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Weekly Countdown

Also in this column:More fun with (salary) numbersReaders weigh in on Riley, Knicks

This season alone, players are receiving more than $2 billion in league salaries (the exact total being $2,048,860,079, according to official NBA payroll figures).

This money is dispersed among 469 players (including 18 who didn't play in a game this season), from the $23,751,934 million that the Celtics are paying to Kevin Garnett, to the $8,088 the Cavaliers paid to Hassan Adams and Darius Rice before waiving them in the preseason. In total, the players' earnings are greater than the gross domestic product of Liechtenstein ($1.79 billion), Liberia ($1.49 billion), Monaco ($976 million) and 42 other known countries, republics or regions, according to the 2008 CIA World Factbook.

Here are a few ways of looking at how that money is being spent:

What is the price of winning? Try dividing each team's payroll by the number of wins.

Many teams perform this exercise at the end of the regular season to see if they spent their money efficiently. With two weeks left in the season, I have forecast the final win total for each team based on its winning percentage as of Wednesday morning. This isn't a perfect formula -- it doesn't account for luxury-tax payments, for example -- but it gives a sense for the different strategies of each team and how those plans paid off this season.

5. Boston Celtics, $1.15 million per win. The Celtics took on a huge financial risk when they committed to paying Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen a combined $56 million this season. Their $74.5 million payroll hikes them over the luxury-tax threshold of $67.9 million, but the resulting increase in ticket sales and the extra home dates in the playoffs will more than compensate. As you'll see from other teams detailed in this week's Countdown, it's not enough to lay out big piles of cash -- the Celtics have also spent wisely.

T-4. Orlando Magic, $1.14 million per win. Their six-year, $112 million gamble on Rashard Lewis (18.4 points, 5.4 rebounds) won't create pressure on their overall payroll until next season, when Dwight Howard's salary more than doubles to $13 million. For this season the Magic ($58.1 million payroll) are cashing in on the surprising improvement of Hedo Turkoglu (a relative bargain at $6.4 million) and the cost-effective play of point guard Jameer Nelson, though the perspective on him will change next year when his salary jumps to $7.6 million from its current $2 million.

T-4. Detroit Pistons, $1.14 million per win. The Spurs of the East continue to benefit from financial discipline. The best players make the most money, there isn't a bad contract on the roster, and they remain under the luxury tax at $67.1 million. The Pistons are preparing for the future by developing an inexpensive, young bench led by Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo and Amir Johnson, who are making a total of $7.2 million this season. The next big decision won't come up until 2009, when Rasheed Wallace (currently getting $12.5 million) will be a free agent as a 34-year-old.

2. Utah Jazz, $1.12 million per win. Maybe Andrei Kirilenko is overpaid at $13.7 million, but he's also a full-court game-changer capable of making the big defensive plays in the postseason. Carlos Boozer ($11.6 million) and Mehmet Okur ($9 million) have turned out to be worthy of their salaries, and the Jazz ($60.7 million payroll) get important contributions from Matt Harpring ($6 million) and Kyle Korver ($4.6 million). Issues will arise by 2009 when Utah must contemplate new deals for Deron Williams, Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap, who are working on relatively cheap rookie contracts.

1. New Orleans Hornets, $1.11 million per win. Owner George Shinn has made big investments over the last two years and look how they've paid off: David West ($10.7 million) has turned into an All-Star while Peja Stojakovic ($11.7 million) has recovered from back surgery to join Tyson Chandler ($10.3 million) as key contributors to the Western Conference front-runners. The short-term beauty of the payroll is the $3.6 million rookie-contract salary of team leader and MVP candidate Chris Paul. His command of a maximum salary within two years may force the Hornets to unload one of their big contracts. But who knows the future for Paul or the Hornets themselves in New Orleans? Much can change in two years, but for the time being no team is realizing more production from its payroll ($63.1 million) than the Hornets.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves, $3.05 million per win. In their post-KG makeover, the Wolves ($64.1 million payroll) this season are accountable for $24 million in salaries to a half-dozen players who are no longer with the franchise (including Eddie Griffin, who died in August at age 25). Though Minnesota negotiated buyout reductions on some of those contracts, they are examples of a franchise that has wasted a lot of money over the years. They can, however, realize plenty of cap space in 2009 after the commitments to Antoine Walker ($9.1 million next season) and Greg Buckner ($4 million) expire along with the phantom contracts of Juwan Howard and Troy Hudson. One more year of reclamation before the new era can begin.

