Of all the "Big 4" sports in these United States, NBA players earn the most money on average. With the salary cap expansion this summer, we have seen contracts blow way out of proportion. Sadly, many of those new maximum contracts signed appear to have been made purely because they had to be not because they were earned.
NBA stars are the most marketable of the Big 4 sports also. It’s simple to see why this is the case; it is the only sport in which its athletes do not wear a helmet that hides them.
The NBA is also famous for its global reach – with international players, international exhibition games and the spectacle that is Team USA basketball.
Yet just like any sport out there, there are those players who earn the mega-million dollar contracts they sign, and there are those who simply fail to live up to the expectations that go with their salaries.
Is it their fault that they sign the contracts that pay them such sickening amounts of money? No, of course not. It’s the puppet masters in custom made suits that we should blame. But it doesn’t mean we can’t lament the situation for entertainment purposes.
What follows is a list of 8 players who currently earn their contracts, and 7 who do not and are failing to return on the investment made by the front office. Hopefully your team has a player/s in the "earned" category and not the latter one.
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15 Earns: Paul George - $17.1 million
George is fresh off a strong recovery season and solid Olympic campaign this year after that horrific leg-break while with Team USA in 2014.
He is undoubtedly the star player on a relatively unremarkable Indiana Pacers roster that is supposedly about to change its style of play under the behest of President Larry Bird and new coach Nate McMillan.
Returning to the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season, George averaged 23.1 points and 7 rebounds per game and sneakily managed almost two steals a game also.
He appears to be going from strength to strength as his career progresses, using his lengthy 6’9”, 220-pound frame to knock down jumpers further and further out in the field and also making life hell on the perimeter while on defense.
Due just over $57 million for the next three seasons in Indiana, “PG-13” is more than paying dividends on the Pacers’ big investment in him.
14 Doesn't Earn: Eric Bledsoe - $14 million
It seems that much of what the Phoenix Suns have done as a franchise post-Mike D’Antoni/post-"7 seconds or less"/post-Amare has been a constant exercise in futility. Eric Bledsoe, unfortunately, seems to embody much of that failure with the current roster.
Bledsoe has only played full seasons in his rookie season and the 2014-15 season, as he is a constant victim to the injury bug throughout the rest of his career.
When fit, the Kentucky product is a more than capable point guard. He has speed, ball skills and a solid jump shot.
But for a player who signed a five-year deal worth upwards of $70 million back in September of 2014, he needs to be more than “serviceable” and “solid.”
Bledsoe was drafted ahead of Avery Bradley and Hassan Whiteside (in what, admittedly, proved to be a rather thin draft class), but has shown little to be regarded as better than players of a similar ilk.
13 Earns: Draymond Green - $15.3 million
Seen as almost surplus to requirements under previous Warriors head coach Mark Jackson, Draymond Green has certainly thrived under the regime of current coaching wunderkind, Steve Kerr.
Making the Western Conference All-Star team for the first time last season, Green is seen as the prototypical center of the current version of small-ball styled offenses. Green displays solid perimeter shooting and ball-handling, a strong enough presence on defense to be a post defender and just enough angst to rile up his opponents.
Green signed a five-year $82 million dollar contract in July of 2015 that looks to be a bargain considering he’s easily playing like one of the top 15 players in the league.
What will be very interesting for Green in the coming season, though, is the addition of Kevin Durant to the Warriors already jam-packed roster. How much will he be willing to defer to Durant on offense? After all, as many players have pointed out, there’s only one ball on a court.
12 Doesn't Earn: Nikola Pekovic - $12.1 million
Pekovic signed a five-year deal worth $60 million back in August of 2013, yet hasn’t lived up to the sizable investment made in him by the Timberwolves. The 6’11’’ center from Montenegro certainly has the physical capabilities to be a presence in the league, but not the ability to stay on the court. Constantly injured, Pekovic has only played 43 games over the past two seasons.
Given his injuries, and the drafting of a little known prospect out of Kentucky in 2015, Karl Anthony-Towns (you may have heard that name before), and the emergence of Gorgui Dieng as his backup, it appears that Pekovic’s days are certainly numbered in Minnesota.
He would surely find some landing spots among the rest of the league, but given his injury history and rather large contract, it might be harder than imagined. An eventual return to Europe, where he thrived, seems a more likely scenario.
