The 6 Best Contracts In The NBA
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
In 2017, the NBA and the Player's Union came together to make a new Collective Bargaining Agreement for the 2016-17 season which will run until 2024. In the following three seasons since, there have been drastic effects on player compensation. Individual player salaries have gone up dramatically, in conjunction with the continuously rising salary cap. The highest earner in the NBA this year will be Stephen Curry, who will make a cool $40,231,758 this year. He only has a three year contract though. The player with the most guaranteed money right now is Damian Lillard, who just signed a four year extension on top of the two years he has left on his current deal, which means in the next six years he will make $257,429,274. That is a boatload of cash. Hopefully for the Warriors and Blazers, their stars will stay healthy and live up to their lofty deals, because the repercussions could be franchise killing as they would end up in salary cap hell. The Wizards are there right now with John Wall's untradeable deal, and the Thunder might end up there too with Chris Paul (praise be to Daryl Morey for offloading CP3, because Morey needs some positive press right now).
This is where the NBA is right now. All-NBA level players are making more money per year than any of their contemporaries both in the NBA and across the major sports. However, at this point it is hard to say they are not overpaid when they take up 35% of their teams cap space. That is why on the eve of this new and exciting NBA season, I am going to be highlighting the players who are not making the most, but are making the least relative to what they provide to their franchise. Essentially from the player's perspective, who are the most underpaid players in the NBA. And from the management's perspective, who has the most team friendly contracts. The one key caveat of this exercise is going to be that players on rookie contracts still are excluded, so sorry to Ben Simmons, Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and many others who are a part of the NBA's new youth revolution.
In the recent seasons, the two poster boys for this underpaid label have been Stephen Curry and Kemba Walker. Curry famously signed a four year, $44 Million contract before the 2013-14 season, when he was on the edge of stardom but had two wonky ankles that could have fallen apart at any moment. We all know what happened in the following seasons. After Curry's deal expired and he signed his five year, $201 Million deal, Walker took on the mantle of bargain All-Star. He had signed a 4 year, $48 Million in the offseason before the 2015-16 season, when Walker had averaged just 17 points and 5 assists a game. In the following four seasons, he never dropped below 20 PPG, and this year was able to earn a 4 year, $141 Million contract from the Boston Celtics. Therefore, it is time for someone else to take on this mantle. Importantly, these two deals were signed before the salary cap spike, so they looked even better. Now, there are really no more deals that exist like this for players of this quality.
To decide this I used some subjectivity in deciding what was more important, price or quality. This was a tough list to make, and there is lots of discussion to be had as this list is not definitive. Without further ado, here are my top 6. I initially meant to make this a top five, but there are just so many great players who deserve praise while not receiving their deserved compensation.
Honorable Mentions: Jusuf Nurkić (Blazers, 4 years, $48M with 3 years remaining), PJ Tucker (Rockets, 4 years, $32M, 2 years remaining), Montrezl Harrell (Clippers, 2 years, $12M, 1 year remaining), Thomas Bryant (Wizards, 3 years, $25M)
6. (tie) Avery Bradley (Lakers), Enes Kanter (Celtics), JaMychal Green (Clippers), Ed Davis (Jazz), Robin Lopez (Bucks)
Contract Details: 2 years, $9.77M (Kanter, Green and Lopez all have player options for next season)
Salary Ranking: Tied for 204th highest paid players this season
These players all have the same salaries because they were all signed this season under the Room exception. A room exception is one of the three types of exceptions that NBA teams can utilize to sign veteran players, but the room exception is substantially cheaper than the others. This is because teams that have the room exception are given it as a reward for staying under the salary cap, while the other exceptions are for teams that are over it. The negative of this is the maximum length is shorter than the other exceptions, but for most teams that is a fair trade-off.
The players signed with this exception are not without their flaws, but all have proven to be key pieces for contending teams in the past. For example, Enes Kanter had been deemed unplayable by many, including his own coach, in the postseason during his time with the Thunder due to his anemic defense. However, last year when Jusuf Nurkić broke his leg on the eve of the playoffs, Kanter was able to step into his place and average 11.4 PPG and 9.7 RPG during the Blazers run to the Western Conference Finals. His solid performances earned him this contract from the Celtics, where he will be similarly important as the Celtics come into the season as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
There are more players signed under the room exception, but they will be less important to their teams, like Richaun Holmes. Or, they are just worse players and therefore are inherently less valuable for the price, like Frank Kaminsky or Garrett Temple, no offense to these two steady veterans.
