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An Extension Minefield

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If you're in the mood for positive vibes regarding our beloved Sixers, this is most definitely not the post for you. After the jump I'm going to share a sinking feeling I've had in the pit of my stomach for the past couple of weeks.

Nothing bothers me more than the walk-year wonder. You know who they are. The guy with a questionable work ethic who suddenly puts in the work for one year, the year before he's going to get paid. The guy who's always been a bit out of shape who suddenly becomes a vegan. The weakling who puts on a miraculous 20 pounds of muscle. In the NBA, it's especially insidious. In baseball, teams are limited by their market, theoretically, or the cheapness of their ownership, but you can simply spend your way out of a bad contract decision. In football, only the signing bonus is guaranteed, in most cases, and players are regularly cut before their contracts are up. Basketball is the only major sport where a bad contract (or contracts) can literally handcuff teams for years.

Whenever I think about the upcoming season, and really the future of the franchise, the three guys who will most likely hit restricted free agency this summer are looming like a black cloud of salary cap doom. Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and Jason Smith can all become restricted free agents next summer. Each of them has underperformed through their first three seasons in the league, to varying degrees. Each of them has enormous financial motivation to get their act together heading into this season.

Now here's the part that keeps me up at night. What if they do put it together this year? Let's go player by player.

What if Hawes spends this summer bulking up, displays none of the work ethic issues that have plagued the first three seasons of his career and puts up decent numbers? Say he averages something like 15 pts, 10 boards, 2 assists and a 1.5 blocks/game on efficient shooting and he isn't just a 7'0" guy who likes to shoot from the outside. What if he's a model citizen? A player who puts up those kind of numbers with his size would probably have fetched $10M/year this summer in free agency. If Hawes somehow makes a giant leap this season, can you trust it? Can you trust that it wasn't one year of devotion to working hard simply because there was a big pay day at the end? Can you trust that he won't revert back to the same lazy guy who refused to play in the summer league a year ago? I know if it happens, Ed Stefanski is going to dislocate his shoulder patting himself on the back and Doug Collins is going to get a heaping helping of credit for putting this guy on the right track, but in the back of my mind I'm going to be thinking about guys like Charlie V. who was able to act mature for 12 months simply to reach his payday, then reverted right back to the player he was in his first three seasons. I'll probably be thinking about that when the Sixers match a hefty offer sheet from some team and anoint Hawes their center of the future, meanwhile killing the cap space that would've been created when Elton Brand's contract expires.

The stakes could be even higher for Thad. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Thad could thrive offensively this season. Athletic wings who can score, shoot and switch between the three and four are very much in demand in this league. He could be looking at a near-max extension. What if the Sixers are faced with a decision of whether to match a $70M offer for Thad or just let him walk? Signing Thad to a contract like that would effectively lock the Sixers into this roster for maybe 3 or 4 years.

The stakes with Jason Smith are much, much lower. He probably won't have enough minutes this season to make any kind of serious impressions, unless there's some kind of injury. Worst-case, I could see someone offering him maybe $4M/year for 3 or 4 years. The problem is, little deals like that add up. They put you over the salary cap first, then they inch you over the luxury tax, then you're left selling low on useful players simply to shed salary.

If you've read this far, I'm sure you can see the dilemma I'm left with. On the one hand, I want to see these guys get it. I want to see them develop and evolve as players under the best coach any of them has played for in their brief NBA careers. On the other hand, this front office has me constantly worried. I'm not sure they're capable of making a tough decision. Scratch that. I'm not sure if they're capable of making the right decision, even if it's not all that tough.

Since we're talking about three different guys and what I consider three very different situations, let's not talk in the abstract, and let's not lump them together. In Thad's case, if he shows tremendous improvement, it can't just be on the offensive side of the ball. He's going to have to show not only the willingness to rebound and defend, but he's going to have to show a propensity for it. To warrant a lengthy extension he's going to have to prove he can either (a) be a viable starter at the four or (b) replace Andre Iguodala at the three for the long haul or (c) become a viable threat from three-point range (40%+) and allow the team to trade Turner and move Iguodala to the two. This team can't afford to sign a sixth man to a big money deal, not with the economics of the salary cap and the money they already have tied up.

The $70M question is, if he does show the improvement, if he does look like he can accomplish any of the three things I laid out above this season, should we trust it? I've set the bar pretty high here, so I'm going to say yes. Thad has never been a slacker. He's a hard worker, and he's been jerked around by the Sixers over his first three seasons. If he can come in with his head screwed on straight and prove he's an impact player in this league, I'll believe it's for real (I'm not talking about moderate improvement here. I'm talking about real production on both ends of the floor this season). I could live with a big extension for him because I don't see him as a guy who's going to revert once he gets paid, just my opinion on Thad as a person and as a player.

Jason Smith is what he is. It's possible Collins could find a niche for him that showcases his talents and hides his miniature arms. Even if he does, I don't care. Guys like Smith are a dime a dozen and there's absolutely no reason to sign him to a second contract when you can pick up a guy to give you that type of production in the second round of the draft.

Finally, let's talk about Hawes. Big men who show even a hint of promise get too much money. That's just a fact of life. For Hawes to fall into this category, he's going to have to make major strides this season. For me to believe he's worth an extension, he's going to have to become a difference-maker on the defensive end, a much more efficient scorer than he's shown to this point and an above-average rebounder. If he plays to those levels this season, I might buy the hype enough to believe his the disappointment off his first three seasons was caused by some combination of immaturity and a bad situation in Sacto. I really have a hard time believing he's going to make this type of leap, though.

What I think is much more likely is a moderate improvement due to a renewed commitment to the game (or to getting a fat contract, if you're a pessimist, like me). This is what worries me, because if he shows some improvement, then you're going to have people thinking he's finally tapping into that potential. He's right on the cusp of becoming good, and then the checkbooks come out. This is the situation the Sixers need to avoid at all costs. A guy who stumbles along through his first three seasons, doing the bare minimum, then suddenly puts in a little bit of work, shows a little bit of improvement the year before free agency. 95% of the time, that guy is going to fall right back into the same old pattern once he signs that second contract.

As usual, I'm worrying about situations that may arise way down the road, but I do see these three guys as potentially franchise altering decisions next summer, and right now, I don't trust the powers that be with any type of franchise altering decision.

What do you guys think? Would decent years from these guys be enough to warrant an extension? Would no amount of improvement erase the past three seasons? Somewhere in between? And who, of the three, do you believe is most likely to still be a Sixer on opening day a year from October?
by Brian on Jul 16 2010
Tags: Basketball | Jason Smith | Sixers | Spencer Hawes | Thaddeus Young |