Ben Golliver, SI
When Zach LaVine was diagnosed with a season-ending ACL tear over the weekend, a wave of sympathy immediately spread throughout the league. Torn ACLs are a common and cruel injury that, despite recent medical advances, jeopardizes one’s peak athleticism, halts one’s career plans, and necessitates months of grueling rehabilitation. It’s the type of setback that triggers reflexive cringing and leads strangers to reach out with well wishes. “Don’t know you personally, but love your talent homie,” LeBron James tweeted to LaVine. “Have a healthy and speedy recovery.”
The timing of LaVine’s injury is rotten all the way around. Minnesota fans were robbed of roughly 40 games worth of developmental play and highlight-reel contributors from a core piece. Tom Thibodeau lost one of his key workhorses, a full-time starter at 21 who has logged the second-most minutes of any player from the 2014 draft class. Young Timberwolves standouts Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins must soldier on through a disappointing, losing season without a well-liked running buddy. And NBA analysts—whether they love LaVine’s star potential and increasingly dependable outside shooting or bemoan his poor defensive metrics and negative impact stats—are forced to table their talk about one of the league’s most polarizing prospects until next season.
Of course, LaVine himself is hit hardest by the news, and not just because he’ll need to rebuild the strength in one of his gravity-defying legs that helped him win two Slam Dunk Contests. LaVine is earning a modest $2.2 million this season, far below his fair market value given that he’s still on a rookie deal. As a third-year player, he was beginning to approach his first major payday, as he will be eligible to negotiate a rookie contract extension this summer. Those deals, by NBA rules, can be agreed to prior to the start of the 2017-18 season and will kick in for the 2018-19 season.
Had LaVine made it through this season unscathed, he almost certainly would have been Minnesota’s No. 2 off–season priority, as 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins is also extension eligible. After all, Karl-Anthony Towns won’t be up for a new deal until July 2018, Gorgui Dieng was inked to an extension last fall, and the Timberwolves will always struggle to compete for name free agents. Before this week’s news, it was easy to picture the Timberwolves throwing a joint press conference this summer to announce new deals for Wiggins and LaVine as the first step in a push towards the 2018 playoffs.
Now? There’s no great way to plan for what should come next. Should Thibodeau and his front office take the long view, bank on a full recovery and lock up LaVine at a near-Wiggins number if he returns to the court once the preseason rolls around? Or, should they push off any extension talks and wait to see how LaVine looks next season? Should LaVine settle for a “win/win” negotiation and seek guaranteed money that will put his mind at ease about his health? Or, should he bet on his ability to play his way into a potential max offer as a restricted free agent in 2018? For those dubious of LaVine’s long-term earning power, remember that Jamal Crawford—a scoring-minded, defense-optional guard from the Seattle area like LaVine—has played 15 seasons and agreed to contracts worth more than $100 million since tearing his ACL in 2001.
Again, this is a cruel injury that forces cruel, tough decisions. How one personally feels about Minnesota’s approach to LaVine’s next contract can likely be traced directly to how one feels about his upside. Convinced that he is a more complete and reliable offensive player with a better motor than Wiggins? You’re more likely to cross your fingers and take the plunge. Nervous that his one-way game makes him better suited to life as a bucket-getting third guard? You’re more likely to take the deliberate approach. Either way, the Timberwolves are counting on him and there’s a lot of money at stake. By comparison, Oklahoma City inked Victor Oladipo to a four-year, $84 million extension last fall, and his third-year stats (16 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 3.9 APG, 16.7 Player Efficiency Rating) are similar to LaVine’s (18.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3 APG, 14.7 PER).
While LaVine works his way back, and Thibodeau continues to coax (deep breath) consistency, urgency, unselfishness, two-way play, team-first commitment, and discipline out of his young roster, a host of 2014 draft class members will be making their cases for extensions. Indeed, Wiggins, Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker, LA’s Julius Randle, Houston’s Clint Capela and Denver’s Gary Harris are all well-positioned to secure long-term commitments from their respective clubs given their roles and bodies of work.
Let’s focus, then, on three of the most intriguing early-extension candidates to keep an eye on for the balance of the 2016-17 season.
Joel Embiid, 76ers: The Process is about to get expensive
The feel-good breakout story of the year is headed for perhaps the most fascinating contract talks in modern NBA history. When healthy, Joel Embiid has had a transformative impact for Philadelphia, a do-everything center who has improved the Sixers’ defense rating from atrocious to fantastic when he’s taken the court. Under more usual circumstances, he’s the type of guy—two-way positive impact, super-high ceiling, leadership potential, charisma—who gets max money as soon as a team can legally shell it out.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Embiid has still logged fewer than 800 minutes for his career—less than half as many as Greg Oden played through three seasons—and he’s missed additional time this year with minor injuries. The GM that drafted him, Sam Hinkie, was deposed last year and Embiid’s next contract will represent the new regime’s first major, franchise-defining commitment.
The good news for Embiid is that he got his season-ending injuries out of the way early. After missing his first and fourth seasons due to injury, Oden, the 2007 No. 1 pick, only received a one-year, $1.5 million contract from the Blazers. While Embiid also missed two complete seasons due to injury, he could theoretically command a five-year extension worth roughly $150 million this summer if he returns to the court and continues performing like a star. For Philadelphia, though, that means tying up a major chunk of its cap space through 2023.
That’s an awful lot of trust to place in The Process for an awfully long time. For comparison’s sake, Oden played just 23 total games from 2011-12 through 2015-16, the time that would have been covered by a five-year rookie extension. Even an out of nowhere late-bloomer like Hassan Whiteside logged more than 3,200 minutes before he pulled in his max deal from the Heat.