Definitely keep an eye out for the cited players to be given important minutes come playoff time, on a price no one can argue with.
5. Josh Richardson (Sixers)
Contract Details: 4 years, $42M with three years remaining.
2018-19 Statistics: 16.6 Points Per Game, 3.6 Rebounds PG, 4.1 Assists PG, 0.5 Blocks PG, 1.1 Steals PG, 14.01 PER
Salary Ranking: 123rd
ESPN NBA rank: 86th
5 Year Market Value: $119.7M
The Philadelphia 76ers have completely remade their team in the last year. The only holdovers on the roster from the beginning of 2018-19 to now are Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the crown jewels of The Process. Importantly, the now departed Jimmy Butler was arguably the most versatile, and important player in crunch time, on the roster during this time. So, that leaves J-Rich, who was acquired in the Jimmy Butler deal to replace his critical functions. However, the other 4 starters are being paid way more than J-Rich will be, which means this roster construction was made possible because J-Rich is grossly underpaid. He signed this deal before he really broke out with the Miami Heat, similar to how Curry and Kemba signed their deals. Last season, he was nominally expected to make a Kemba-esqe jump into All-Star territory, but he was rather overwhelmed as the first option on a mediocre Heat team. This also hurt him on the defensive side of the ball since he put so much energy into offense. Now, he can focus on what makes him great: his three-point stroke and perimeter defense, for a Sixers team that will need both of those to meet their lofty preseason expectations. Playing with All-NBA talents in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid should let J-Rich excel as the offensive release valve and defensive lockdown artist, which will soften the blow from losing Jimmy Butler. Expect J-Rich to make this deal look like a joke.
4. Lou Williams (Clippers)
Contract Details: 3 years, $24M with 2 years remaining
2018-19 Statistics: 20.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.4 APG, 0.1 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 21.30 PER
Salary Ranking: 151st
ESPN NBA rank: 58th
5 Year Market Value: $19.3M
Lou Williams has aged like fine wine so far, with his best seasons as a professional coming in his last two seasons. He has been named Sixth Man of the Year for both of these years. And this is all coming at age 31 and 32, when diminutive guards normally begin to see a great decline. The projection system behind the 5 year market value seems to agree that his best days are behind him, but I am still a believer. Lou Will comes into this season once again the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year, which would be his fourth and give him sole claim to the most Sixth Man awards, a record he currently shares with Jamal Crawford. This all leads me to believe that his current deal is an absolute steal. It is not long enough that the Clippers would be on the hook if he truly does show signs of slowing down, but it gives them time to use him on a now deadly team after signing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and trading for perennial All-Star Paul George, two moves you might have heard about. This opportunity to play with two of the best players in the league will likely have two main consequences on Lou's game. His raw scoring will likely decrease, but it will go along with an uptick in efficiency as defenses have to worry about Leonard and George. Secondly, it should allow Lou Will to create more with his savvy moves, leading to more assists.
3. Anthony Davis (Lakers)
Contract Details: 5 years, $127M with 2 years remaining (holds a player option for 2020-21)
2018-19 Statistics: 25.9 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.6 SPG, 2.4 BPG, 30.3 PER
Salary Ranking: 35th
ESPN NBA Rank: 5th
5 Year Market Value: $272.7M
The rankings now step into a new territory, the perennial MVP candidates who are paid like important members of a team's supporting cast, which is about the cheapest you can get a superstar not on a rookie contract. When Anthony Davis's contract went into effect before the 2016-17 season, there were two other centers who received the same exact contract, besides the player option for a 5th year. These two players are Andre Drummond and Hassan Whiteside. That is why Davis is so highly ranked here. There are teams across the NBA paying players somewhere between $25-30M a year to above-average or just flat out mediocre (sorry, Hassan) performers. If a team's max contract players are not performing and have not shown an ability to make their teammates better, then your team's roster construction is fundamentally flawed. Davis, now a Laker after this requesting a trade out of NOLA, had always been surrounded by a mediocre cast besides Jrue Holiday and a half-season of DeMarcus Cousins. However, his teams always were competing by virtue of him being a legitimate top-5 player in the league. Now he gets a chance to play with a real superstar in LeBron James, something we should all be salivating at because this could be basketball heaven.
