It’s no secret that today’s NBA players are among the most well-paid employees on the planet. With even the most modest of contracts pulling in close to a million dollars a year, your average NBA player makes more in a year than many of us will make in a lifetime. No matter where you stand in the NBA pecking order, whether you’re a future Hall-of-Famer or the 12th man, you’re doing pretty well for yourself and your family.
However, as we’ve all experienced, the correlation between payment and job performance is not always perfect. We all know that one guy at the office who gets paid handsomely to sit around and watch YouTube all day because he’s the boss’s cousin, while some anonymous intern is working her butt off for free. In the NBA, the situation is even more complicated, with agents, owners, GMs, and players all involved in contract negotiations. A player’s market value can vary wildly from his actual performance, depending on his personality, his position, what team he’s signing with, and even when the he signs. The last part is true now more than ever, with the NBA’s new TV deal pouring in millions more to the pool of money used to sign players. This means players signing new contracts are doing so under totally unprecedented fiscal circumstances, inking contracts double what we’re used to seeing and leading to some head-scratching numbers. In a few years, the rest of the league’s contracts will catch up and adapt to the new norm, but that doesn’t make today’s disparities any less wonky.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot of money in the pot, but not everyone is smart about who they give it to. A true franchise-level talent is unquantifiable and always worth every penny, but is also exceedingly rare. The rest gets thrown at role players, pretenders, and has-beens. Let’s take a look at this season's salaries for eight players who might soon become a GM’s biggest regret, and seven who give you the best bang for your buck.
15 Overpaid: Al Horford ($26.5 million)
It hurts to do this, because I’m actually a big “Big Al” fan, but he’s simply not the franchise-carrying player the Celtics hope he’ll be, particularly not now on the wrong side of 30. He was essentially brought in as a very expensive lure for Kevin Durant, which would have been money well spent – if it had worked. As we all know, Durant spurned the Celtics for a chance at history and left Boston to salvage a competitive playoff team from spare parts.
Now Horford’s only All-Star sidekick is Isaiah Thomas, a dangerous duo to be sure, but not nearly enough to have the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry quaking in their boots. With a max contract, you want a player who strikes fear into the hearts of opponents, and Horford simply doesn’t fit the bill despite his well-rounded game.
14 Underpaid: Russell Westbrook ($26.5 million)
At the time of writing, Russell Westbrook is currently averaging over 30 points per game, which is nearly always a good indicator that you deserve whatever you’re getting paid. But Westbrook isn’t just a big time scorer: He’s also on pace to become just the second player in the history of NBA basketball to average a triple-double over an entire season. Yes, you heard that right: Russell Westbrook is currently averaging a freakin’ 30 point triple-double. We all knew Westbrook was going to be a monster this year after former partner in crime Kevin Durant left him high and dry, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted these sorts of historical numbers.
He might be one of the highest-paid players in the league, but you can’t put a price on the kind of loyalty and fierce competitiveness Westbrook brings night after night.
13 Overpaid: Dwight Howard ($23.2 million)
Howard would have once been a no-brainer to earn the kind of deal he’s currently sitting on. By the age of 25, he’d already amassed five All-Star appearances, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, three rebounding titles, and two shot blocking titles. He was far and away the best center in the league, and there was no sign he’d even reached the peak of his abilities. Then, a back injury hit. Then a trade leading to a one year Hollywood trainwreck with the Lakers.
The downward spiral continued with more injuries and rumours of discontent in Houston, but now he’s back in his hometown of Atlanta trying to right the ship. While he’s still a top-notch starting center, he hasn’t made an All-Star team since 2014 and turned 31 earlier this month. I know Atlanta must have wanted to give him a big homecoming present, but maybe they should have just stuck to a bottle of wine instead of putting themselves on the hook for $70.5 million over the next three years.
12 Underpaid: Chris Paul ($22.9 million)
With the crazy numbers being put up by the likes of Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook, it’s easy to forget about some of the other great point guards in the game. Small but mighty, Chris Paul has quietly been the gold standard for the position for over a decade. He may be on the wrong side of 30 now, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He’s the engine that makes the Clippers run, leading them to five straight playoff berths after just four total in the franchise’s previous 30-plus years of existence. While the hasn’t quite managed to keep that level of success going through the playoffs, the Clippers should once again be contenders in the loaded Western Conference thanks to Paul’s consistent greatness. Pretty good investment, I’d say.
