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The Difficulty in Locating Mid-Range Salary Players

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

76 players in the NBA are making over $10 million this upcoming season.

Nine players make between $9 million and $9.9 million.

13 players make between $8 milllion and $8.9 million.

If you’re keeping score, that’s 98 players making over $8 million, which now means we should enter the mid-range area of guys who earn between $5-7 million annually. The league is filled with mid-range talent, so it’d make sense if that category is absolutely filled to the brink with names, right?

Surprisingly, it isn’t.

Only 64 players make between $5-7 million, with eight guys coming in at exactly $5 million. And some of those names shouldn’t even be on that list. Tim Duncan is there, as are a large group of guys on rookie deals who are outplaying their current contract. In fact, of those 64 names, 10 are on rookie deals.

So let’s remove those 10 and Duncan from the equation, and you’re left with just 53 players on non-rookie deals (and to be fair, both Nikola Mirotic and Mirza Teletovic are on their first deals, but aren’t on rookie deals so they actually count here), compared to 76 names who make over $10 million and 22 making between $8-9 million.

Using that logic, it becomes slightly more understandable why Tristan Thompson is holding out for a max deal. He doesn’t fit into the $5-7 million crowd, and with the cap increase coming next year, he falls out of the $8-9 million area that he’d be in with the current cap number.

All that speaks to more and more players entering the current 76-player pool of guys earning $10 million-plus annually, effectively lessening the $5-7 million area further. The MLE from next year and onwards will rise, meaning there will be a permanent shift in salary structure. Players on non-rookie deals earning less than $5 million a year are likely not found in a team’s top eight, suggesting you could see end-of-bench players earning what in recent years have been salaries fitted for rotation players.

That goes with the territory on some level. The NBA has had salary increases before, so they’ve had prior adjustment periods. But given that the lack of mid-range contracts being handed out to, let’s be frank, mid-range talent, the difficulty in locating, and convincing, players of accepting deals in that area has proven challenging for a variety of reasons. Potential bigger offers elsewhere and increased role demanding bigger pay are all factors that play into the grand scheme of things.

The true mid-range salary guys in recent years have actually earned in the $3-4.9 million area which, ironically, for the most part has been below many of these players’ worth. The 70 players in that category for this year includes Marreese Speights, Trevor Booker, Mike Dunleavy, Mario Chalmers, Raymond Felton, Patrick Mills, Evan Turner, Randy Foye, D.J. Augustin and others.

There’s a randomness as to who falls on what side of the salary scales. Speights, who’ll earn $3.8 million this year, could just as easily replace Aron Baynes making $6.5 million, and no one would bat an eyelash.

All this begs the question: Has mid-range talent become much like the actual mid-range game – Less preferred, and largely ignored, for the benefit of stars and potential players?

It makes some sense. Stars are your leads, and potential guys need minutes to develop. It leaves MLE-worthy players either on the curve, or in an inflated salary circle they shouldn’t be in (because teams will always make mistakes, and some of those mistakes include overpaying for inferior talent).

Let’s look into the future and imagine a cap set at an even $100 million. For 15 roster spots, the average deal would be $6.6 million, but stars are going to enter a territory where they’re bound to receive in the early-to-mid 20s depending on experience. With so many teams angling to form a Big 3, something I coincidentally wrote about last week, teams are going out of their way to lure in elite talent to join forces with their own talent, be that elite or not. If two guys earn $25 million a year on a $100 million cap, which is entirely feasible in a few years, your two stars take up 50 percent of the cap, leaving $50 million for the remaining 13 players, which averages out to $3.8 million per player, a far cry below the average salary in NBA circles.

But wait, it gets worse for the middle-of-the-pack everyman of the NBA. After having acquired that second star, now comes the need for the third complementary star. The guy who isn’t quite on the level of the first two, but one clearly in high demand. He may settle for something a little less, to the tune of $18 million a year, and now you’re spending 68 percent of your cap on those three leading men.

(And that’s being kind to the numbers. If in high demand, there’s little to no chance he doesn’t receive a max offer to the tune of also $25 million. Just look at Chris Bosh when he signed in Miami with LeBron back in 2010)

Mind you, having three stars is always preferred, as that optimizes your chances of making a deep playoff run. But with $32 million remaining to 12 players, and that includes two more above-average talents to fill out the starting unit, your best bet to have a deep roster is through rookie deals. Unless the average guy earning an average salary is willing to take that demand down a notch, there’s simply no way any team wants to clog up cap space for someone who isn’t going to have a huge on-court impact right away, or potentially have that down the line.

Gerald Green and Amar’e Stoudemire, ironically both in Miami, signed minimum deals this summer. Clearly, both are worth more in terms of their production, but they got stuck in the market being solid, but non-elite. You could make the argument that Green is actually one of the best offensive wings in the league, but his defensive woes averages it out to him being, well, sorta average. But at 29, he’s right in the middle of his prime, and for a guy who’s scored 2,179 points over his last 3,776 minutes, getting him on a veteran’s minimum deal would’ve been unheard of just half a decade ago.

Other notable names who signed for the minimum in recent years were Nate Robinson and Aaron Brooks, twice, both with the Bulls. Robinson, who was a playoff hero for Chicago (no really, he was) carried a huge responsibility for his team in the most important time frame of the season, proving again and again he could destroy opposing defenses off the dribble and come through in the clutch. He stretched himself as far as he could for a deal in Denver worth…$4 million total over two years.

So why is the mid-range guy getting slept on?

Look no further than rookie extensions or restricted free agency. Teams are burning through cash to protect their own players, which is admirable, but in the process they begin to overpay due to a very specific thinking: “He might blow up.” Owners and general managers are scared lifeless of letting a young player go and then see him blow up on the big scene later on. This is perfectly understandable, but the decision to then, potentially, overpay for his services will hinder you in other areas.

Does Reggie Jackson at $80 million really provide you with more than what you can get from three MLE-type players? Does Brandon Knight at $70 million make enough of a difference to forego depth and experience? Wouldn’t Brooks, Green and Stoudemire combined help any of those teams more than that lone guy?

Some guys live up to these lofty expectations (i.e. Gordon Hayward), but that doesn’t mean teams aren’t gambling. The silver lining here, for teams at least, is that in doing so, they’re inadvertently pushing the mid-level guy out of his salary slot and down to an area where he’ll become a good deal.

For the mid-level guy however, this could mean China and Europe becomes increasingly attractive down the line, especially if this becomes a theme. If several average NBA players leave for other leagues, they’ll instantly be recognized as key figures on their new squads, and raise the level of play across the pond to the point where the Spanish ACB League may actually become a perfectly legitimate second priority league for players who feel underpaid and undervalued by the NBA.

Who knows? Maybe one day college stars slotted for the late teens or early 20s in the draft will actually consider foregoing the NBA altogether to earn more money, get more minutes and increase their commercial profile overseas. And why not, since the NBA doesn’t seem to want them?

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