11 Earns: Kawhi Leonard - $17.6 million
The Spurs’ future is certainly in very safe hands with Kawhi Leonard. He may well be the most “Spursy” player of all time. He’s softly spoken, obsessed with perfecting his game and a brilliant two-way player. Leonard is easily the most low maintenance member on this list, something I’m sure permanently surly head coach Gregg Popovich enjoys.
His points per game average this season built on last season (largely because he assumed more of the shot taking responsibilities), and this did not go unnoticed with voters for the All-Star Game, giving “The Claw” his first run.
Last year, he signed a five-year, $94 million deal, which looks to be a bargain for someone who has already won a Finals MVP, been named Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons, and finished second in this season’s MVP voting.
The future is looking bright with the 25-year-old at the helm of the San Antonio Spurs.
10 Doesn't Earn: Bradley Beal - $22.1 million
Beal was one of the lucky few that re-signed with his team when the NBA’s salary cap was expanded this past offseason. In July, he signed a gob smacking five-year, $127 million deal.
Beal is yet to make an All-Star team, or even simply play a full season, but that did not stop the Wizards from signing him to one of "those" deals.
He’s often seen as a scorer, but Beal is hardly a prolific one! Granted, he is only 22 years old, so his career is still very much in the formative stages (I think), but he hasn’t even had a 20-point per game season yet! According to the Wizards though, being not even a .400 three-point shooter and only a .489 career field goal shooter is enough to warrant such an absurd contract.
It’s because of contracts like Beal’s that recently retired players like Ray Allen are thinking they may as well give it one more shot.
9 Earns: Kyrie Irving - $17.6 million
“Uncle Drew” owns probably the smoothest handle in the game at present. His ability to mesmerize defenders while slashing to the basket awes crowds and he has certainly endeared himself to the Cavs' faithfuls. Kyrie’s also proven to be quite a solid jump shooter.
Irving’s injury in the 2014-15 Finals proved to be a deathblow of sorts to the Cavs' chances. This year, with a healthy Irving, the Cavs finally triumphed. As good as LeBron James is, he does need help sometimes. Irving did not let his teammates (and city) down by making that amazing shot to end the Warriors bid for back-to-back titles.
The Australian-born Irving has four years left on a deal worth in excess of $68 million. If he manages to stay healthy, he will produce more of the amazing displays we saw in this year’s finals. That will prove a total bargain for the Cavaliers and the fans.
8 Doesn't Earn: Ricky Rubio - $14 million
The 25-year-old Spanish guard seems to now only really make it on people’s radars when there’s a FIBA tournament. He’s certainly been rather unremarkable since joining the Timberwolves back in 2011. Originally drafted in 2009 (infamously ahead of such players as Stephen Curry, DeMar DeRozan, Taj Gibson, DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Teague), Rubio has rarely flourished in the physical and more athletic NBA.
The chief reason for this is his total lack of a shooting game, you know, that skill you pretty much learn as a kid. Often, defenses will simply let him camp out in the corners, choosing rather to play "help-defense" with someone else than actually guard Rubio. Teams practically dare him to shoot the ball!
Owed $42.6 million over the next three years, Rubio better hurry up and learn to shoot or else find himself in the very harsh and wild terrain of NBA Free Agency. I doubt he wants that.
7 Earns: Russell Westbrook - $26.5 million
Westbrook stayed, as I’m sure you’re more than aware, with the Thunder this offseason. How long that remains the case is a whole separate issue. What we do know is that there probably isn’t a more a ferocious, tenacious and explosive player in the game. Capable of the ridiculously spectacular, Westbrook is now the lone star on a team that used to have another two players contending for possessions. If he wants to shoot 30 times a night, he’ll now be given the green light.
If Westbrook were to test the trade market next season (however unlikely), expect it to be a frenzy. Teams stacked with picks (I’m looking at you Boston) will put together a package for him not seen since Carmelo Anthony’s move to the Knicks.
At 27 years of age, he is merely entering his prime. Having already made five All-Star teams, it appears the sky is the limit for him.
6 Doesn't Earn: Rudy Gay - $16.4 million
Gay had a period a few years ago when he was seen as a quiet star around the league. Having decent shooting range and a wide wingspan that could trouble defenses, he was made a member of two Team USA Squads for the FIBA World Championships in 2010 and 2014.
But since moving to the Kings, the future hasn’t been so bright. This was a tough one for me to write about, as I wasn’t sure if this had more to do with Gay the player or the Kings franchise.
He was moved to Sacramento as part of a deal with John Salmons, so maybe the writing was always on the wall with how badly it was going to go for him there.
