Extension Candidate: Rudy Gay

Only four players have signed veteran extensions since the existing collective bargaining agreement took effect after the 2011 lockout. There’s little motivation for players who aren’t on rookie scale contracts to extend their deals rather than hit free agency, since the NBA places limits on the dollars and years allowed in an extension that aren’t there when a veteran hits the open market. Kobe Bryant, Zach Randolph and Andrew Bogut signed their veteran extensions likely knowing they’d entered the back stretch of their respective careers and would be unable to command max contracts in free agency. Still, their teams found them productive enough to bank on them at eight-figure salaries for a few more years. It’s a little harder to see Tony Parker‘s motivation for committing to three years and not quite $43.336MM when he could have garnered more as a free agent next summer, but the Spurs have a long history of convincing their best players to take less.

The Kings have no such track record, and Rudy Gay just turned 28 last month, putting him squarely in the prime of his career. He expressed supreme conflict about whether to pick up a player option worth $19.3MM for the coming season before ultimately deciding to do so. Still, Gay probably isn’t the sort of player who could command the maximum in free agency, or even a salary close to what he’ll make this year, even after having begun to repair a reputation that the harsh glare of advanced statistics had cast in an unflattering light. In his case, signing an extension wouldn’t reduce the value of the salaries he’d see, though it would only allow him to add three seasons onto his existing deal, which is set to expire in the summer. The client of Octagon Sports agents Jeff Austin and Alex Saratsis could instead re-sign with the Kings for as many as five more years if he waited until free agency to strike a deal.

Still, Kings owner Vivek Ranadive seems enamored with Gay, and it’s not the worst idea to negotiate when you’re receiving praise from the boss. Ranadive reportedly pursued Gay seemingly from the moment he bought the club last year, explaining after the December trade that brought him from the Raptors that not all the next-level metrics paint an unfavorable picture of the 6’8″ forward. GM Pete D’Alessandro has expressed a desire for a long-term future with Gay, and the team made a concerted effort to convince him to pick up his lucrative player option for this season. DeMarcus Cousins tried to ensure his teammate would stick around, too, a telling endorsement considering the long-term rookie scale extension that Cousins signed last summer, as well as the center’s temperamental nature.

That the Kings were willing to go to lengths to convince Gay to take up such a large chunk of space on their payroll this season says a lot about how they regard him. That’s especially true given that some NBA GMs told Grantland’s Zach Lowe last year that they didn’t think Gay was worth signing for the mid-level exception. Gay emerged from the team’s pitch meeting impressed, though when he made the call to opt in, he decided to hold off on extension talks until later in the summer. Gay quickly expressed contentment in Sacramento following last year’s trade and has said that he can envision a long-term future with the Kings, though he also made plain his desire to play for a winner. Still, Gay is a believer in the team’s talent and coach Michael Malone, and he reportedly feels confident about Ranadive’s commitment to turning around the team’s woeful fortunes.

Gay’s partial season in Sacramento was as successful a campaign as any he’s had in the NBA. Traditional stats like scoring, assists and shooting percentage went up, as did his PER and win shares per 48 minutes as he eschewed long-range looks for shots closer to the basket, as I detailed this spring. The Kings were more porous defensively in terms of points per possession when Gay was on the floor, as NBA.com shows, but he more than made up for that with his offensive contributions.

Ranadive and company weren’t the only ones to take notice. At the trade deadline, the Suns appeared to have interest in signing him this past summer if he were to opt out, and it seems reasonable to suspect that the GMs who would have hesitated to touch him for the mid-level have revised their evaluations. There would probably be a robust market for Gay if he were to hit free agency next summer, but considering that Sacramento clamored to keep Gay at more than $19MM this season, it’s unclear whether any team would be willing to meet what Sacramento offers. Still, there’s a strong chance that Gay would emerge as the most prominent small forward on the market. LeBron James and Luol Deng have player options for 2015/16, and Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler are on rookie scale contracts, meaning they’d only be restricted free agents if their respective teams don’t grant them extensions this fall. Aside from them, there are few inspiring names among the potential 2015 free agent small forwards.

There’s no October 31st deadline involved with veteran extensions as there is with rookie scale extensions, even though it would make sense for Gay and for the team to complete a deal before the start of the season if they are to do so. Gay is in a position of strength amid his revival in Sacramento. Barring a severe regression, he’ll probably have plenty of leverage next summer, too, when market competition figures to be scarce and teams like the Lakers and Knicks are poised to have money to burn beneath a salary cap that some teams reportedly project to exceed $70MM. Gay would also be able to lock in a longer-term deal, and thus more guaranteed paydays, if he and his agents dismiss the idea of an extension. It would certainly be reasonable for Gay to come to terms soon to capitalize on the enthusiasm the Kings have about him, but I still don’t expect him to join Bogut, Bryant, Randolph and Parker among the four other veteran extension signees.

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