NBA’s youngsters that did not receive contract extensions

For a league with a massive new television deal in its future, in a market featuring several teams with impending cap space, and in the light of the “whee, we’re all tied for first!”-exhibition season, it was more than a little surprising to see NBA teams of all shapes and sizes fail to come to contract extension terms for four-year players last week. Franchises both good and bad, teams both previously smart and previously silly, all decided to let their various contributors enter restricted free agency next summer, rather than locking them before the Oct. 31 deadline.

Some are stranger than others.

Enes Kanter

This big man has always been a bit of an odd duck, and he’s working within a Utah Jazz setup that might not be to his advantage. Kanter, clearly, does not play well alongside Derrick Favors; which is unfortunate, because you’d assume their somewhat versatile skill sets would allow for some ham-and-egging. Kanter is a thick, nearly-7-foot big man that can walk and chew gum at the same time, but the necessity for those sorts of talents has diminished in recent years, and Utah’s decision to hand shooting guard Alec Burks an eight-figure yearly extension (at a similarly diminished position) is telling.

The issue with Utah’s decision to pass on coming to terms with Kanter’s salary suggestion is that some team will break the bank for the center this summer. That hypothetical team may not be making the correct decision, but it will happen, and Utah will have to face the prospect of losing out on the third overall pick in the 2011 for no compensation should it choose to decline to match. Expecting that Kanter’s restricted free agent salary would fall in line with what he was attempting to sign for in Utah is a fair assumption, and Enes has only shown flashes of starter-worthy play so far in his career, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a curious decision.

Enes Kanter has talent and will but he also has not enjoyed a very good career thus far, and there is the fear that his game might be a bit of an anachronism in a sleeker, less big man-obsessive NBA. He enjoyed an impressive year off the bench in his second season, but his limitations as a defender were revealed last season. The “play for pay” ideal seems appropriate in his case at the moment, but only because we’ve yet to determine which general manager/owner combination will go over the top in attempting to sign Enes this summer.

Tristan Thompson

As we outlined before, it truly is unfair that a player like Tristan Thompson (or any player, really) has to be considering his NBA future in the hours before and after playing a basketball game that actually counts. A run on national TV, no less, in a preview of what most are expecting to be this year’s Eastern Conference finals. Thompson and the Cavs could not come to an extension agreement on Friday, and while this isn’t the fault of Tristain’s Cavaliers playing the Chicago Bulls on the same Halloween evening, that doesn’t make the NBA’s practice right. Thompson genuinely has quite a bit to lose or gain this season. At this stage in his career, he’s definitely a better player than someone like Enes Kanter or Iman Shumpert, but because of the seeming high ceiling for both Kanter and Shumpert, their potential payday this summer could be far higher than Thompson’s – NBA general managers can talk themselves into just about anything.

Tristan has a strange game. He doesn’t rebound as well as you’d like, his main offensive weapon is an Eric Murdock-styled floater, and his length doesn’t make him an absolute knockout defensively. He’s also played on some terrible and not exactly expertly-coached basketball teams. The shine from a stellar season as either Cleveland’s top reserve (as was in full showing on Friday against Chicago) or even starting center (should Anderson Varejao go down) could be enough to influence a general manager to break the bank.

Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert has sworn that the luxury tax is of no concern to him currently, but the Cavaliers will be at the salary cap level this summer just based on LeBron James, Kevin Love (once he opts-out and re-signs to a maximum contract) and Kyrie Irving’s deals alone. Toss in Varejao and various other helpers, and you have quite a price to pay – even for what should probably be the 2014-15 NBA champion. The problem for Cleveland is Thompson’s position – they have no obvious replacements lined up, and both the 2011 and 2014 Miami Heat proved that well-respected scrap heap veteran replacements aren’t always the best solution in a pinch. Unless Thompson turns in a terrible year (not the case, thus far), Cleveland will end up paying quite a bit to retain a player they need. They may regret not signing Thompson to his demands in October, but you can excuse the team for acting a bit giddy while watching LeBron, Kyrie, and Kevin Love dart up and down the floor.

Iman Shumpert

A solid, cut-and-dry move for both sides. Shumpert has intriguing talent, he’s worked through a ACL tear and could genuinely be the sort of hybrid big guard that Knicks president Phil Jackson absolutely loves. Even with obvious names like Kevin Love off the free agent table this offseason, however, Jackson is playing the restricted free agency route to his advantage, here. He has a full season with a (hopefully) healthy Shumpert to scout as a triangle offense participant, and if he doesn’t like what he sees? Good for both team and player.

