When you look at the landscape of sports and the business aspect of it, the discussion of player value is always a hotly contested one. With the increase in NBA salary cap over the next few years, some may think that a few of these contracts are money well spent while others just shake their head in disgust. Sure you can look at guys like Lebron James ($23mil), Kevin Durant ($21mil), Paul George and Russell Westbrook ($16mil each) and say they are worth the price of admission alone. At the same time, critics dogpile on superstars like Kobe Bryant ($25mil), Carmelo Anthony ($23mil), Chris Bosh ($22mil) and Derek Rose ($20mil) because their production doesn’t match their income, mostly due to worn-down bodies and season-long injuries.
While the NBA salary cap does play a role in determining these rankings, at the end of the day overpaid is overpaid and under compensated is still undercompensated, whether it be a million, seven million or fifteen million, whether it be the year 2000, 2010 or 2015. When one considers the change in financial value, $15 million on a salary cap of $70 million this season was roughly estimated to be about $10 million last year when the cap was set at $63. Whether he was healthy or not, the Lakers offering Kobe the contract that they did was seriously overpaying their superstar player at this point in his career. Flip that around and when the Spurs asked Tim Duncan to scratch his name on a 2yr / $10mil contract, they knew that they were paying their future Hall Of Fame forward less than what his true worth to the franchise was, but for the betterment of the team and their ability to sign additional talent, Duncan accepted the offer.
Instead of pointing out the obvious “superstars”, let’s consider some of the players who are undeservedly raking in massive dough this season and then flip it over and take a look at a set of players, who for all accounts are significantly underpaid for their contributions.
Enes Kanter ($16,407,500) – DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka, Al Horford. All five big men, who are significantly more talented in various aspects, will each make less than the OKC Thunder starting center this season. Depending on how rookie coach Billy Donovan wants to run his squad, chances are Kanter may not be among the first five taking the floor for the majority of the season. Last season’s 26-game double-double explosion was helped by injuries to Kevin Durant and Ibaka, both players who will greatly impact Kanter’s role this season. This past summer, Kanter tested the free agent waters, and when Portland threw him a meaty bone, OKC felt in need to match the four-year, $70 million offer. Saying that Kanter is not worth $16 million this year is nothing compared to the $17mil, $17.9mil and $18.6 (player option) that he will bring in over the following three seasons.
Tristan Thompson ($14,260,870) – Hard to hate on a fellow Canadian getting paid, but a $9 million hike for a guy who started only 15 regular season games last year and then turned a quality playoff run into an offseason contract dispute isn’t worth it. Averaging roughly 10 points and 8.5 rebounds over the last three years while getting paid between $4-5 million, Thompson was on the fence between fairly compensated and marginally underpaid. With the return of a healthy Kevin Love and the improved play of Timofey Mozgov, chances are the Cleveland Cavaliers now have a $14 million man coming off the bench. Not bad pay for a guy who is going to make a living rebounding the ball and hitting the occasional putback basket.
Khris Middleton ($14,700,000) – The Bucks are one of the hot, young, exciting teams in the NBA this season, coming off of a trip to the playoffs last year and their first .500 finish in five seasons. After making only $915,243 last year, Middleton made off like a bandit this summer with a huge, five-year, $70 million deal. For a fourth year player who posted 13.4ppg and 4.4rpg last season, the expectations of a significant increase are high. The problem becomes that the other young bucks (pun intended) are also looking to step up their game as Jabari Parker returns from injury, Greg Monroe finds his role with his new team, and Michael Carter-Williams and the Greek Freak will want their touches as well.
Reggie Jackson ($13,913,044) – Mr. Jackson will make more money this season than Steph Curry, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker. When starting point guard Brandon Jennings went down in January with an Achilles injury; the Detroit Pistons scrambled to bring in Jackson before the February trade deadline. Yes, Jackson averaged around 17 points and nine dimes in his time with Detroit, but the question is: Can he maintain those stats on a full-time basis? Other than his 27 games with the Pistons and his time filling in for an injured Russell Westbrook in OKC, Jackson hasn’t had the keys to run a team during his NBA career (272 games, 76 starts). The Pistons could have probably saved some money and still signed Jackson to a reasonable contract considering that not many other teams were banging on Jackson’s door during the free agency period and his desire to stay in Motor City.