Davis slots in third here because there is not that much time left on his deal, especially if he opts out at the end of the season. So far, he has been non-committal about his player option, although as we all saw with Kyrie Irving, being committal does not necessarily mean anything over the course of a long season.
The reason Davis, as well as the next two players, is underpaid so much right now is because this is only his second contract. In the modern NBA salary structure, players coming off of their rookie contracts are eligible for max extensions worth 25% of the salary cap, while All-NBA level players coming off their second contract looking for a third contract are eligible to get the supermax deal, worth 35% of the salary cap. Therefore, if he opts-out after this season, Davis is in line for a huge raise from any team who can offer that much, which would make him fairly compensated.
2. Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
Contract Details: 5 years, $147M with 4 years remaining
2018-19 Statistics: 201. PPG, 10.8 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.4 SPG, 0.7 BPG, 26.3 PER
Salary Ranking: 38th
ESPN NBA Rank: 7th
5 Year Market Value: $366M (:o)
While he is less known and easier to poke fun at than AD and the man who follows him up in these rankings, Jokic has quickly proven in his four professional seasons that he is a force to be reckoned with now and for the foreseeable future. He came into the league as a second round pick with some baby fat to run off, but hidden beneath that was a transcendent 7'0 passer with the touch to put the ball in the basket from anywhere on the floor. Now, only at 24, he is the conductor of one of the best offenses in the league on a still young and fun Nuggets team which lost in seven games in last year's Western Conference Semifinals.
Because Jokic is only going into his 5th season of NBA ball, his rookie deal only expired at the end of the 2017-18 season. This means he is three years behind Davis on getting through his second contract. Therefore, if you ask any NBA GM if they would rather have Jokic or Davis on their current deals, Jokic would likely be the prevailing answer amongst GMs. Jokic still has to work on his game defensively to become a complete player. However, Jokic has shown improvement in his steals every year. Most importantly though, his offense is so refined and pure. And a wise man once said the best defense is a good offense.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Contract Details: 4 years, $100M with 2 years remaining
2018-19 Statistics: 27.7 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 30.9 PER
Salary Ranking: 42nd
ESPN NBA Rank: 1st
5 Year Market Value: $331.5M
All due respect to AD and The Joker, they cannot claim to have a better contract than the reigning MVP who is also making less than both of them. Jokic does have him beat for years, but championship windows in the NBA are short lived, and being the consensus best player in the league gives Giannis the edge in my book. Giannis leads my rankings despite making substantially more than Curry or Kemba did, but those deals were signed before 2016-17. His deal was signed that offseason, but there was still a year left on his rookie deal, so it did not kick in until a season later, giving him two years left on his current deal. This is important to note because almost all of the four year deals signed that offseason are set to expire this year, but the Bucks can hang onto their MVP for at least two more runs. If Giannis adds a three point shot to his already supremely well rounded game, it would not surprise me to see the Bucks go to the NBA Finals this year, and for Giannis to again lead this ranking even as he comes into the final year of his contract.
To summarize my logic here, my top 3 are the cheapest MVP candidates. This makes sense to me as the NBA is a star driven league, and getting an MVP candidate in any capacity is a one-way ticket to the playoffs. But to have one for anything less than a supermax gives teams the leeway to build around them better than their competitors can hope to. None of these three have the highest guaranteed money on their teams which demonstrates how teams can take advantage of this. AD plays with LeBron who is on a supermax. Giannis's favored sidekick Khris Middleton just received a 5 year supermax after making his first All-Star appearance. And Jokic's salary is secondary to hired gun Paul Millsap currently, and in the future he will be making about $1M less than Jamal Murray for the duration of his contract. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that many analysts have these unicorn's teams in their top 5 this year. That is why they lead my rankings, compared to the supremely cheaper but still important talents like J-Rich or Lou Will.
Do you, the reader, agree or think otherwise? Leave your opinions in the comments!