Highly Motivated: 4 NBA Breakout Candidates Entering Contract Years

Looking ahead is a necessary exercise that front offices and teams constantly undertake. Teams must master the art of preparing their salary-cap situations and anticipate production from players whose contracts are expiring. The size of their next contract and value on the trade market is determined from there.

But each season players underperform and exceed those expectations set before them. These guys can often throw a wrench into their incumbent team’s ability to re-sign them. Other times they get longer deals which otherwise wouldn’t be possible without a great contract year. Either way, their production outbursts can help teams in the short-term while also making negotiations much more difficult.

A player in the final year of his contract seeing a spike in production is a very real thing, though.

I frequently refer to this phenomenon as the Trevor Ariza effect. Ariza has a propensity to achieve his best statistical season during his final year of a contract. The 2008-09 season with the Los Angeles Lakers was the first evidence on that front, as he performed well in the first extended minutes of his career. Ariza shot above 52 percent from inside the arc and posted a wonderful 2.6 steals per 36 minutes. The next year, after signing a long-term deal with the Houston Rockets, he shot below 40 percent from the floor and recorded an incredibly low 0.58 win shares per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

The same story took place in the final year of that five-year deal, when he was with the Washington Wizards. Ariza raked in 14.4 points per game, shot a career-high 40 percent from three and looked to have rejuvenated his career as a three-and-D forward. He’s been solid since then, but the urgency and good fortune combined to get him his best performances when money was on the line.

So who may be this year’s version of Ariza, ready to outperform their prior production and see extra cash next summer with a fairly tepid free agent class?

Nerlens Noel, Dallas Mavericks

Boy is Nerlens Noel going to be motivated this season…

After being deemed expendable by the Philadelphia 76ers and having to settle for a qualifying offer from the Dallas Mavericks, he has a chip on his shoulder as large as Antarctica. Surely the ACL injuries and lack of consistency contributed to that slide, but Noel was seeking a max deal and settled for a one-year deal worth just over $4 million. Quite the drop-off.

Now he is auditioning for the open market, with no restrictions the Mavs can place upon him. Looking at his per 36-minute numbers from his first few months in Dallas, he played incredibly well for his skill set, averaging 14.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.8 blocks. Heavy minutes eluded him during the beginning of his Mavericks tenure, but the production was impressive nonetheless.

Perhaps most important last season was Noel’s efficiency on the offensive end. What gets players money on the free-agent market isn’t necessarily volume; Noel is already a heralded defender, so simply a high field-goal percentage will quell concerns about offensive production. Last season he shot above 59 percent from the field, sat north of 70 percent at the rim and, for the first time in his career, made more than half his attempts between three and 10 feet.

Teams that watch a full season of film on Noel will notice he’s far more valuable on defense than a simple rim-protector who stands near the basket and alters shots. His block totals don’t reflect the type of schemes he’s best utilized in. Instead of being that conservative big man who drops back off pick-and-roll plays and focuses on verticality, Noel blitzes ball handlers, hard-hedges and even switches onto guards.

His hands are just as quick as his feet, and he’s already mastered the ability of swiping at the ball as he pops around a screener and pokes the rock loose in one swoop:

Of course, these skills aren’t revelations for general managers and scouts around the league.

But we’ve yet to see Noel utilized in a situation where he’s the premier big man who’s healthy for an entire season and is the anchor of a defensive group. Provided injuries don’t play a role, this season figures to be one in which Noel earns the big paycheck he’s seeking.

Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

Opportunity is the biggest driver of production, and that opportunity is clearly presenting itself in Salt Lake City this season.

The Utah Jazz lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill during the summer, leaving Rodney Hood as the returning leader in usage rate from last year’s 51-win team. Hill was replaced with a pass-first point guard in Ricky Rubio, and that should help his new running mate get some easy buckets to take away from the heavy scoring burden he’ll have to undertake.

The first three years of Hood’s career have been solid from a scoring perspective, and injuries have delayed his ascent to becoming one of the top young wing scorers in the NBA. He’s a career 36 percent shooter from three and has a high attempt rate from behind the arc, so a lot of his points to date came from efficient shot selection. That effective three-point shooting may dip slightly with greater volume, but his two-point scoring should rise. Hood is at or above 40 percent scoring in every zone inside the arc for his career.

Hood is already an excellent pick-and-roll player who makes crafty plays with the ball in his hands. Last year, per NBA.com, he was in the 76.3 percentile of all PnR ball handlers, scoring 0.91 points per possession. He uses lengthy strides, a long reach with the dribble and quick changes of direction to get through the initial defenders:

The low turnover rate in these situations is most impressive for Hood.

His 8.1 percent turnover frequency in the PnR last season was such an impressive feat. Only five players in the league had three possessions per game as the ball-handler with a turnover rate below 10: Hood, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Ish Smith and Jeremy Lamb. The other four got plenty of PnR opportunities, as every player had more than 40 percent of their possessions as a ball-handler. Hood, who was at just under 27 percent, should be even more trusted next season in these scenarios.

No. 1 scoring options on the wings are players who can create their own shots, handle the ball in the pick-and-roll and knock down threes when the offense runs through their teammates. Hood can do all three, as evidenced by his scoring percentages in every distance on the court and his efficient, turnover-free PnR style. All he’s been waiting for is the opportunity to shoulder a greater load of the Jazz offense.