Owed upwards of $27 million for the next two seasons, it’ll be a sure thing to see his name bandied around as trade fodder this season.
5 Earns: Kevin Durant - $26.5 million
Durant is listed as 6’9’’, 240 pounds, but most analysts believe he’s more like 6’11’’. When you consider his skill set, this means he’s really a once in a generation player. So how can you put a price tag on that?
Durant astounded everyone this offseason by signing with the Golden State Warriors. It reeked of that old maxim, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” but in all reality, who cares? LeBron did it, and he ended up being just fine. Apparently, players just want to win titles. Can you really blame them for that?
Durant shone at the Olympics, showing everyone (just in case you weren’t aware) that he is in the top 3 players in the league. His handle and smooth jump shot made even the most casual of observers marvel at his talents.
He will earn just over $54 million over the next two years at the Warriors and will definitely help them challenge for a title.
Quite likely, it will be against the Cavs again.
4 Doesn't Earn: Greg Monroe - $16.4 million
Prior to last season, Monroe was with the Detroit Pistons with a seemingly copied second version of himself in Andre Drummond. When it came time to make a decision on who to keep, however, it very quickly became a case of “Greg who?”
This, of course, did not deter a high functioning franchise like the Milwaukee Bucks from making a massive investment in him though, to the tune of $50 million over the next three seasons.
While his numbers appeared to be somewhat consistent from his time in Detroit, it appears it’s not what the Bucks need to anchor their defense. In fact, Monroe appears to be an anchor made from styrofoam.
At points last season, he appeared asleep on defense and totally blind to cutting guards. Monroe is already being mentioned in trade discussions for the Bucks, after only being one year into that three-year deal. That cannot be good for his self-esteem.
3 Earns: LeBron James - $30.9 million
LeBron was quite likely going to always be in the conversation of best players in league history, even if the Cavs didn’t win the NBA Championship a few months ago. Now, he has merely cemented his position in that debate.
LeBron is like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with regards to the fact that there is never enough money an organization can pay him. These guys are the best in their field, proven winners, masters of their craft and legends. You simply pay what they ask – you can’t negotiate with talent like that!
We’re fully aware of his career achievements, but it’s LeBron’s contributions to Cleveland and the state of Ohio as a whole that is mind-blowing. He will go down as a legend of the state, not just the Cavaliers organization. He is a brand in his own right, a concept rather than an athlete. He is a consummate professional both on the court and off.
How do you put a price on that?
2 Doesn't Earn: Harrison Barnes - $22.1 million
Before I jump into my explanation I will concede that my assessment is largely based on what Barnes will earn, as opposed to what he has earned.
Barnes seemed to develop into a solid, maybe even proficient at times, player for the Warriors this past season. He appeared to be a jack-of-all-trades in the league (but certainly a master of none).
But when the Mavericks signed him to a four-year deal worth $94.4 million in July, you could hear the collective spit-take among the nation’s sports writers. “How much?!”
Barnes, certainly a beneficiary of the new cap rules, ultimately proved to no longer be the Warriors’ problem with his contract moving to the Dallas Mavericks to make room for the significant upgrade of Kevin Durant.
For some reason, Barnes appeared bereft of confidence as the finals progressed, his shooting declining into the appallingly bad realm. Peculiarly, this did not deter selectors as he was selected to Team USA for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but would barely log significant time on the court.
It will be interesting to see his progress under Rick Carlisle, an infamously hard taskmaster. He better find his shooting stroke quickly, as that contract will quickly become albatross if he’s not careful.
1 Earns: Stephen Curry - $12.1 million
I put Stephen Curry as my number one on this list because his contract is criminally low considering what he does. Obviously, when it comes time for him to re-sign with the Warriors, we would need to reevaluate the situation.
Curry was not regarded highly in the 2009 NBA Draft. People pointed to his small frame and seemingly one-dimensional game. How wrong they were.
His focus on the fundamentals of the game have led to him being seen as the greatest shooter of all time, amongst other things. He is part of a backcourt that is the envy of not only the league now, but of generations of fans.
Curry has revitalized the Bay Area basketball fan base and brought so many more young viewers to the game. Kids look at his small frame and skill set and think that (however misguided that may be, but you can’t crush kids dreams) they could grow up to be just like him.
A three time All-Star, two-time MVP and scoring leader who’ll only get a touch over $12 million next year, how could he not be number one on this list?
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