This summer is when players drafted in the first round of the 2013 draft are eligible for contract extensions. Regardless of whether they sign extensions, such players will still be working under the fourth year of their rookie contracts next season, with extensions kicking in the following season.
Teams often try to sign their better young players to extensions between their third and fourth seasons in order to lock into cost certainty and avoid restricted free agency, though there is no absolute necessity to do so as the original team still has matching rights should the player reach restricted free agency the summer following their fourth season.
The Wolves have two players from the first round of the 2013 draft: Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Whatever your position is on Muhammad, it's fair to say it makes sense to wait another year on him, as his role is not very well defined and he arguably took a step back this season.
What interests me is what the Wolves will choose to do with Gorgui Dieng, who has emerged as a very useful player over his three years in the league. He's been durable, playing in all 82 games this past season, starting 39, and forming an interesting frontcourt pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns over the second half of the season when the Wolves looked like a much better team.
Dieng took a real step forward this season, finishing better around the rim, extending his range out to 20+ feet (though he fell off from the shorter mid-range where he had been deadly in his first two years) and improving his defense from below average to likely above average. He wound up posting the 14th highest RPM among centers this season after being 41st in 2014-15.
He's also 26 years old as of this writing, which indicates he is likely at or near his peak, though hopefully he will still grow defensively under the tutelage of Tom Thibodeau.
Also worth noting relative to his age is that regardless of when he signs a new contract, it might very well be his one shot at big money — a four year contract either signed as an extension this summer or as a restricted free agent in 2017 would end when he's 31 years old, and who knows where he will be at that point. Wether that factors in to his decision making at all, and in which direction, remains to be seen.
Before we consider the factors that should go into the Wolves thinking on this issue, I went back and looked at players from the two drafts prior to 2013 to find similar players and see what sort of contracts they signed. There were five vaguely similar players in the 2012 first round (by vaguely similar, I mean quality but non-star big men who have significant roles). Only one of them, John Henson, signed an extension last summer. The rest are all playing out their fourth year and will be restricted free agents (RFAs) this summer.
John Henson: extension: 4 years, $44M (Milwaukee)
Tyler Zeller: no extension (Boston)
Jared Sullinger: no extension (Boston)
Miles Plumlee: no extension (Milwaukee)
Festus Ezeli: no extension (Golden State)
From the 2011 draft:
Tristan Thompson: Re-signed after reaching RFA, 5 years, $82M (Cleveland)
Jonas Valanciunas: Started NBA career in 2012, extension, 4 years, $64M (Toronto)
Bismack Biyombo: no extension, signed as RFA for 2 years, $6M (Toronto)
Nikola Vucevic: extension, 4 years, $48M (Orlando)
Donatas Motiejunas: started NBA career in 2012, no extension, will be RFA this summer (Houston)
Kenneth Faried: extension, 4 years, $50M (Denver)
We could discuss these players and their relative value until the cows come home, but that's a little outside of our purpose here; it's enough to note that four of these 11 players signed rookie scale extensions after their third years in the league, with AAVs (average annual value) ranging from $11M to $16M.
So how much would it cost to lock up Dieng this summer? With the massive cap increase, it appears that $18M is going to be the new $12M, so I would guess that it would take something like 4/$64M at the low end and 4/$80M at the higher end.
I think if the Wolves can somehow get him to sign for less than 4/$64M, they absolutely should regardless of any other considerations. Such a contract will prove to be great value, will almost certainly be easily tradeable if circumstances require it, and locks in a quality player at what I'm sure will be below market rates.
Assuming his price falls somewhere in that range, however, there are plenty of factors the Wolves must consider.
What is his role going forward?
As we saw, he spent the second half of the year starting next to Towns, and it certainly had some things going for it. That said, does Thibodeau see that as a functional pairing going forward in the starting lineup, or will they try to acquire a more natural power forward? If Dieng's ultimate role is as a backup center, it likely reduces his value to the Wolves through no fault of his own.
How will his salary fit into the Wolves cap structure over the life of the deal?
Dieng's extension will kick in during the last year of Nikola Pekovic's deal, and with two years left on Ricky Rubio's deal, the two current big salary commitments on the roster. Neither of those is a problem, but it will also kick in a year prior to the presumed big extension for Andrew Wiggins, another possible sizable contract for Zach LaVine, and before you know it, the almost certain max extension for Karl-Anthony Towns.
Does it make better sense to allow him to test free agency and see if he can get an offer sheet in summer 2017?
This is difficult business; it's rare that the cost winds up being less when a player goes through RFA, and generally you want to treat your players well, so telling Gorgui to go out and test the market seems less than ideal. On the other hand, if his agent demands something at the upper end of the range above or even more, I couldn't fault the Wolves for passing on that and trying again next summer. Especially since the market seems fairly well saturated with players of Dieng's ilk.
It's not clear what the market would be for him since it seems like big men of his general quality are fairly well available. Which in theory should lower his cost to the Wolves, but the NBA is not a perfectly efficient market. Look at some of the contracts above.
What is his value in trade this summer without an extension?
Would teams give up something valuable to get his fourth year and extension/RFA rights? Again, it appears that most teams either have players who are somewhat similar or have enough access to them to limit the trade value of any one player of this type, but you never know. All it takes is one to fall in love with Dieng.
Please understand I'm not advocating a trade, but rather discussing some of the issues that surround the Wolves decision-making on Dieng. It sounds as if Thibodeau is very impressed with him, at least from afar, and I would be shocked if the Wolves moved him this summer.
Overall, my feeling is that if you can sign him to a contract extension for under $16M per year, I would do that. If you can't, my impulse would be to wait. The only real downside for the Wolves to waiting until next summer is that Dieng blows up into a max-contract superstar. That seems exceedingly unlikely to me given his age and place in the Wolves pecking order (and calling that a "downside" is somewhat silly in any case). The other downside of course is that the cap is going to go up again, but realistically that should be baked into any extension he would sign this summer as well.
The advantage of the current CBA is that it gives the team all the control as players conclude their rookie contracts. There is no urgency for the Wolves to lock up Dieng, because they will still be able to do so next summer if need be.
I like Gorgui and think he could be a solid part of the rotation for several years to come, so I have no objection to a contract for him. But it makes more sense for the Wolves to wait and see how things play out this season instead of committing before they have to.
What say you?