That time is finally here.

Envisioning Hood as a 18-points-per-game scorer comes by process of elimination as much as anything else. The efficiency may dip, but the volume itself will ensure he gets a strong deal next summer. Hood has every incentive in the book to delay signing an extension and let this season’s increased offensive output bring him more cash in July. Based on what we’ve seen from the lefty through the beginning of his career, that’s a gamble he’d be wise to take. If the Jazz can sew together an extension for him before that deadline, they’d be getting a steal based on expected output this coming season.

Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic

After the Orlando Magic unloaded Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline and opened up the court a little more by going smaller, the entire game changed for Elfrid Payton. It may not have translated to wins, but it could be the difference between the point guard squeezing a few more bucks out of his next deal.

Few people even realize how good Payton was after the All-Star break last season. Once Ibaka was unloaded, he posted averages of 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists and 1.0 steals while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 31.6 percent from three. Extrapolating that out for an entire season, only three players last year averaged at least 13 points, seven boards and eight assists: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Since 1971,  just six players have notched those marks, as Jason Kidd, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson enter the mix.

Comparing Payton to any of them is obviously a foolish endeavor, but the statistic goes to show just how strong he finished the season from a statistical standpoint. Should he extend those numbers to an entire year, he’d more than prove his worth as a starting point guard.

That’s what this season is all about for Payton, who is on the end of his rookie deal and needing to establish himself as a long-term solution for the rebuilding Magic. The point-guard market isn’t booming these days, and not too many will be looking for a new home next summer. Orlando wants this to work with Elfrid, and hopefully a full season with improved spacing and a more versatile lineup around him triggers big gains in his statistical output. Even without great teammates last season, Payton was able to improve his individual plus/minus metrics by nearly five points per game after the break.

While not known for his outside shooting, if he can stay at or above 30 percent, he’ll at least be respected, and that opens up the rest of the paint for improved scoring. He finally got to above 60 percent finishing at the rim last season and is a blur in transition to get many of those looks. The one-man fast-break in Orlando shoots 61 percent in transition, according to NBA.com.

Above all, Payton is creative and needs to play in space to thrive. Whether that’s surrounded by shooters or a roster that can play up-tempo, he possesses a large reserve of untapped potential still waiting to be exhumed. Plays like this provide confidence that it’ll happen when the reigns loosen from the sidelines:

Payton may never be a top-of-the-line point guard, but a middle-of-the-pack starter is still very much in the cards for him. A full year is needed to make sure what we saw last spring was legitimate, but if it is, expect him to get paid.

Will Barton, Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch this season, with tons of pieces who can share the ball. But for every team that has great passers, a guy on the court thinking “score” at all times is the perfect compliment.

Enter Barton, a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate with a propensity for getting buckets. Always an effective slasher and a creative player with the ball in his hands, he’s improved his shooting over the years to the point where he’s able to provide spacing instead of requiring it. Over each of the past three years, we’ve seen a consistent increase in Barton’s three-point shooting, and he’s raised his efficiency 10 percentage points over that span. Now his shooting from deep is a threat that must be guarded consistently, and more than a third of his attempts come from beyond the arc.

“Will the Thrill” isn’t just a scorer who wears blinders while he’s on the court. Last season, Barton had a 17.7 percent assist rate, and he has now notched back-to-back seasons with more than 200 assists. That aforementioned rate is higher than the likes of teammates Gary Harris, Jamal Murray or Mason Plumlee.

So what is it about Barton’s opportunity or outlook for 2017-18 that lends credence to the idea he’ll get big bucks next summer?

Denver has a supreme shortage of wings at the moment, with a glut of strong forwards or players a half-step too slow to defend most wings. Barton may not be known for his defense, but he’s more adept getting through screens and keeping up with faster players than guys like Wilson Chandler or Juan Hernangomez, who may also see time at the 3 for head coach Michael Malone. Necessity almost dictates that Barton play more than the 28 minutes per game he’s logged the past two seasons, no matter if it’s off the bench or as a member of the starting unit.

Barton’s skill set is more like that of a point guard, but his length and size makes him able to defend wings. On a team that plays two shooters (Murray and Harris) around two step-out big men (Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic) a guy like Barton makes perfect sense as the ideal complement. And if he moves into the starting unit, he may gain an added benefit he hasn’t been exposed to recently: playing alongside Jokic.

Jokic shared the floor with Barton for only 638 minutes last season—the seventh-most of any Nugget to play with the Joker. Of those seven two-man groups, none had a greater net differential per 100 possessions than Barton and Jokic. The two were a plus-9.1 per 100 possessions in those minutes together, and they joined together in three of the five highest-scoring five-man lineups for the Nuggs.

Since joining Denver, Barton has posted per-36-minute averages of 17.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Those numbers are some of the better marks for scoring wings in the league, especially when you consider how far his three-point shot has come. With so much money in the Mile High City tied up in big men, the team may have no choice but to play him extended minutes and risk having him outperform its budget.

A year with expanded minutes, a team on the rise and a potential move into the starting lineup could draw more attention around the league to just how successful Barton’s been.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.