Kawhi Leonard

This is a fairly obvious move. The Spurs love Kawhi, as they should, and Leonard seems at home with the team. By all accounts, he’ll be a Spur for life unless something goes terribly wrong. What San Antonio does want to encourage, as is their right, is flexibility. At this cheery-cheeked point of the NBA season, it appears as if an appropriately-rested Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili would want to return in 2015-16 whether or not the Spurs grasp their second straight title, or if they fell to another Western behemoth in the first round.

There is always the option, however, that in either glory or a too-early defeat that both players may want to walk away once their contracts expire in July. This would put the Spurs in a position to rebuild on the fly, and if Leonard’s (presumed) maximum contract were on the books at that point, San Antonio would have a tougher go of things acquiring replacements for Tim and Manu (assuming such a thing existed). Leonard has a cap hold that isn’t insignificant, but it’s less than half of what he’d take up on the books had he signed to a max in October. This is why the Spurs decided to embrace the cap hold, as opposed to the salary cap clutch of a contract they’ll have no problem eventually signing Leonard to.

Should the worst – a terrible injury – happen, Leonard would still be taken care of. Not only would several other NBA teams want to sign someone like Kawhi Leonard coming off of, say, an ACL tear, but the Spurs would no doubt match any offer. He’s getting his, at some point, as the Spurs continue to think on their feet.

Jimmy Butler

If you’ll allow us to be dubious, it’s because we’ve dealt with the Bullies before. The Bulls would seem to be taking on the same approach as the Spurs as they take in Butler’s upcoming restricted free agency. With second-year man Tony Snell on the outs with the coaching staff and Mike Dunleavy getting on in age, securing Butler’s two-way game would seem to be of paramount importance as Chicago digs into a win-now setup. The two sides could not come to an agreement, though, which on Chicago’s front end appears to be unfortunate timing – Butler played most of last season through myriad injuries that limited his ability to score efficiently, and it’s quite possible he spent all of the 2014 offseason bargaining from his lowest position of strength.

Butler, despite a wrist injury suffered during the exhibition season, also spent the offseason losing weight, adding range to his jump shot, and girding himself after a wearying 2013-14 (Butler played nearly 39 minutes a game, tops in the NBA). Jimmy’s 24-point outburst (including two game-winning free throws) in his first game of the season on Saturday night may not be representative of what he’ll provide for the rest of the season, but his stock should rise, and the Bulls may have lost out on their best chance to strike while the Jimmy-iron was room temperature and shooting 39 percent.

Chicago is currently paying Carlos Boozer eight-figures not to play basketball for them, which is somewhat of a surprise, and the team has put together a remarkable and pricey new practice facility. The franchise also prints its own money, Butler would be just the third member of the team working for eight figures a year next year (on an ostensible championship contender), and the team is littered with players working for rates below market value (Pau Gasol, at just a million over the league’s average salary; Doug McDermott on a rookie deal, Nikola Mirotic at less than the average, Aaron Brooks at less than a million).

By the time opposing teams have the chance to throw out big money toward Jimmy Butler, Chicago will have taken in four years of the swingman working on a rookie contract at just over $1 million a year. The team could have signed Butler to the going rate and retained both Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy at their current salaries while likely staying under next year’s salary cap. Or, one of the league’s most profitable franchises could have, shock horror, paid the tax next year for just the second time in its history. Stay tuned. The Bulls have excused themselves out of less.

Reggie Jackson

This hybrid guard is exactly what the Thunder badly need right now, but questions about his overall impact and ability to lead a team of lesser renown than the Oklahoma City Thunder forced this team’s front office into taking a calculated gamble with Jackson’s restricted free agency.

It makes sense, but in several ways, so did the team’s devastating trade of James Harden some two years ago around this extension-y time. Jackson doesn’t appear to be an Eric Bledsoe-type in waiting. He’s had his moments, but at best he scans as a third guard. The Thunder desperately need to keep a player like Jackson coming off the bench even when and if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook return from injury – and this extends to next season – but that doesn’t mean the team is off in daring other squads to send an offer sheet Jackson’s way.

The real killer is the over the top offer sheet, which some GM could take himself into next summer. That GM would probably regret such a move, but the Thunder’s top-heavy roster is so desperate that the team might be forced to match.

As a result, even with Kendrick Perkins’ contract coming off the books next season, the team might be paying four players eight figures a year and possibly the luxury tax.

Boo-hoo, OKC owners. You lied about moving the team from Seattle, went cheap in the face of a James Harden extension, and you regularly take in sellout crowds. Don’t feel sorry for their charmed existence.

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