whatever the heck Golden State Warriors guard Pat McCaw is doing right now.

Most everyone in the NBA believes they’re worth more than they’re being paid, which is part of what got them here in the first place. It’s hard to prove your value when you’re not playing, and that same competitiveness produces varying outcomes when the opportunity arises. Some rise to the occasion, others stumble in its face, and the worst of the lot mails it in when the ink dries on that next deal.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter!

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