Rookie scale contract extensions are not especially commonplace, largely because they needn't be. Via the medium of restricted free agency, teams hold most of the cards when it comes to the future of their young players, and they'd normally rather take the fourth season to evaluate their player's future before committing to paying for it.
Typically, we only find deviation from this path when a player is worthy of a max contract. In that scenario, there's not much to negotiate or wait for, so the extension gets done. It's expected that this is the deal that Paul George and the Indiana Pacers will announce today.
George was a breakout player last season, and a very likable one. Charged with leading the team on offense from the wing in the absence of Danny Granger, George showed himself to be better at it than Granger had ever been, while also being one of the best wing defenders in the league. His offensive game, versatility, shot-making and ball-handling talents have developed year on year, and when entrusted with far greater responsibility on that end, George responded and put forth a strong season, averaging 17.1 points per game along with some clutch moments.
There is still work to do with George's game. His is not simply a case of consolidating what he has already done. Offensively, George was exposed -particularly in the playoffs - as not being ready to fully be a go-to guy in single play situations. His scoring efficiency decreased with his increased output, and he needs to continue to improve his shot-making facility and moves in isolation. Even defensively, George can still get hung up on a ball screen with relative ease.
However, at only 23 years old, George is more than capable of making these improvements, and Indiana has paid the cost to ensure the services of a caliber of player they haven't had for years. Even if the offensive game plateaus short of being an elite go-to guy, they've still paid for a defensive star. This extension, then, is easy to reconcile.
Less so is the other potential extension. It's being reported that DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings are also nearing a deal, and while there isn't any confirmation that the amount is for the max, this seems to be the overwhelming interpretation. If true, it is one of the biggest gambles we've seen in recent years.
"If he can just grow up, he'll be a star" is, in some form, an oft-levied defense of the Kings's commitment to Cousins. But it obscures the problems with his play. This is all too easy to do when talking about supposedly "prodigious" talents.
For Cousins, it's not just his petulance and attitude that hold back his talent; it is also his talent. At this point in his career, Cousins is not a star player, nor all that close to it. He looks like he is, and most certainly looks like he should or will be, but he simply is not.
Cousins's rebounding is elite. However, in almost every other category he is sorely lacking. He defends through size, hands and swipes alone, not having incorporated the fundamentals of defensive positioning and footwork three years into his NBA career.
He is big and quick enough to often get away with this. Although, the foul rates that prevent him playing more than 30 minutes per game speak to all those times when he doesn't. Offensively, Cousins is a mediocre finisher around the rim (which is at least an improvement from "poor," which is where he was), and an otherwise decent mid-range jumpshot is undermined by terrible shot selection. The turnovers are high, the wild flails to the basket are unproductive, and the defense is flawed. That is not the skill set of a star.
Can he be one, though? Yes. And that, then, is what Sacramento will be paying for. They're paying for the possibility of stardom, not the presence of it. A genuine possibility of stardom is almost as rare as stardom itself. If they feel this is the best way to maximize their asset, then it's a risk worth taking.
You can buy loyalty in the NBA - players respond to being shown "love," and "love" is money and minutes. Cousins seems to have an uncanny knack for perceiving disrespect, so perhaps Sacramento are banking on his ability to see and feel this 'love', with the hope that it assuages the rather large chip on his shoulder.
To be sure, it seems they are giving him as much opportunity to succeed as they can. Shaq is there now, and regardless of Shaq's ability to teach (on which we'll wait and see), he surely is someone to whom DeMarcus will listen. Mindful of the need for Cousins to succeed, given his importance to the future of the franchise, Sacramento is helping him as much as they can, and showing him how important and good he can be.
However, a max contract extension - should this be that - is not good value. And it takes a very, very favorable prognosis of Cousin's career for it to become one. Cousins is regrettably much closer to J.J. Hickson than Tim Duncan at this point - a less efficient Hickson at that - yet he continues to ride a wave of perception about the depth of his talent.
Perception is more important than reality - the perception that Cousins is a tremendous talent is more powerful than the reality that he keeps failing to be one. If the extension is indeed a max contract, or one so close to it as to basically be it, they are paying for the eventuality that Cousins realizes the fullest degree of his potential, and not all of the eventualities in which he doesn't.
This is the biggest of gambles. They are building their future around a player who can't play more than 30 minutes per game, get along with any coaches, avoid getting technicals, or go a season without being suspended. And that's before incorporating the questions about his talent.
There have been incremental improvements in Cousins's game year on year. It would follow logically that he will improve further between this opportunity to pay him, and the next one. But Sacramento is forgoing a built-in security measure to offer unearned security to Cousins.
"You're now our guy," they're saying. "We rely on you. You have our full and frank attention. We will give you everything you need to succeed." This is the message, and the money is its authority. I don't dispute that Cousins will try his best, even when he has the security of guaranteed money - he always tries. But he tries on his terms. That is what needs to change.
It is my hope that Cousins realizes the extent of this "loyalty." He hasn't earned it, yet he's gotten it anyway. Time to pay it forward.