Across all sports, the contract year phenomenon occurs when an athlete performs at his highest level with millions of dollars on the line in a contract season. As a result, players naturally put in extra work in the gym and focus more clearly with their financial future hanging in the balance.
With that in mind, we ranked five players in their contract seasons who are performing at the top of their game and five impending free agents who are struggling mightily out of the gates.
1. Kent Bazemore, Hawks, 6-5, 201 pounds, 4 years (unrestricted): Bazemore was in the midst of a breakout season as a full-time starter before suffering an ankle injury. At a time when 3-and-D players are hot commodities, Bazemore – a former two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year at Old Dominion – has become a knockdown shooter to complement his defensive prowess.
Bazemore is shooting career highs from the field (.491), the arc (.439) and the foul line (.900). His wingspan and ability to consistently execute rotations as a defender have helped him average a career-high 1.7 steals per game.
The reason for Bazemore’s improved shooting is thanks largely to assistant Ben Sullivan after an encounter the two had within 10 minutes of meeting each other. “Ben Sullivan came from San Antonio right when I got in last year and he said, ‘Coach Bud wanted me to work with you on your jumper and I looked at it and it’s horrible. Your form is horrible,’” Bazemore told SheridanHoops.
To refine his form, Bazemore shot with one hand routinely and took the hitch out of his jump shot. After simplifying his release and shortening his stroke, the two repeatedly practiced maintaining the new form.
Bazemore’s improved stroke has helped offset the loss of DeMarre Carroll and turned him into a starter as Atlanta remains a viable contender in the Eastern Conference. Looking ahead, the organization will have big decisions to make this summer with Bazemore and Al Horford – one of the top 10 free agents this summer – entering unrestricted free agency.
“As of today, I see myself here for a very long time,” Bazemore told SheridanHoops. “For me it makes sense. I love Atlanta. I grew up in North Carolina. For me personally, for my brand and any endeavors (with my foundation) I choose to do off the court, it’s an ideal place because it’s not too far from home. Financially, it’s much cheaper here; the taxes are great. All that stuff matters. The cost of living is great, it’s an up-and-coming area and the real estate is really good. Those are all factors that I look at.”
If Bazemore continues to play at this level and remain a starter on a top-four team in the East, he could command an annual salary of $10-12 million similar to the likes of Terrence Ross, Iman Shumpert and Wilson Chandler.
2. Langston Galloway, Knicks, 6-2, 200, 23, 2 years (restricted): Galloway has transformed himself into one of the league’s top sixth men. He leads the NBA in offensive rating (131), ranks second in 3-point percentage (.561), ninth in true shooting percentage (.629) and 10th in effective field-goal percentage (.597).
According to Galloway, he has found his sweet spots on the floor with the help of the triangle offense.
“The triangle is open for anybody to score, anybody to get a good look,” Galloway told SheridanHoops. “I just play off of that. When I get an opportunity to get a good look, I take it, be confident with it and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Last season, Galloway quietly earned All-Rookie Second Team honors on the worst Knicks team in franchise history. Now the league is starting to take notice of his value as a player on a competitive team.
“The main thing is I just try to go out there every day and know that it’s an opportunity to get better and go out there and earn it,” Galloway told SheridanHoops. “Nothing is given out here and that’s the approach I’ve taken every day whether that’s in practice or a game.”
3. Nicolas Batum, Hornets, 6-8, 200, 26, 8 years (unrestricted): Batum was the Eastern Conference’s most recent Player of the Week and was boldly compared to Tracy McGrady by Hornets coach Steve Clifford on Tuesday.
“He’s a really talented player,” Clifford said. “He actually plays, to me, a lot like Tracy McGrady played. Great size, excellent vision and the ability to deliver passes off the dribble. Right now he’s playing at a high level.”
Batum is averaging career highs in points per game (16.5), PER (17.9) and usage percentage (22.1). He ranks eighth in 3-pointers made (25) while shooting a career-best 43 percent from the arc. Another area of improvement is his mid-range game; Batum is shooting 52 percent from 16-25 feet.
After coming over in a trade from Portland, Batum’s role appeared uncertain with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward. After receiving a contract extension, Kidd-Gilchrist suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. That paved the way for Batum to start and become a focal point of the offense.