With so much of the fan base’s hopes invested in Embiid and so much lingering doubt about his ability to stay healthy, the Sixers might find it untenable to take the wait-and-see approach. Do they really want to make Embiid go through the entire 2017-18 season waiting on his life-changing second contract? Perhaps the best-case scenario is that they find a way to mitigate some of the injury risk by angling for a Rudy Gobert-like deal (four years at $102 million) while banking on their ability to make it up to Embiid down the road with a massive Designated Player extension for his third contract. Even that could be tricky business, though, given the healthy leverage Embiid enjoys as the shining star on a talent-poor roster. Bottom line: extending Embiid will inspire a rare mix of jubilation and trepidation.
Rodney Hood, Jazz: Keeping the band together
Passed over by 22 teams on draft night, Hood is headed straight for “They gave him how much!??!?!” territory. At 24, Rodney Hood is older than most of the players in the 2014 class, and he is arguably closer to his ceiling than most of the big-dollar extension candidates. Those two factors shouldn’t depress his earning power too much, though, because his style of play is all the rage. While Hood isn’t an alpha scorer, he is a capable pick-and-roll initiator, a natural secondary floor-spacer and a proven perimeter defender who has logged big minutes on elite defensive units. Despite some injury issues this season, he’s done a little bit of everything for Utah, and he fits quite well alongside Gobert, who is locked up long-term, and Gordon Hayward, who will be a highly-coveted free agent this summer.
The Jazz are about to enter an exhilarating stretch as they close in on their first playoff trip since 2012 and a number of major offseason decisions. Utah’s top priorities are Hayward (a max candidate) and point guard George Hill, however paying both could require other sacrifices, like parting with Boris Diaw or trading Alec Burks. From there, the Jazz could wind up facing another squeeze the following summer, when Hood’s extension would begin and Derrick Favors would be ready to receive a new deal.
From the outside, Hood looks like the most important long-term piece on the roster after Gobert and Hayward given his versatility and age alignment relative to those two centerpieces. Favors is very talented, but he has been sidelined repeatedly with injury issues, opening the door for Gobert to assert himself as the Jazz’s most indispensable big. In the backcourt, Hill is theoretically replaceable in the future by a stop-gap point guard or (in a best-case scenario) an improving Dante Exum. If Hood isn’t in the mix, Hayward is back shouldering an unhealthy burden, the overall offense is less fearsome, and Utah’s upward momentum in the standings likely stalls out pretty quickly.
Hood’s ability to return from recent injury issues and play a key role in the postseason will help put a more precise figure on his value. Last summer, Portland’s Allen Crabbe commanded $75 million over four years even though he played a much smaller role than Hood during his first three seasons. Dallas also gave Harrison Barnes, a two-way player with a bit more individual offensive potential than Hood, $94 million over four years. Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a 2013 lottery pick, is another two-way wing headed for max or near-max money as a restricted free agent this summer. In other words, Utah may soon be forced to shift from its “cheap and fun” rebuilding roster to a “Big 3” salary model. How far can a Gobert/Hayward/Hood triumvirate go?
Aaron Gordon, Magic: Please pan out
Let’s be honest: it requires real straining to get excited about the Magic these days. They’re headed for their fifth straight lottery trip. Their offense is the worst outside Philadelphia. Their GM, Rob Hennigan, recently pointed out, in painstaking fashion, this season’s many, many shortcoming and disappointments. Their big offseason addition, Serge Ibaka, hasn’t made much difference and has every reason to leave next summer, if he’s not traded before then. Their point guard, Elfrid Payton, is cursed with a broken jumper. And their roster manages to be both relatively young and lacking in much promise.
However, Aaron Gordon still feels like the exception, if only because he boasts irrepressible athletic gifts. Go ahead and play him out of position, move him in and out of the starting lineup and stockpile multiple useless veterans to marginalize his role. Go ahead and play at a slow pace and ask him to man the perimeter and shoot threes. (The Magic have done all of these things, by the way.) At 21, the 2014 No. 3 pick remains young enough and tantalizing enough to inspire genuine hope. But the clock is starting to tick.
Orlando is a team to watch over the next few weeks because its deadline activity or inactivity will have a direct bearing on Gordon’s role. Clear out some of the extraneous frontcourt pieces? Bingo, Gordon may have a chance to get back into the paint, find some second-chance opportunities and mold himself into a big who applies constant pressure to defenses with his energy. Keep plugging ahead with the same mish-mashed roster? Gordon and his representatives may start to wonder if there are greener pastures out there for him given Orlando’s muddled direction and cramped spacing. Tobias Harris, Channing Frye, Victor Oladipo and Moe Harkless have all fared pretty well since being moved by the Magic in recent years. Wouldn’t Gordon almost definitely find more success on a team that had more shooters and/or played faster? Well, that describes most of the other teams in the league.
The best-case scenario for both the Magic and Gordon would be to trade as many players as necessary at the deadline so that he can play the balance of the season as a full-time four. Orlando shouldn’t be willing to settle for the idea that Gordon is making good progress as a perimeter defender and that maybe his offense will come along way down the line. He came into the league at an extraordinarily young age, but this is year three.
Now is the time, during yet another lost season, to see if he can scale up as a true offensive threat in 30+ minutes a night. If Gordon sinks, the Magic will have valuable information to guide their summer plans and a better understanding of how to handle his extension negotiation. If he swims, Orlando might actually find itself with a player they are willing to invest early in as a new face of the franchise, something that’s been sorely missing since Dwight Howard’s departure. Either of those eventualities, the bust or the boom, is better for all parties than leaving Gordon stuck in purgatory. Even though his shaky range and limited playmaking ability are causes for concern, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a lot more to Gordon than a “butt dunk” over a mascot.