If there is one thing that can be taken away from the most recent NBA offseason, it is that players are increasingly valuing stable environments that provide the best opportunity to contend for a championship in the near future. LaMarcus Aldridge left a Portland team that bowed out early in the playoffs to join a perennial contender in San Antonio and David West soon followed suit by taking the veteran’s minimum to join Aldridge after opting out of a guaranteed $12-million player option with Indiana.
It was once the case that players valued contract offers in terms of the money, the market and the team’s ability to contend somewhat equally. Carmelo Anthony, for example, chose to stay in New York over better basketball situations elsewhere because the Knicks could offer a significantly more valuable contract and a better media market than his other suitors. Just a single season later and it seems that more players are placing a greater emphasis on their ability to contend above all else.
One of the reasons these players are increasingly targeting winning situations is the knowledge that a player’s career is often judged in terms of not just their individual accolades but also their team’s success. When all things are essentially equal in the MVP vote, the award typically goes to the player on the best team. So while James Harden, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook could easily make a case for their 2014-15 performances being deserving of the MVP, Steph Curry’s 67-win season made it a foregone conclusion that he would win the award, and deservedly so.
No player wants to go through their career while playing for a team that never competes for a title, and it is even more frustrating for players who have never even made the playoffs. Before joining the Cleveland Cavaliers via trade, Kevin Love’s performances were always questioned due to his status as the best player on a bad team. His reputation has not exactly improved after a somewhat tumultuous season with the Cavs, but he is no longer among those who qualify as one the top 20 highest paid players to never make the playoffs.
This list only excludes players who just completed their rookie seasons, so there are a fair amount of players who are still on their rookie contracts who qualify among the top 20. If players on rookie contracts were excluded, this list would be limited to those who have played for Minnesota, Sacramento, Detroit and Phoenix, as these are the only franchises with playoff droughts lasting longer than three seasons. As it stands, this list is still heavy with players from those franchises, though there are several who changed teams this offseason with the hope of finally reaching the playoffs for the first time.
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20 Ben McLemore - $3.156 Million
McLemore, a young player in just his second year in the league, makes this list by virtue of his being selected in the 2013 NBA Draft by a Sacramento franchise that is currently considered -- by an incredibly wide margin -- as the league’s most volatile. The Kings took McLemore 7th overall and the 22-year-old guard has made decent progress over his first two seasons while playing for a franchise that has not made the playoffs since 2006. McLemore, who averaged 12.1 points per game in 2014-15, will have to hope that DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and George Karl can all coexist if the Kings’ playoff drought is to come to an end in 2015-16.
19 Andre Drummond - $3.27 Million
In just three NBA seasons, Drummond has already established himself as one of the better young centers in the league, averaging a double-double in each of the last two seasons. Despite pairing with another talented big man in Greg Monroe, Drummond has not yet been able to lead Detroit to the playoffs. Drummond is still under a team-friendly deal at just under $3.3 million for next season, but the Pistons have not done much to bolster their roster after completing a 30-win season and losing Monroe in free agency.
18 Alexey Shved - $3.28 Million*
Though he only has three years of NBA experience, Shved has already been a part of four NBA rosters, playing for Minnesota, Houston, Philadelphia and, most recently, New York. In a 16-game run with the Knicks this past season, Shved scored 14.8 points per game while adding averages of 4.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists, perhaps setting himself up for a more lucrative deal on the open market this summer. The fact that he has bounced around so much while playing for lottery-bound franchises may be part of the reason, however, that he is considering a return to the European pro leagues rather than sticking around in the NBA.
*Shved is currently unsigned; the $3.3 million is his 2014-15 salary.
17 Anthony Morrow - $3.34 Million
A veteran of seven NBA seasons, Morrow is one of the longest-tenured players to appear on this list. Set to make $3.3 million next season while under contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Morrow has bounced around the league in such a way that he has never made a playoff appearance. He’s played with the Warriors, Nets, Hawks, Mavericks and Pelicans before joining the Thunder, and while Morrow has a career average of 10.5 points per game in the regular season, he has never played a minute of playoff basketball in any of his seven pro seasons.
16 Alex Len - $3.8 Million
Len, a talented young center who was taken 5th overall by Phoenix in the 2013 NBA Draft, was part of a Suns team that failed to live up to preseason expectations this past season and therefore moved to turn their roster over before the deadline by trading away both Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas while bringing in Brandon Knight. Len has shown flashes of the talent that made him a lottery pick, but the very fluid roster he has been a part of has surely played a role in his team’s inability to reach the playoffs thus far in his still-young career.
15 Derrick Williams - $4.4 Million
After playing for the two franchises with the longest playoff droughts, Williams now joins a team coming off one of its worst seasons in franchise history. Drafted 2nd overall by the Timberwolves in 2011, Williams has been a disappointment and has failed to live up to expectations while playing first in Minnesota and then in Sacramento. Signed by the Knicks as a free agent this offseason, Williams will earn $4.4 million next season and a total of $8.8 million over the life of the two-year contract despite his lack of playoff experience.
14 T13. Chase Budinger - $5 Million
Despite being a veteran of six NBA seasons, Budinger has yet to play a single minute of playoff basketball. After spending the first three years of his NBA career in Houston, Budinger joined the Timberwolves and became a part of their lengthy playoff absence. With things looking up in Minnesota with its young core of talent, Budinger has now been traded to Indiana, a team that missed the playoffs a season ago and just saw David West opt out of his contract worth $12 million to pursue a better chance at contending with the Spurs for the veteran's minimum.