3. Seattle SuperSonics, $3.18 million per win. Disagree with their methods, but at least the Sonics have a plan. They have dealt away assets and taken on short-term salary while accruing a pair of No. 1 picks in each of the next three NBA drafts. The goal is to build a winning program from the ground up around Kevin Durant. Their $60.4 million payroll drops to $48.4 million next season (not including their upcoming rookie salaries) and in 2009 they could have space to sign a max free agent. At which time we'll learn if a star can be recruited to live and play in Oklahoma City.

2. New York Knicks, $4.33 million per win. The big surprise is that the Knicks are no longer the league's most profligate franchise. Their payroll is $10.1 million less than the league-leading $105.4 million of the Dallas Mavericks, and in 2009-10 the Knicks' commitments drop to a manageable $63 million as Stephon Marbury comes off the books. There is still plenty of waste in the redundant salaries paid to low-post scorers Eddy Curry ($8.9 million this season) and Zach Randolph ($13.3 million), along with Quentin Richardson ($8.1 million), Malik Rose ($7.1 million), Jared Jeffries ($5.6 million) and especially Jerome James ($5.8 million), who is in a useless category of his own. New team president Donnie Walsh doesn't need to get rid of all of them; if he can clear out some of the fat while rebuilding around a rookie like Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley, the Knicks can show quick improvement without having to start over from scratch.

1. Miami Heat, $5.39 million per win. The Heat are paying $75.5 million in payroll for this? Of course, things would look more promising if Dwyane Wade and Alonzo Mourning were healthy in combination with Shawn Marion, who arrived in the midseason trade that dislodged Shaquille O'Neal's contract ($21 million annually through 2009-10). If you view their current disaster as a consequence of their all-out investment to win the 2006 championship, then this season is a small price to pay. The question is whether they can limit the damage to one year. Next season they'll owe more than $40 million alone to Wade, Marion and Mark Blount. They must turn their high draft pick into a star and bring Wade back to good health in order to show big improvement in 2008-09. Depending on how they deal with Marion's expiring $17.8 million salary next season (assuming he doesn't opt out this summer), they could have major cap space in 2009. But it's not like Pat Riley to wait so long. Expect an aggressive strategy ASAP.

Taking a break from the money issue for our weekly response to reader concerns.

3. I think it's abhorrent how Pat Riley has bailed on his team AGAIN this year to go on his prolonged "scouting trip." First he steals the coaching job from Stan Van Gundy to grab a title, then when the Heat wither and age and start to lose, he gets hip surgery in the middle of the season to avoid facing up to his personnel decisions. Now this. Riley should be held accountable. At this point he doesn't even seem to care how slimy and underhanded he appears.-- Chris, Claremont, N.H.

A lot of people share your feelings about Riley's recent meanderings. The most common complaint is that Riley as a coach complains loudly when he doesn't get full effort from his players, yet he also finds ways to refresh his energy by leaving his team during the season.

On the other hand, he has turned Miami into a winner over the last decade, and there are many franchises that would put up with his occasional absences in exchange for the championship he delivered two years ago.

A note of warning about Riley's scouting trips: Some of the biggest mistakes in the draft are made when a team depends on the judgments of a top-level executive who doesn't start paying attention until the NCAA tournament. It makes no sense to make decisions based on a couple of performances, whether good or bad. Riley should be wise enough to avoid this blunder, but if he ultimately relies on a few personal observations to overrule the judgments of his scouting staff that has been following these young players for several years, then his decision to attend the college tournaments could imperil, rather than enhance, his team's future.

2. I keep hearing the Knicks need to unload Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph to clear cap space, but why would any sane GM take either of those guys and their blotted contracts? I doubt any team is looking to do them any favors.-- Cameron, West Covina, Calif.

