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After 140 days without basketball, NBA action is set to resume inside the Orlando, Florida, bubble on Thursday. There are eight “regular-season” games left to be played by 22 teams, but those games won’t count toward individual regular-season awards. So with MVP, Rookie of the Year and the other honors already sewn up, we thought we’d take our own look at pre-Orlando player production through a slightly different lens: which contracts provided the most — and least — value before the season was cut short.
We pulled every active NBA contract this season from Basketball-Reference.com and compared the salaries of those 516 players to their on-court production, according to our RAPTOR player ratings. Contract figures are given as player salaries starting the season, without taking into account any salary proration as a result of the shortened season, and RAPTOR numbers are through the last games played, on March 11.
Players with dotted circles had not played in any games this season through March 11 and were placed at a default position of 0 WAR.
Some pretty clear clusters emerged. First are the SUPERSTARS — players who RAPTOR thinks are worth every penny of their multimillion-dollar deals. Specifically, these players are getting paid at least $17 million1Five times this season’s median salary of $3.4 million. and were on pace to have a RAPTOR WAR of at least 10 in a full season. By this definition, there were nine superstars in the league this year, all of whom should be household names for NBA fans — including James Harden, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Rudy Gobert will probably be remembered this year as the NBA’s first publicly confirmed COVID-19 case, but he was playing superstar-caliber basketball before the season shut down.
Players receiving similar salaries while not really producing on the court this season are the STINKERS — those who are also making at least $17 million but were only on pace for a RAPTOR WAR of 2 or less in a full season. While no one really wants a stinker on their team, not all stinkers are equally stinky. For example, Steph Curry contributed only 0.5 WAR during the first four games of the Golden State Warriors’ season before a broken left hand forced him to sit out the next 58 contests. But the two-time MVP’s track record of otherworldly production — and 23 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his brief return to action against the Toronto Raptors in early March — his $40.2 million contract still smells much less stinky than the $27.5 million paid to Andrew Wiggins, which bought the Minnesota Timberwolves and Warriors a combined WAR of just 1.1 in 54 total games.
Some teams have been able to find productive players — or even stars — at the bottom of their salary sheets. Fans of the Mavericks, Celtics and Hawks are lucky enough to root for YOUNG STARS — players earning at most $10 million2The maximum annual salary for the first two years of rookie deals. while on a pace for a full-season RAPTOR WAR of at least 8. Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum and Trae Young have all proved to be exciting, productive young All-Stars who will likely ink contracts with massive pay bumps once their rookie deals expire. Even cheaper are the league’s ultimate bargains, the GEMS — players who were on pace for at least 4 RAPTOR WAR and a WAR per million dollars spent of at least 3. Gems like the Charlotte Hornets’ Devonte’ Graham, the Detroit Pistons’ Christian Wood and the Utah Jazz’s Royce O’Neale produced solid numbers while getting paid well under $2 million this season. Their salaries are less than one-tenth of the money going to players like Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan or Harrison Barnes, who all played worse basketball this year, according to RAPTOR.
Looking at the intersection of player salary and performance can show us how different front offices approach roster building, to varying degrees of success. The Miami Heat, who come into the bubble sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, can attribute much of their unexpected run to getting great value from younger, cheaper players. Their most productive players after Jimmy Butler — Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo — are early in their careers and thereby earning well under league average. The Philadelphia 76ers are two spots behind the Heat in the East, and their top-heavy roster hasn’t been quite the juggernaut many expected coming into the year. Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Tobias Harris are all making more than $27 million, but RAPTOR thinks none of those three has been more productive than either of the Heat’s young duo. Ben Simmons makes only $8.1 million this season and his WAR is slightly higher than that of his teammates, but he has already signed a max deal that will pay him almost $30 million next year and a combined $170 million over five years. We actually like the Sixers’ chances in the playoffs, but this now-healthy front-loaded squad will probably need someone to take a step or two toward the superstar cluster if it wants to make a real run at a title.
The 76ers’ expensive core might not have produced overly impressive RAPTOR numbers this season, but at least they played in the majority of Philadelphia’s games.3Embiid missed the most of the bunch — he played in 44 of the team’s 65 games. There are 51 players who haven’t laced up their sneakers once this season but are still earning salaries from NBA teams. A few are key players sidelined with serious injuries, but many are retired players who signed massive deals and were released before their contracts ended. Under certain circumstances, teams can waive players using the stretch provision, allowing them to pay the remaining guaranteed portion of a player’s salary over a longer period of time. This helps teams avoid a big cap hit in the year that player is released, but it also keeps bad contracts lingering on salary sheets for years. The stretch provision is why Timofey Mozgov, who was lucky enough to hit free agency at exactly the right time, will be collecting NBA paychecks through the 2021-22 season — capping off a four-season stretch in which the Magic will pay him $32.7 million for a grand total of zero minutes of basketball.
|Jusuf Nurkić||Trail Blazers||3/25/19||12,000,000|
|Pau Gasol||Spurs / Trail Blazers||3/10/19||7,664,753|
|Joakim Noah||Clippers / Knicks||3/23/19||6,576,567|
|Andrew Nicholson||Trail Blazers||4/12/17||2,844,429|
|Anderson Varejão||Trail Blazers||2/2/17||1,913,345|
|Festus Ezeli||Trail Blazers||6/19/16||333,333|
For the players that made money by actually playing basketball this season, there seemed to be a pretty clear relationship: Better players get paid more, for the most part. Still, there are some players who are getting paid for their past performance (get it together, Mike Conley), some who signed lucrative extensions that bet on future performance (looking at you, Jamal Murray), some who are getting paid less than they probably should be (when’s payday for Montrezl Harrell?) and some who signed massively overvalued deals (go get yours, Russell Westbrook). Which of these contracts are actually worth it is probably up to front offices — but that doesn’t make it any less fun to debate.