The All-Payday Team: Five under-25 players who could cash in next summer
“The Point Forward All-Stars” will have a new theme each week centered on a single shared trait that brings together the team members. This week, SI.com looks ahead to the summer of 2014, when contract riches are waiting for some under-25 players.
The All-Payday Team
Kobe Bryant already broke the Lakers’ bank and a host of perennial All-Stars — including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki — will have the opportunity to land big-dollar deals next summer.
But what about the next generation of earners? The following is a look at five under-25 players — four pending free agents and one big man set to be eligible for an extension — who will be in position to cash in come July. The group features lottery picks and second-round selections alike, and it includes players from both the 2010 and 2011 draft classes.
Notably absent from the quintet is Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who is sure to see his salary spike next season. Bledsoe was passed over here because he was already included on The Point Forward’s All-Stocking Stuffer Team and because he is sidelined with a knee injury.
Without further ado, SI.com’s All-Payday Team.
PG: Isaiah Thomas, Kings
Few second-round picks deliver on their deals quite like Thomas, the 2011 draft’s Mr. Irrelevant (the last player taken, at No. 60). Exactly what type of value are we talking about? By the end of this season, Thomas will have earned $2.1 million over his three-year, minimum-salary contract. That’s equal to roughly 40 percent of what the Cavaliers paid Kyrie Irving, the first pick in 2011, during his rookie season alone; roughly 13 percent of what Cleveland has paid Irving over the last three years; and roughly 5 percent of what Bulls guard Derrick Rose has earned for playing a total of 49 games over the last three years.
Sacramento’s return on that minuscule investment has been substantial: Thomas, who turns 25 next month, is one of just seven players averaging 19 points and six assists this season (the others are James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, John Wall, Irving and Russell Westbrook), and through Monday he ranked second among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating to Paul. Since moving into the starting lineup after the Kings’ trade for Rudy Gay, Thomas is averaging 20.1 points and 7.3 assists. Those numbers are special by any standard, much less for a player earning $884,293.
Check out this table that compares the league’s top 10 point guards by PER with their salaries entering Tuesday’s games. Even compared to cost-efficient players still on their rookie deals (Irving, Bledsoe) and veterans who offer good value (Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley), Thomas is in a league of his own when it comes to production per dollar.
Look, it’s easy for critics to point to Sacramento’s poor record (13-23, second worst in the Western Conference), terrible defense (No. 28 in efficiency) and coach Mike Malone’s repeated postgame meltdowns at his team’s commitment this season and conclude that Thomas’s numbers are subject to “bad team inflation.” That’s all well and good. Let’s go ahead and concede that Thomas’s defense needs considerable work — work that might never get done given his 5-foot-9 frame — and that his numbers wouldn’t look quite as spectacular if he played for a more talented team that wouldn’t sustain his monster usage rate. Still, there’s no denying that Thomas has been the league’s most underrated, overachieving offensive weapon this season.
The former Washington standout is quick off the dribble, creative in the air and pure with his shooting stroke. That combination makes Thomas capable of scoring in all of the most coveted ways: He’s shooting 41.1 percent from three-point range, getting to the free-throw line more than five times per game (more often than Irving, Curry, Lowry, Tony Parker and a host of other point guards) and converting 52 percent at the rim (not incredible at face value, but certainly noteworthy considering his size).
After trading starting point guard Greivis Vasquez in the Gay deal, Sacramento’s primary options at the position besides Thomas are Jimmer Fredette, a free agent in July, and 2013 second-round pick Ray McCallum, who has been shuttling to the D-League. That lack of depth should leave the Kings highly motivated to retain Thomas next summer, when Sacramento will be able to match offers for the restricted free agent.
What type of payday might be in order? Point guards such as Curry, Ty Lawson and Wall have signed rookie extensions for an average of more than $10 million annually, and while Thomas might not quite be in their category, his offensive ability should command well over mid-level money if guards like Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings and Jeff Teague each pulled down at least $7 million per year in free agency last summer. A starting salary in the $8 million to $9 million range would represent a massive raise for Thomas and it might actually still be a good value. Consider: Thomas was the No. 20 scorer in the league through Monday, and the 19 guys above him average $12.5 million per year, a figure that actually undersells the money made by scorers, because five of those players are still on their rookie deals.
SG: Lance Stephenson, Pacers
Much like Thomas, Stephenson was a second-round gold strike. Taken No. 40 in 2010, “Born Ready” has put the off-court drama that nearly derailed his career behind him, emerging as a starter for the 2013 Eastern Conference finalists and growing into an All-Star candidate this year (albeit in a weak, injury-ravaged East backcourt crop). He’s on the books for a cool $1 million; that bargain-basement salary made headlines in February 2013, when max-money teammate Roy Hibbert offered to pay a $35,000 fine on behalf of Stephenson after an on-court incident with the Warriors.
The versatile Stephenson can score, move without the ball, run an offense, hit the glass hard and defend both guard positions. Ferocity is his defining characteristic, and it serves him well in all facets of the game: He finishes an excellent 63 percent of his shots at the rim, he ranks in the league’s top 10 in defensive rating and, at 6-foot-5 with a 10.9 rebound percentage, he just might be the best inch-for-inch rebounder in the league. (Pacers blog 8 Points, 9 Seconds compares the league’s best rebounding wings by the numbers right here, and Stephenson places tops among shooting guards.)
In a bit of a surprise, Stephenson, 23, has developed into the No. 2 scorer (13.3 points on 49.5 percent shooting) for an excellent Pacers starting unit in which all five players score in double figures. The fit in Indiana is excellent, as the Pacers’ scoring balance and top-ranked defense limit the impact of his so-so outside shooting, but he’s done enough this season to convince outside suitors that he’s capable of succeeding in a larger role. Stephens still has untapped scoring potential, given that he’s attempting fewer than 11 shots per game. If the leash is loosened, he’s asked to create more for himself and some of the solid options (including Paul George and David West) surrounding him are stripped away, Stephenson’s potential to score at least 18 points a game starts to seem conceivable.
That will likely leave Stephenson with one of pro sports’ age-old philosophical choices when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer: Take the money and run, or find a way to make things work with the Pacers. The latter approach could require agreeing to some measure of a hometown discount, as Stephenson should be the second-best shooting guard in free agency (behind Wade, who isn’t exactly available).
SI.com’s Chris Mannix reported last month that Stephenson could command between $7 million and $9 million per year, and Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe in November estimated a salary in the $7 million to $10 million range. With the benefit of another long postseason showcase, it’s easy to envision Stephenson achieving the high end of those ranges. For comparison’s sake, Ellis, Kevin Martin and O.J. Mayo each received at least $7 million per year last summer, and Stephenson is arguably superior to all three while also entering a market without much quality competition at his position.
Indiana possesses the league’s best record and its starting unit owns a monster plus-13.5 net rating. With the other four pieces (George, Hibbert, West and George Hill) locked in for next season, this is the type of group that should be kept together almost regardless of what it takes, even if that means breaching the luxury-tax line for the first time since 2006 (per ShamSports.com) or parting with key reserves.
The championship window is immediate and open — potentially wide open if the Heat’s Big three disassembles next summer. The Pacers should therefore try to retain Stephenson under any circumstances, save an all-in, funny-money offer from a rival team. Cultivating a five-man unit as good as Indiana’s starters is the hard part; paying — or overpaying — to maintain it should be an easier decision. Whether the small-market Pacers — who will get Danny Granger off their books after the season but must start payments on George’s max deal — view things this way remains to be seen.