DeMarre Carroll ($13,600,000) – Last season Carroll pocketed a decent $2.4 million with the Atlanta Hawks, a contract that could have been considered underpaid, considering his contributions of 12 points, five boards and nearly two assists. The Toronto Raptors didn’t necessarily sign Carroll for his offensive production, but rather his defensive talents and his presence on the glass. At 6’8″, 215lbs, Carroll has the athletic ability and build to guard three positions if needed—something that the Raptors have been missing the last couple of years. The two glaring problems with the seventh year forward is that he isn’t really known for creating his own offense, and he is now the highest-paid player on a team that features Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two former All-Star players.
Steph Curry ($11,370,786) – Can you really call $11 million underpaid? You can when that contract belongs to the 2014-15 MVP and arguably one of the NBA’s most exciting players. As one of, if not the best point guards in the league and also its best shooters, Curry not only is a bargain deal throughout the league but also on his own team. With Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala all set to make more than Chef Curry, the Golden State Warriors will be thanking their lucky stars this season and next ($12.1 million), before opening their wallets in the summer of 2018. Try as you might, it is hard to find a flaw in Curry’s game after averaging 24.8ppg, 7.7apg, 4.3rpg, 2spg, 48%fg, 43%3pfg and 91%ft. If Curry exceeds those numbers this season, the chances are high that Oakland may be hanging another banner in June.
Mike Conley ($9,680,000) – Tony Allen may be the emotional leader of the Grit and Grind, but the Memphis Grizzlies will only go as far as Conley takes them. Noticeably absent during the playoffs due to injury, even when he was actually on the floor, the Grizzlies point guard impacts his squad on both ends of the court. While he may not blow fans away with one amazing talent, Conley gives his team a little bit of everything across the board. Points (check), three-pointers (check), assists (check), rebounds (check…for a 6’1″guard), shooting percentages across the board (check). When you think that Deron Williams, Goran Dragic, Reggie Jackson and Ricky Rubio are all in a higher tax bracket, you better believe that Conley will step up his game a notch higher this season, considering it is a contract year.
Anthony Davis ($7,070,729) – The Brow has been in conversation as the best player in the NBA for a couple of years when you take into consideration what he brings to the New Orleans Pelicans. Think of a blend of David Robinson, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Marcus Camby. Athletic, runs the floor, decent mid-range jumper, rebounds, blocks, defensive help. In all honesty it wouldn’t be surprising if Davis were to be the first player since The Admiral to record a quadruple double.
Entering his fourth year in the league, Davis has been to the All-Star game twice, a member of the All-NBA 1st Team and the All-Rookie Team. The only real negative that one could argue about Davis is that he hasn’t been healthy for a full season, playing at most 68 games last year. Other than that, 20-plus points, 10-plus boards, a couple helpers, nearly 3 blocks and a positive shooting percentage (ok, other than from downtown, but let’s be reasonable here) gives Pelicans fans a lot of hope that with just a bit of help and health that the team will be playoff bound this season. While Davis is currently the sixth-highest paid Pelican, his five-year $145 million extension kicks in next season, averaging $29 million a year.
Tim Duncan ($5,250,000) – Ok, seriously, the dude has five rings and has led the San Antonio Spurs to the playoffs every year since 1997-98. Unlike other superstars from his era, TD continues to contribute positively to his team, both on and off the court. Statistically, yes his numbers have declined. However, he is still an important component to the Spurs roster and is still a threat on a nightly basis. Away from the court, Duncan has willingly taken a huge drop in salary for the betterment of the team and chances of success, whereas others are taking up a lofty amount of the salary cap AND demanding touches. While his game has never been seen as sexy or full of highlights, Duncan has been the ultimate team player for the Spurs throughout his career and hasn’t changed his M.O. since day one. Classy.