11 Overpaid: Dwyane Wade ($23.2 million)
Yet another former superstar in his twilight years returning to the city where he grew up, Dwyane Wade helps fill the gaping hometown hero role left by Derrick Rose’s departure. From a marketing standpoint, this was a brilliant move for the Bulls. Wade’s name is still very much a recognizable brand, and that alone should put a few extra butts in seats this season. His game though? Wade’s still one of the best shooting guards in the game when healthy, but that’s proven to be a pretty big if, even at the height of his powers.
He’s still quick, but not quite the “Flash” of old, and the soon-to-be 35 year old certainly isn’t getting any younger. At this late stage in his career, Wade’s basically more of a marketing gimmick and locker room mentor than legitimate franchise player, and an expensive one at that.
10 Underpaid: Anthony Davis ($22.1 million)
At just 23 years of age, Davis is already contending for the title of best player in the game. He’s an unstoppable force on both ends of the floor, near the top of the league in scoring and shot-blocking. The only thing that’s held him back from fully breaking through has been his health, which has limited him to less than 70 games in each of his four seasons. If he can buck that trend this year and keep producing at his current rate, he’ll be well on his way to becoming the face of the league. Not bad for a guy who’s making exactly the same amount of money as zero-time All-Star Bradley Beal. With all that money they’re saving, hopefully New Orleans can afford to buy Davis some actual teammates and not waste his once-in-a-generation talent.
9 Overpaid: Brook Lopez ($21.2 million)
The better known Lopez brother, Brook has been a dependable scorer for the Nets during his nine year career, which garnered him an All-Star nod in 2013. Unfortunately, that success hasn’t translated to much team success, as he’s only made two playoff appearances, losing in the first round both times. Maybe that’s because scoring is kind of all Lopez does. For a seven-foot center, he’s just an average shot blocker, and a downright anemic rebounder: 7.3 for his career and a dismal 5.4 so far this season.
Though he’s added a three point shot and become a better passer this year, it hasn’t helped the Nets suck any less and he’ll probably never become a defensive asset. At such a hefty price point, I think Brooklyn has reason to expect a little more from their franchise center.
8 Underpaid: Kyle Lowry ($12 million)
He might be a late bloomer, but the Raptors have to be pleased that Lowry has blossomed into a two time All-Star during his tenure with them. The scrappy point guard plays bigger than his 6’1” listed height, and his energy, playmaking and leadership have been the catalyst for a Raptors resurgence in the post-Chris Bosh era. Now 30 years old, Lowry is showing no signs of slowing down, and is in fact having his best season yet. With the Raptors on pace for another top-two finish in the East, Lowry should be not just an All-Star this year, but an MVP candidate as well.
All that would be more than enough to endear him to any fanbase, but he also happens to be incredibly economical, making less than far less decorated guards like Jordan Clarkson and Ricky Rubio.
7 Overpaid: Carmelo Anthony ($24.6 million)
‘Melo’s one of those guys who seems to constantly vacillate between “so underrated he’s overrated” and “so overrated he’s underrated.” On the one hand, he’s been a 20 point per game scorer in all 14 of his NBA seasons, a truly remarkable feat that is proof of his consistency in that area. On the other hand, he hasn’t been on too many winning teams, making it past the first round of the playoffs just twice, and failing to get there altogether for the past three seasons. Because of this, he’s developed a reputation as a selfish scorer who’s not a great leader. Though I think that assessment is a bit harsh, the results do kind of speak for themselves.
At 32, Anthony’s running out of time to prove his worth to the fickle MSG crowd, but with the dysfunction that’s been rampant in the Knicks organization for years, that will be easier said than done.
