Thunder fans are experiencing some déjà vu. A guard entering his fourth year with the team, proven as an effective backup and a capable starter, is due for rookie contract extension talks. The player shined in the postseason, helping guide Oklahoma City deep into the playoffs, and is seeking an increased role with the team next season. No, we’re not talking about James Harden; the spotlight is now on Reggie Jackson. At 23, Jackson is a year older than Harden was when the Thunder made a stunning move to trade the bearded star rather than meet his max contract demands. Like Harden, he is a ball-dominant player with a knack for getting to the rim.
While the similarities are notable, there are significant differences that make this situation distinct from the 2012 offseason. Jackson does not have the elite foul-drawing ability or scoring efficiency that Harden has always possessed, and his asking price will presumably be lower. Still, he had per-36 averages of 16.6 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.9 rebounds while fluctuating between a starter and sixth man as Russell Westbrook missed large chunks of the season. His three-point shot was putrid in his first two seasons (below 24% in both) but improved last year, coming close to average (33.9%).
Jackson brings little to the defensive side of the floor, but the Thunder coaching staff has turned players with similar length and speed into solid defenders before. Jackson is a standout free-throw shooter in his own right, and he knocked down a number of clutch freebies in close games last season. Jackson also exploded for a 32-point effort in Game 4 against a stifling Grizzlies defense in the first round of the playoffs, keeping the Thunder from going down 1-3 in and facing a disappointing first-round exit. Jackson’s desire to start has been on the table as a contract consideration since late 2013.
Thus far, GM Sam Presti has played it close to the vest regarding Jackson. When the season closed, Presti said there was no consideration of trading Jackson, but the GM wasn’t optimistic that an extension would be worked out by the October 31st deadline. Jackson’s camp has been quiet as well, with no reports of where either side pegs his value. Two point guards in Phoenix might be instructive in looking at Jackson’s potential market. Isaiah Thomas is a scoring machine who took off in his third year as a pro, fighting his way off the bench in a crowded Sacramento backcourt. He was rewarded with a four-year, $27MM contract this summer. Eric Bledsoe exploded as a starter in his first year with the Suns, but health concerns and Phoenix’s vow to match any offer sheet have kept him from generating anything near the max contract he wants. The Suns’ offer to Bledsoe currently sits at four years and $48MM. My estimation is that Thomas’ lower ceiling, limited more than Jackson’s due to size and age, means his deal is near the low end of what Jackson could secure. Bledsoe’s offer seems to be a price ceiling for Jackson. Again, this is all just my speculation, but I would expect Jackson to fetch between $7MM and $10MM annually.
Aside from Jackson’s value as a player, the Thunder’s financial outlook is different this time around as well. Presti held firm to a near-max offer for Harden because the team wanted to avoid incurring harsh repeater-tax penalties that a true max offer might have triggered. NBA revenue has since boomed, driving the salary cap — and tax threshold — up significantly. In fact, Zach Lowe of Grantland wonders whether the Thunder would have increased their offer to Harden if they had projected as rosy a cap future as the league arrived at. If the Thunder pick up the 2015/16 options for Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Andre Roberson, and Steven Adams, they will still have at least $10MM in room beneath the tax for that season, and they could conceivably have plenty more room than that if league revenue keeps shooting up.
Of course, the Thunder also have to think beyond that season, as they seek to keep Kevin Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka around while the rest of the league prepares to snag them away. Locking in Jackson as a significant part of the team’s core would prevent them from adding much in the way of impact players through free agency next year. The early signals are that Oklahoma City is comfortable counting on the young supporting cast that Jackson anchors, built around their established core. The team saw the departures of veterans Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Caron Butler this summer, and have only added Anthony Morrow in free agency.
Outside of Kendrick Perkins‘ contract, the Thunder haven’t overpaid on any long-term contracts, and their resolve in that aspect was proven with the Harden situation. I can’t imagine they would offer Jackson anything they thought was at or above market value; the team believes in its philosophy, and Presti and company would likely feel confident in their ability to influence his restricted free agency in their favor like Phoenix has managed to do with Bledsoe.
Still, Jackson is the most developed of an athletic stable of young players that the Thunder need to support their star trio in chasing a title the next two seasons. My guess is the decision will come down to whether the team envisions Jackson as a good fit next to Westbrook in the starting lineup. The starting shooting guard has yet to be named, with Jackson, Lamb, Morrow, and Roberson all on the table for the spot. If they determine Jackson’s the man for the job, I see the two sides reaching an agreement for an extension this fall. If not, I’ll go with Chuck Myron’s prediction from the Hoops Rumors Rookie Extension Primer: no deal.