13 T13. Marcus Morris - $5 Million
Morris has a lot of reasons to be displeased at the moment. After taking less money to stay in Phoenix with his twin brother, despite never having made the playoffs with the Rockets or the Suns, Morris was traded away to Detroit, a team that won just 30 games last season and gave a max contract to Reggie Jackson after watching its best player walk in free agency. In four seasons, Morris has averaged 8.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, and his team-friendly contract is probably at least part of what made him an appealing trade target for the Pistons.
12 Dion Waiters - $5.1 Million
Waiters, the fourth pick of the NBA Draft in 2012, was one of the first casualties of the second coming of LeBron James in Cleveland. After spending his first two NBA seasons with the lottery-bound Cavaliers, Waiters was shipped out in a trade this past season and joined an Oklahoma City team beset by injuries and dealing with an ultra-competitive Western Conference. Despite spending last season with two franchises that have each earned trips to the NBA Finals in the past four years (OKC in 2012, Cleveland in 2015), Waiters still missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
11 Victor Oladipo - $5.19 Million
Oladipo is another young player whose relatively lucrative rookie contract lands him on this list. As a second-year pro with the Orlando Magic, Oladipo has been exceptional, averaging 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game over the course of his young career. His solid production, however, has not translated into a playoff berth for the Magic, who have not made the postseason since 2012.
10 P.J. Tucker - $5.5 Million
Even though P.J. Tucker’s rookie season was back in 2006-07, his NBA experience is limited to four seasons with Toronto and Phoenix due to professional basketball stops that include Israel, Greece, Italy, Ukraine and Germany. In his four seasons stateside, however, Tucker has yet to experience NBA playoff basketball despite solid contributions that include 9.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in his most recent season with the Suns.
9 Anthony Bennett - $5.8 Million
Bennett, the top overall pick of what may be one of the worst draft classes in recent memory, has been a disappointment over his first two seasons in the league. After spending his rookie campaign with the lottery-bound Cavaliers in 2013-14, Bennett was an afterthought as a part of the deal that sent Kevin Love to Cleveland and Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota. Bennett is now part of a young Timberwolves team that seems poised to improve quickly, so his playoff drought may end sooner than some of the other players on this list, despite his relatively poor production thus far.
8 Jason Thompson - $6.66 Million
There are only two teams in the entire league that have failed to make the playoffs throughout Jason Thompson's NBA career and the 6-11 big man has spent each one of his first seven seasons playing for one of them in the Sacramento Kings (Minnesota is the other). Fortunately for Thompson, the Kings traded him away this offseason, but the team that acquired him – the Philadelphia 76ers – will not do much to improve his chances of ending his postseason drought next season.
7 Markieff Morris - $8 Million
Though the Morris twins began their career with different teams when they entered the league four seasons ago, neither has been able to make the postseason regardless of their status as teammates or opponents. Markieff has been very productive thus far and is coming off his best season as a pro after averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, but the Suns have been unable to make the playoffs in any of the seasons since Morris came to the franchise as the 13th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft.
6 Nikola Pekovic - $12.1 Million
Each of Pekovic’s five NBA seasons have been with the Minnesota Timberwolves, so it should come as no surprise that the 6-11 center has yet to make the NBA playoffs. Entering his age-30 season, Pekovic is one of the oldest players on the roster in Minnesota and he is also one of the highest paid at $12.1 million. Despite Minnesota’s inability to make the postseason, Pekovic has been a solid offensive big man, averaging 15.4 points and 8.2 rebounds per game over the past four seasons.
5 Ricky Rubio - $12.7 Million
The Timberwolves famously passed on Stephen Curry in the 2009 NBA Draft to take Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn. While Curry has been named the MVP of the league and led the Warriors to an NBA championship, Rubio has yet to lead the T’Wolves to the playoffs and Flynn is out of the league entirely. In four NBA seasons, Rubio has averaged 10.2 points and 8.2 assists, and he is certainly among the most undeniably enjoyable players to watch. With a talented young roster, it looks like the Minnesota players on this list will make the playoffs sooner rather than later.
4 Brandon Knight - $14 Million
Knight is one of the better young guards in the NBA, but he has already played for three different NBA franchises (Detroit, Milwaukee and Phoenix) in just four seasons despite career averages of 15.2 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. While Knight has never led a team to the playoffs, his play was rewarded this offseason with a 5-year, $70-million contract from the Phoenix Suns.
3 DeMarcus Cousins - $15.85 Million
Rightly regarded as one of the best big men in all of basketball, Cousins has never been to the postseason in five years as a member of the Sacramento Kings. Leading the league in players who have been referred to as “mercurial,” “headstrong,” and “difficult,” the Kings will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch for NBA fans who enjoy the possibility of an absolute trainwreck of a season. If there is one thing that is certain, it is that Cousins will be productive regardless of the Sacramento circus, as he has consistently improved each year and is coming off an All-Star season in which he put up 24.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game.
2 Tobias Harris - $16 Million
A young scorer who has a solid inside-out game for the Magic, Tobias Harris just secured a four-year deal worth $64 million to stay in Orlando. Coming off a season in which he averaged 17.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, the 6-8 Harris came to the Magic from the Milwaukee Bucks via trade halfway through his sophomore season. While the future looks bright for Harris, his four-year career with both the Bucks and Magic has not included a single minute of playoff basketball.
1 Greg Monroe - $16.4 Million
Monroe is perhaps most emblematic of the changing free agency mindset of NBA players. Though he was pursued by both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, Monroe chose to sign a three-year deal worth nearly $50 million with the Milwaukee Bucks. After spending his first five seasons with a Pistons team unable to make the postseason, Monroe picked the free agent destination that made the most basketball sense and one that is more likely to end his lengthy playoff drought. Coming off a season in which he averaged a double-double (15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds), Monroe instantly legitimizes a young Bucks team that made the playoffs a season ago despite not having Jabari Parker at their disposal.
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