6 Underpaid: Isaiah Thomas ($6,587,132)
An underdog in every sense of the word, Thomas will go down as one of the greatest draft steals of all time, drafted almost as an afterthought by the Sacramento Kings with the very last pick of the 2011 draft. His diminutive stature caused every other NBA team to overlook him, but he’s made them pay with his undeniable talent. Most dead last picks never see a minute of NBA playing time, but Thomas has defied the odds to become an All-Star. Incredibly, he’s now sitting seventh in the league in scoring, and would become the shortest player ever to average more than 26 points per game if he keeps it up. But perhaps Thomas’s most incredible stat is his diminutive contract, which will earn him barely more than a rookie.
For a Celtics team looking to contend once more by signing big name free agents, having an All-Star point guard at the price of a career backup is a huge advantage.
5 Overpaid: Derrick Rose ($21.3 million)
Make no mistake about it, there was a time when Derrick Rose was absolutely worth over $20 million a year. His breathtaking quickness and athleticism made some of the best athletes in the world look like statues, and it wasn’t long before he was able to leverage that talent into an MVP award. But that was over five years ago, and a lot has changed. Injury after injury has taken it’s toll on Rose’s explosiveness and confidence, robbing him of his greatest weapon. He’s shown flashes of his former glory, but even he admits he’ll never be his old self.
At this point, his main asset is his strong brand, which will only be amplified playing in one of the biggest markets on the planet. Even at a shadow of his former self, he’s still a starting calibre point guard, but a star deserving of star money he is not.
4 Underpaid: Kawhi Leonard ($17.6 million)
With the departure of Tim Duncan, the Spurs have now effectively handed over the keys to the winningest franchise of all time to a budding two-way superstar from San Diego State. The long and lean swingman seems to add something new to his game every year, and this season he’s starting to unleash advanced offensive skills to compliment his status as two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. However, even Leonard’s current level of play puts him in a very select group, and almost all those guys are locked into far more lucrative contracts.
Considering he’ll likely be in MVP discussions for the next five years, the Spurs should be over the moon at keeping him in San Antonio for about the same price as Allen-freaking-Crabbe (Who? Yeah, exactly…).
3 Overpaid: Chandler Parsons ($22.1 million)
After turning into a pleasant surprise for Houston, who drafted him in the second round of the 2011 draft, Parsons has put up pretty much the same good – but not great – numbers every year. While his consistency is certainly a laudable trait, you’d think the Grizzlies would have liked to have seen some signs of growth and untapped potential before they put him on the books for over $94 million over the next four years. The early returns have been nothing short of spectacularly bad, as Parsons has struggled just to stay on the floor thanks to injuries and is currently averaging just 7.7 points while shooting under 40 percent from the floor. If his woes continue, this could go down as one of the worst contracts of all time.
2 Underpaid: Stephen Curry ($12.1 million)
It feels strange to call someone getting paid over $12 million this year the most underpaid member of his profession, but such is the absurdity of the NBA and Steph Curry’s stupefyingly modest deal. The reason for this injustice is that Curry’s current deal was brokered before his breakout MVP campaign, and, importantly, before the NBA’s new TV deal was announced. There would have been no way of knowing in 2013 that Curry, who hadn’t even made an All-Star team to that point, would turn into a two-time league MVP and lead the Warriors to a championship. Don’t feel too sorry for Curry though. His steal of a deal made it possible for the Warriors to sign Durant this year to a max contract and create an unholy trinity of three-point shooters.
With just one more year left to go, it’s safe to say Curry will be in for a huge – and well deserved – payday, but for now, he’s getting paid pennies on the dollar.
1 Overpaid: Mike Conley ($26.5 million)
Either the Grizzlies front office is just really ahead of their time or they love to reward mediocrity. Like Parsons, Conley is a slightly above average player for his position who has flown a bit under the radar thanks to the star power at his position. This is now Conley’s tenth year of being the starting point guard in Memphis, and it’s understandable that the organization would want to reward his rock solid consistency and underrated production. But the biggest contract in NBA history??? It may seem ludicrous at first, and it is – for now. However, Conley’s deal is just the most extreme example of what is set to become the new normal for the NBA.
In a few years, thanks to the increasing salary cap, contracts with guaranteed money in the nine-figure range will be commonplace for average players. All that aside, we can all still appreciate how insane it is that a 29-year old average starting point guard will make over twice as much in salary this year as two-time reigning MVP Steph Curry.