After Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson figures to be the most prominent center on next summer's free agent market. He's never made an All-Star team, but he's been a consistent performer over the life of a five-year, $65MM extension that kicked in for 2008/09. He's averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds with a 21.0 PER over the first four years of the deal that will pay him $15MM in 2012/13, its final season. He's played in 86% of his team's games the last four seasons after playing all 82 the year before the contract took effect, and is just 27 years old. There's no reason to expect he won't command the maximum amount in his next deal. The question is whether that deal is a new contract or another extension.
Typically, it wouldn't be worthwhile for a veteran to extend his contract under the current CBA. Extensions are limited to three seasons, while a player can get a five-year contract if he waits until free agency to re-sign with his team. Even if he jumps to another team as a free agent, he can sign a four-year deal, and more seasons usually means more guaranteed money.
For Jefferson, there are mitigating factors at play, many of which also apply to Bynum, as Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors wrote. If Jefferson signs a five-year deal next offseason, he'll be 33 years old when it ends. He would be subject to the over-36 rule if he wanted to sign a long-term deal, and it's questionable whether he'd still be playing well enough to merit another lengthy commitment anyway. He would also be signing his next deal in 2018, after the league and the union will have had the chance to opt out of the current CBA in 2017 and negotiate new terms that might be less friendly to veteran players. If Jefferson signed an extension now, he'd be 31 when it ended, still young enough to sign a four-year deal without running afoul of the over-36 rule, which removes the incentives for teams to sign players to long-term contracts. Jefferson could even include a player option for the final season of his extension. That would allow him to become a free agent at age 30 in 2015, when could sign a full five-year deal. He would have more than 10 years of service at that point, making him eligible for 35% of the salary cap, instead of the 30% he could get as a nine-year veteran next summer.
In Jefferson's case, it might be the team that's more skittish to do the deal. As solid as Jefferson has been, the Jazz have a wealth of big men, from Paul Millsap to promising youngsters Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, both of whom were third overall picks in their respective drafts. The Jazz may not want to commit maximum money to Jefferson when his presence in the lineup would prevent Favors or Kanter from getting the minutes they need to blossom. Millsap's contract is up after this season, too, and his $8.604MM salary this season means the Jazz could give him a significant raise that would still make him cheaper than Jefferson.
Jefferson has indicated a willingness to remain in Utah, so perhaps the Jazz could extract a hometown discount of sorts from him. Jefferson might argue that signing a maximum extension, which would represent less guaranteed money than a new maximum contract next summer, could qualify as a discount, but I don't think the Jazz would bite. If they wanted to keep Jefferson around, I think they'd want to do so long-term, given the team's focus on the future. I'm not so sure that new GM Dennis Lindsey wouldn't want to go in a different direction anyway, extending or re-signing Millsap and letting Jefferson walk next summer unless he agreed to less of an annual salary than his market value would dictate.