Coming off one of his worst statistical seasons in Portland, Batum appears revitalized in Charlotte.
4. Marcus Thornton, Rockets, 6-4, 205, 28, 7 years (unrestricted): Thornton has been one of the few bright spots in Houston, which has struggled out of the gate. In six starts, he has averaged 17.3 points on 48 percent from the field and 39 percent from downtown. Roughly 50 percent of his attempts have been 3-pointers, and he is shooting a career-best 50 percent from 16-25 feet.
If the Rockets are going to get back on track, they will need Thornton’s scoring punch off the bench to keep James Harden as fresh as possible.
Thornton is a streaky shooter playing for his sixth team but has shown he can score in all of his previous stops.
Bayless is averaging a career-high 12.6 points, 3.8 assists and 1.1 steals. His 47 percent shooting from downtown ranks eighth in the league, which has kept him in the lineup at a career-best 31.7 minutes per game. He also is a pesky defender, as LeBron James found out over the weekend.
With Jabari Parker’s minutes limited and injuries to Michael Carter-Williams and O.J. Mayo to start the season, Bayless’ role has been expanded. After a hot start, he’s expected to remain in a prominent role even with a fully healthy roster.
1. Joakim Noah, Bulls, 6-11, 232, 30, 9 years (unrestricted): There was a difference of opinion whether Noah was fine with coming off the bench under new coach Fred Hoiberg. Did anyone really think a former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year in a contract season would be fine with that? It should be noted that Noah started every game for the five previous seasons.
While Noah remains an efficient rebounder, his scoring – which has never been overwhelming – has taken a major step back. Noah is shooting career lows of 36 percent from the field and 31 percent from the line, resulting in a paltry 3.1 points per game.
And after years as Tom Thibodeau’s defensive anchor, Noah’s defensive win shares have dropped to a microscopic 0.4.
At 30, you have to wonder if the tread on Noah’s tires has finally caught up to him after battling through injuries over the past few seasons.
While Johnson has become more of a playmaker for his teammates by averaging 4.8 assists, his shot has been off the mark. He is at career lows from the field (.328) and downtown (.220). At 34, Johnson’s lateral movement has made him a defensive liability.
Brooklyn may look to deal him for the third consecutive season before the February trade deadline. If there are no takers and Brooklyn remains near the cellar of the league, a buyout is possible.
3. Ty Lawson, Rockets, 5-11, 195, 28, 7 years (team option): Houston, we have a problem. Coming off multiple DUI arrests in a six-month span, Lawson and the Rockets believed a change of scenery was the answer he needed.
However, despite playing a career-high 36.2 minutes, Lawson’s averages in points (8.9) and assists (5.6) numbers are drastically down, as are his shooting percentage across the board.
On a team that spreads the floor with spacing, Lawson’s 33 percent clip from the field and 27 percent clip from downtown won’t cut it. He does not seem to be a good fit playing alongside James Harden. As a result, coach Kevin McHale debated bringing Lawson off the bench before he was fired.
4. Luol Deng, Heat, 6-9, 220, 30, 12 years (unrestricted): It appears that averaging nearly 40 minutes per game for three consecutive seasons during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls has caught up to Deng. The former All-Star is averaging career lows in points (10.6), rebounds (4.1) and assists (1.3) in a reduced role as Miami’s fifth option.
While his production is down, Deng isn’t being asked to be the same player he was in Chicago. At this stage of his career, he can be a solid role player on a title-contending team, which Miami hopes to be as a dark horse in the East.
5. Nene, Wizards, 6-11, 250, 33, 14 years (unrestricted): After starting on a Wizards team that went to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Nene has become the odd man out in coach Randy Wittman’s decision to go to smaller lineups. As a backup big to Marcin Gortat and Kris Humphries, he is averaging career lows across the board in points (7.0), rebounds (5.1), blocks (0.1), steals (0.6) and minutes (18.1).
Washington plans to limit him to 20 minutes on a nightly basis to keep him as fresh as possible as he deals with a back injury. The frontcourt will remain crowded for the foreseeable future with Gortat, Humphries, Drew Gooden and DeJuan Blair on the roster.
At 33, the end of Nene’s career appears to be sooner than later.