Breaking down 2019’s rookie scale extensions, Part III

In case you missed it, I wrote about the three already-signed extensions for Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, and Caris LeVert in Part I.

Part II covered a handful of remaining extension-eligible wings, including Brandon Ingram, Jaylen Brown, and others.

Among the big men, Domantas Sabonis holds the most intrigue as extension season heats up. He’s the best of the true big men in the 2016 draft class, but Indiana has already loaded up on centers on long-term commitments. Myles Turner will begin his own rookie scale extension this year and Goga Bitadze was just drafted in the first round about two months ago, leading many to speculate about Sabonis’s trade value ahead of the season, so that his new team could negotiate a potential extension.

From the Pacers, the word seems to be that they’re going to move forward with all three bigs and play Sabonis and Turner together for stints. Whether or not that’s a smokescreen aimed at raising the value of trade offers from other teams remains to be seen, but it’s not an insane proposal to play lineups with Sabonis and Turner together, particularly in the Eastern Conference. The two top teams in the conference are Milwaukee and Philadelphia, both of whom can be defended with a pair of traditional big men – Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is best defended by a center who hangs back and meets him at the rim, while Philadelphia will likely close games with Al Horford and Joel Embiid in the game together. Indiana can counter both teams with a Sabonis-Turner combination that can do a little bit of everything. Sabonis is a strong inside scorer, while Turner has the ability to spread the floor (though he doesn’t do it as often as I’d like). Turner’s one of the best rim protectors in the league and a fantastic overall defender, which helps to mitigate Sabonis’s weaknesses on that end. It’s not necessarily an ideal combination in the modern NBA, but Indiana can make it work.

Should he stay put, the extension negotiations between the Pacers and Sabonis will be very interesting to monitor. Indiana certainly has the lion’s share of the leverage due to the very nature of restricted free agency and their current roster construction. Throw in the fact that he plays the least-valuable position in the sport and happens to play it in a way that’s going out of style and it’s not hard to see how he could be squeezed into a below-market extension or find himself without a contract deep into free agency next summer.

He’s immensely efficient in his role, but Sabonis is a dying breed of NBA big man – a lot of teams want big men who either protect and attack the rim or can spread the floor. Sabonis doesn’t fall into either of these boxes. He can attack the rim offensively and scores at a very strong rate, but he’s a below average defender lacking in versatility and rim protecting prowess. That general archetype may lead Sabonis to being a high-end backup center throughout his career, which is not necessarily a path to making significant money in the landscape of the league. Backup centers are a dime a dozen these days and even very good ones are seeing their contracts start in the $5-8 million range.

On the other hand, Sabonis’s raw production is hard to ignore. In 1,800 minutes, he averaged more than 27 points and 18 boards per 100 possessions, putting him in rarefied air in NBA history. The full list of guys to do that in a single season: Dwight Howard five times, DeMarcus Cousins three times, Kevin Garnett twice, Moses Malone twice, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Joel Embiid, Enes Kanter, Shawn Kemp, Kevin Love, Jusuf Nurkic, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Nikola Vucevic, and Sabonis once each.

The question now is whether Sabonis is closer to Kanter or Vucevic or if he can have the sort of overwhelming offensive impact Love, Kemp, and Cousins brought to the table to offset their defensive struggles. I think we can pretty much write off any chance of him becoming the sort of defensive player who would belong in the top tier of that group, but certainly the difference between the Love/Kemp/Cousins grouping and Kanter/Vucevic is a very important distinction for Sabonis.

Dejounte Murray is the very definition of a wait-and-see player after missing his entire third season with an ACL tear in preseason a year ago. San Antonio will have to see what he can bring after the injury before they’ll commit to him long-term, particularly at starter or near-starter money. When healthy, he’s a terrifying defender, but how the ACL tear affects his lateral athleticism will be something to watch this season. They’ll also want to see what sort of offensive leap he can make – it’s difficult to be a starting-level guard in today’s NBA without an above-average offensive skill. He’s well below average in just about every area offensively, but makes up for a lot of it with his defensive prowess. On a team that doesn’t value three-pointers and has a pair of offensive engines in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, it’s not the end of the world if Murray remains a significant minus offensively, but it will certainly impact his market next summer if the Spurs decide to play hardball and make him find an offer sheet elsewhere. The Spurs also have Derrick White in the fold, who provides them with some insurance in case Murray isn’t the player he used to be or signs an offer sheet outside of their budget next summer.

Jakob Poeltl has a more interesting case to be extended by the Spurs this summer. With Aldridge aging out of his post-prime years and a possible free agent in 2020, San Antonio may be looking toward Poeltl as a long-term answer at the center position. He’s a poor man’s Sabonis in a lot of ways – very efficient around the basket, has some playmaking prowess from the post and elbow areas, rebounds well, but doesn’t necessarily protect the rim or defend at a high level. The main argument for Sabonis (his crazy production) doesn’t hold true for Poeltl, making him a prototypical backup center who can come in with a lot of energy to crash the offensive glass and put together enough offensive production to make him a strong option in that role.

If I were in charge of the Spurs, I’d be happy to keep Poeltl around long-term, but on a contract that’s a clear bargain for the team. Something like around four years and $30 million would be the line in the sand. After seeing how the market treated backup centers this year, an initial offer of three years, $18-20 million would be my starting point, though even that might be too rich, considering Kevon Looney just signed a 2+1 for $15 million as an unrestricted free agent and several backup centers signed minimum or Room Exception deals this past summer.

Generally, I believe extension season will be relatively tepid, with most players and teams opting to wait for 2020 free agency to sort things out. If I’m an agent for a guy projecting to be worth more than the non-taxpayer mid-level next year, I’d really want big money to sign an extension, given how bad 2020 free agency is and how few quality unrestricted guys will be hitting the market. There aren’t a ton of teams with significant money to spend next summer, but the teams who do have money are mostly on the younger side and may be looking to poach another team’s restricted free agent in order to stay on their timeline. As always, it’s a risk-reward play with extensions, but given the poor 2020 unrestricted class, I’d want to roll the dice in a lot of situations as a player agent or advisor.