Players can always be traded. The huge contracts of Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Shawn Marion, Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal were all traded before the February deadline. The Mavericks found a way to trade Keith Van Horn and award him $4.2 million in the process, and he wasn't even playing. There was a time when Juwan Howard was seen as the most overpaid player in the league, and his contract was moved more than once.

The key for New York will be to raise the value of one or both players before trading them. The best example of this came when Portland temporarily salvaged the career of Isaiah Rider before unloading him in 1999 to Atlanta, where he destroyed the Hawks like a worm virus eating through a computer network. The Blazers received Steve Smith, who helped lead them to the conference finals.

1. Um, what year is your advance scout looking at when he debates Chris Paul for MVP? The Cavs went 0-6 (not 6-2) without LeBron James in the lineup this year, which would seem to invalidate every prior word he made in regards to the Cavs being competitive without LeBron in comparison to the Hornets without Paul. If that's the knowledge of an advance scout, I fear for the team he works for.-- Jonathan, Queens, N.Y.

That one is my fault. I was interviewing the scout by phone while he was boarding an airplane. I could hear him handing his boarding pass at the gate and squeezing down the aisle and trying to place his luggage in the overhead bin all the while he was talking to me, nice guy that he is. That misstatement about James' value was one sentence in the middle of a 10-minute conversation, and I could tell he was distracted at that moment. I made a note to myself to ignore that bit of erroneous information -- then by accident I included it in the final copy.

Now somebody is going to write back and say that I shouldn't be depending on information from people when they can't give their full attention. The truth is, everybody is so busy that you take conversations when you can get them. I've talked to players while they wore headphones or were playing video games. I've talked to coaches on their cell phones while they were driving. This is one of the top scouts in the league and he was trying to do three things at once, and the fault was mine for not properly editing out his mistake in a rare moment of confusion.

2. All-Matt Geiger Team. In honor of the former Philadelphia center, who played 154 games for the 76ers after they signed him to a six-year, $48 million contract in 1999. Geiger retired because of degenerative arthritis in both knees. These players didn't play a minute for these teams this year, but their salaries remained on the salary-cap books because they negotiated buyouts or they were waived outright as part of the 2005 luxury-tax amnesty.

C Adonal Foyle, Warriors $5,765,397 (buyout)F Chris Webber, 76ers $18,015,556 (buyout)F Jerome Williams, Knicks $7,639,400 (amnesty)G Michael Finley, Mavericks $17,363,124 (amnesty)G Steve Francis, Trail Blazers $13,300,333 (buyout)Total: $62,083,810

1. All-Grant Hill team. In honor of the Phoenix forward, who at $1.8 million is one of the best bargains in the league this season.

So I wondered: Could I assemble a reputable lineup for less than the Suns are paying Hill? I did -- thanks to inexpensive midseason signings and rookie contracts for non-first-rounders. The savior was Brent Barry's return to San Antonio on a short-term deal after being waived by the Sonics.

C Theo Ratliff, Pistons $199,452F Paul Millsap, Jazz $687,456F Jamario Moon, Raptors $427,163G Brent Barry, Spurs $179,351G Sam Cassell, Celtics $203,985Total: $1,697,407

1. The Rich vs The Poor. In this league you don't necessarily get what you pay for ...

Here are the five most expensive payrolls this season and the anticipated win total for each of those teams.

5. Miami Heat, $75.5 million, 14 wins4. Cleveland Cavaliers, $81.5 million, 45 wins3. Denver Nuggets $82.7 million, 50 wins2. New York Knicks $95.3 million, 22 wins1. Dallas Mavericks $105.4 million, 51 winsAverages: $88.1 million, 36.4 wins

Here are the five least expensive payrolls this season and the anticipated win total for each of those teams.

30. Memphis Grizzlies, $53.4 million, 21 wins29. Charlotte Bobcats, $54.2 million, 31 wins28. Atlanta Hawks, $56.0 million, 38 wins27. Orlando Magic, $58.1 million, 51 wins26. Golden State Warriors, $59.3 million, 50 winsAverages: $56.2 million, 38.2 wins

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