In the NBA, the restrictions teams must abide by due to the salary cap have an undeniable influence over roster construction. Success in the NBA is determined not just by the front office’s ability to identify talented players, but also requires the evaluative skills needed to identify undervalued assets. Nothing is more crippling for a franchise than having players who underperform the value of their contract, and it is likewise the case that having a group of players who can live up to or outperform their contracts allows general managers to have a great deal of cap and roster flexibility.
This is part of the reason that veterans such as Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have agreed to below-market deals in recent seasons. Both Duncan and Nowitzki could have easily commanded max contracts, but doing so would have limited the ability of their respective teams to bring in the additional talent necessary to compete in the NBA. Kobe Bryant’s max contract, on the other hand, has made it difficult for the Lakers to round out their roster with the type of depth that is apparent on both the Spurs and the Mavericks.
Savvy general managers are always working to find the next market inefficiency, with some GMs offering early extensions that bank on a player’s continuing development, while others work to find late-round — and cheap — talent in the NBA Draft. Rookie-scale contracts and shrewd free-agent signings have helped executives fill out rosters with talented players who outperform their salaries. As a result, there are a number of players in the NBA who are criminally underpaid, giving their teams much more in terms of production than they take back in salary.
With the average salary of an NBA player at just a bit more than $3.8 million, these players are all drawing close to league-average salaries while providing their teams with exceptional on-court production. These players are all under team-friendly contracts for the 2015-16 season, meaning that their teams will continue to benefit from their low-cost contributions. In some cases, the players listed here are among the best in the league yet still earn well below the salary of a superstar. In other cases, the players included in this list are earning close to the league minimum but still play a significant and valuable role for their team.
15. Tony Allen
Since entering the league in 2005, Allen has always been one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the NBA. He has been named to the NBA All-Defensive Team in four of the last five seasons, earning a first-team selection on three different occasions. The Memphis Grizzlies are significantly better on defense with him on the floor, as the team’s rating per 100 possessions improves by 8.7 points due to Allen’s presence. Signed through the 2016-17 season, Allen earned just $4.8 million this past season and will see a slight bump to $5.1 million in 2015-16. For one of the best defenders in the league, that is a paltry sum for the Grizzlies to pay.
14. Giannis Antetokounmpo
At just 20 years of age and fresh off a breakout season with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Greek Freak is set to earn $1.9 million in 2015-16. In his second season in the NBA, Antetokounmpo averaged 12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1 block per game while playing on a rookie-scale contract set for a mid-first round draftee. Immensely talented and physically gifted, Antetokounmpo is still developing in the pro game and will almost certainly continue to outperform his contract, and it will only keep getting better for the Bucks: The franchise holds a team option that will keep the Greek Freak in Milwaukee for just $2.9 million in 2016-17.
13. Jusuf Nurkic
A second-team All-Rookie selection in 2015, Nurkic was selected with the 16th pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, setting him up for a contract worth $1.7 million this past season and $1.8 million for 2015-16. The Nuggets have team options on Nurkic for the two seasons thereafter, and it will cost just $1.9 million in 2016-17 and $2.9 million 2017-18, quite a deal for a young center who excelled in a relatively limited role this year. In just 17.8 minutes per game, the 20-year-old averaged 6.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while looking like a future defensive anchor in the paint at a time when the league is bereft of skilled big men.
12. Dennis Schroder
A vital component of the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference for 2014-15, Schroder served as an excellent backup point guard for Jeff Teague. In just his second year in the league, Schroder put up 10 points and dished out 4.1 assists while helping run a potent Atlanta Hawks offense. With Schroder scheduled to make just over $1.7 million next season as a part of his rookie deal, the Hawks have gotten incredible value out of the contracts given to their point guards, as Teague appears on this list as well.
11. Victor Oladipo
As the second pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, Oladipo is highly compensated for a second-year pro. Even though he is one of the highest-paid youngsters in the NBA, he is also one of the league’s most productive players, scoring 17.9 points per game while also averaging 4.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.7 steals per game. That is an outstanding output for a player on a contract worth $5.1 million in 2015-16, and the Orlando Magic will certainly exercise the team option worth $6.5 million to keep their point guard in place through the 2016-17 season.
10. Timofey Mozgov
In terms of in-season additions, it is hard to argue that any player has been more valuable than Mozgov. Traded midseason to a Cavaliers team in desperate need of a strong post presence, Mozgov has solidified Cleveland’s interior defense while averaging 10.6 points and 6.9 rebounds during his time with the Cavs. Players of Mozgov’s size and skill very rarely come cheap, but the Cavs will pay just $4.9 million to keep their center in uniform through the 2015-16 season.
9. Nikola Mirotic
After acquiring his draft rights back in 2011, the Bulls were able to bring Mirotic over from Europe on a three-year, $16.6 million contract prior to the 2014-15 season. In his rookie year in the NBA, Mirotic averaged a solid 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, though he truly began to shine over the second half of the season. From March through the end of the regular season, Mirotic gave the Bulls 17.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, making him look like a steal on a contract that will pay him just $5.5 million in 2015-16 and $5.7 million in 2016-17.
