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Five players with their next big contract on the line this season

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Kurt Helin talks about who the Warriors need to worry about in the Western Conference and who will be vying for the top lottery pick.

Nothing motivates like a contract year.

With shorter contracts and player or team options at the end of many deals, more players than ever are entering free agency each summer. Players come into free agency with big dreams, but often we know the range a player will be in — “he’s a near max player” or “he’s going to get around the mid-level exception” — and the player doesn’t have as many choices as hoped.

Sometimes, however, a player enters a contract year that will have a big say in their next deal — did they make a giant leap forward, or hold off father time for another year? Here are five players in that boat, five players whose seasons will go a long way to determining their next contract.

Russell Westbrook (Lakers)

Westbrook is going to take a haircut next summer — nobody is paying him near the ballpark of the $47 million he will make this season.

How much he gets paid will depend on how much he follows the advice of his former agent Thad Foucher, who said on his way out the door that Westbrook’s “best option is to stay with the Lakers, embrace the starting role and support that Darvin Ham publicly offered.” At the time, Westbrook was privately pushing for a trade away from LeBron James and company, what Westbrook found was a cold market that saw him more as a contract than a player. There wasn’t interest in him as a true No.1 option on a team anymore, the teams willing to take him just wanted Los Angeles’ picks, not the player (most would have waived him).

Westbrook is back in Los Angeles and, at least so far in camp, embracing Ham’s role for him — putting in more energy on defense, setting picks at times, shooting corner threes at times, and picking his spots to be the old, aggressive Westbrook. How that goes this season will color how teams see him next summer when Westbrook is a free agent.

James Harden (76ers)

Harden chose to be a free agent this past summer, and the league is investigating that choice. Remember, Harden opted out of the final year of his deal with the 76ers, worth $47.4 million. Philadelphia GM Daryl Morey quickly used that cap space to sign P.J. Tucker to a three-year midlevel exception contract (one minute into free agency), bring in Danuel House, and trade for DeAnthony Melton. After all that was done Harden re-signed with the 76ers for “what was left” of the cap space the team had under the hard cap, which was $33 million. That threw up red flags around the league — teams saw it all as a “wink-wink” deal where Harden would get a big payday next summer.

Harden, at age 33, has a player option next summer and could have a bounce-back season running the Philly offense (he still averaged 22 points and 10.3 assists a game last season, but his efficiency dropped). If he puts up impressive numbers while leading the 76ers deep into the playoffs (and he doesn’t wilt in those moments), then a big payday is warranted. But is Harden still that guy? Is he still an All-NBA level player who can be a No.1 option? How well Harden plays this season will determine his next deal — and a lot of people will be watching.

Kyrie Irving (Nets)

Another player who — like Harden — pushed for a trade this offseason and found the market for him very cold.

With Irving, the questions are not around his skill set — he still has the best handles in the league, and nobody questions his ability to get into the lane or get buckets — but rather his commitment to the team and the game. Irving will argue that it’s not fair to question his commitment last season based on the vaccine mandate in New York (he could have played a full season for most NBA teams), but his critics will counter he went AWOL in the previous season and his commitment was in question before the vaccine came into the discussion.

Irving is a free agent next season, and the first questions are does he want to stay in Brooklyn, and will the Nets want him back? How broad the market for Irving will be depends on the perception of his attitude. The Lakers are known interested suitors, but will not have max money (more like around $30 million), so Irving will have decisions to make about his priorities.

Josh Hart (Trail Blazers)

Barring a significant injury, there is no chance he is picking up his $12.9 million player option — Hart is in line for a major pay raise. His balanced, two-way game that can plug into almost any system has fans in front offices around the NBA.

Hart has earned the starting small forward spot in Portland this season — he thrived after being traded to Portland last season and averaged 19.9 points a game — what he does with that spot next to Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant will ultimately determine how big his payday gets. But he’s got a nine-figure contract in his future if this season goes well for him, whether he wants to stay in the Pacific Northwest or move on. Hart will have options.

Dillon Brooks (Grizzlies)

If Khris Middleton reaches a new deal with the Bucks and Andrew Wiggins signs an extension with the Warriors — both things more likely to happen than not — Brooks might be the best two-way wing on the free agent market in 2023. That is a strong position to be in — but Brooks is going to have to earn it.

People’s first memories of him might be a rough playoff run where he shot 34.9% last season, or him making what Steve Kerr called a “dirty play,” injuring Gary Payton II. Brooks needs to remind people this season he plays a physical, tough-minded game on both ends — he likes to attack downhill on offense, and is a physical 6'7" switchable defender on defense — and the kind of presence every team needs. That includes the Grizzlies, who will want to sign and keep Brooks and could reach an extension with him before the season starts. But if he gets to free agency, Brooks will have options.

Other players to watch in a contract year: Myles Turner (Pacers now but likely traded before the season is out), D’Angelo Russell (Timberwolves), Kevin Love (Cavaliers), Kristaps Porzingis (Wizards), Al Horford (Celtics), Harrison Barnes (Kings).