8. Mason Plumlee
Productive big men rarely come cheap, but Plumlee is among the lowest-paid post players in the NBA. Set to earn just $1.4 million in 2015-16 from the Brooklyn Nets, the athletic power forward/center showed flashes of brilliance while playing for a franchise that had a very trying season but still made the playoffs. He started 45 games with the Nets in 2014-15, putting up 12 double-doubles and enjoying a 26-game stretch in which he averaged 14.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. His playing time fluctuated over the remainder of the season, but it is clear that the Nets are getting exceptional value out of Plumlee’s rookie-scale contract.
7. Jeff Teague
Teague has established himself as one of the game’s best point guards, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game while leading the Atlanta Hawks to the best record in the Eastern Conference. Teague is under contract for $8 million per season through 2016-17, which is significantly more than many of the other players appearing on this list. Teague’s contract, however, places him 20th among point guards heading into the 2015-16 season, and he is likely to drop even further down the list once free-agent contracts are handed out.
Coming off a season in which he averaged 15.9 points and 7 assists while acting as the distributor on the top-seeded team in the East, Teague would undoubtedly be offered a much more lucrative contract on the open market. As for the Hawks, the franchise is paying its two point guards in Teague and Schroder a combined $9.7 million for 2015-16, less than what 15 other teams will pay to just one starting point guard.
6. George Hill
Hill appears on this list for precisely the same reason as Teague, and he is compensated at exactly the same rate of pay. Like Teague, Hill is set to earn $8 million per season through 2016-17 and is established as one of the best point guards in the NBA. Though he missed a large portion of the 2014-15 season, Hill still came back to average 16.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game while posting a PER of 21.5. Despite this consistent level of production, Hill is among the lower-third in terms of compensation among starting point guards.
5. Damian Lillard
Already a two-time All-Star in his third year in the league, Lillard is one of the game’s best young players and is also one of the most underpaid players in the NBA. Lillard will earn just $4.2 million in 2015-16 despite coming off a year in which he averaged 21 points and 6.2 assists per game. With Lillard, the Trail Blazers have an All-Star caliber starting point guard that is earning far less than a number of back-ups and role players.
4. Andre Drummond
The ninth pick of the 2012 NBA Draft is still on his rookie contract, as Drummond will collect just $3.2 million from the Detroit Pistons in 2015-16. The 6-10 center out of UConn has been a double-double machine in Detroit, averaging 13.8 points, 13.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game over the course of the 2014-15 season. That is exceptional production from the center position, and it is downright absurd that the Pistons are able to enjoy that kind of output for the amount Drummond currently earns. Eligible for the free-agent market after 2015-16, Drummond can expect to fetch sizable contract offers from teams looking for post production. That is, of course, if the Pistons do not lock up Drummond long-term on a contract extension.
3. Rudy Gobert
The 7-1 Gobert is already equipped with a superstar-level nickname (The Stifle Tower) and possesses the kind of athletic ability that will allow him to excel for many years to come at the NBA level. Despite his obvious talents, Gobert is hardly compensated in a manner consistent with his ability on the court. Owed $1.1 million for 2015-16, the Utah Jazz may have the best deal in the NBA, as Gobert ranked in the top ten in total offensive rebounds (sixth), total rebounds (also sixth) and total blocks (second) in 2014-15.
In just his second season in the NBA, Gobert is already a defensive force and, as a center, plays a position that often yields lucrative and long-term contracts. Gobert, however, is still under his rookie contract through 2016-17, and is scheduled to earn just under $3.3 million for his next two seasons in Utah. Not only is Gobert cheap, but at just 22 years old he is still very likely to continue to improve upon his already impressive NBA production.
2. Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside was the ultimate low-risk signing, as the talented but mercurial big man was brought in by the Miami Heat at midseason for just $769,881. As soon as he was given the opportunity to play, Whiteside looked like one of the best centers in the NBA despite having been out of the league for the past two seasons, putting up averages of 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while starting in 32 of the 48 games in which he appeared. Whiteside is owed under $1 million for the 2015-16 season, and it is very likely that the Heat are getting some of the best dollar-for-dollar production in the NBA.
1. Anthony Davis
As the top pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, there was little doubt that Davis had the talent necessary to excel at the NBA level. In just his third year in the league, Davis has already established himself as a preeminent force and is dominating the NBA despite only recently turning 22. A two-time All-Star, Davis put up 24.4 points and grabbed 10.2 rebounds per game while leading the league for the second year in a row in blocks per game with 2.9.
Davis just finished fifth in the 2014-15 MVP voting and was an All-NBA First Team selection, but the talented big man out of the University of Kentucky is owed just over $7 million for the 2015-16 season. The New Orleans Pelicans are currently getting max-contract production out of Davis for a fraction of the cost, but the team must absolutely be considering offering their star a max-level extension this summer.
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