Balancing payroll with productivity is a never-ending struggle for NBA front offices. For every bargain found off the waiver wire, there is an overpaid free agent signed in hopes of playoff success.
What players this season are making their general managers look smart and which ones are not? Let's take a look at the best and worst bangs for the buck. Keep in mind that the list is based solely on each player's 2009-10 salary and that we have disqualified anyone dealing with significant injury (that'd be you, Tracy McGrady) or playing under a rookie contract that didn't require an overseas buyout.
Best bang for the buck
PG: Jason Williams (Orlando Magic), $825,497: Signed out of retirement as a backup for Jameer Nelson, Williams earned his keep in leading the Magic to a 13-4 record as a fill-in starter while Nelson was out with a knee injury. In those 17 games, Williams averaged 5.1 assists and only 1.3 turnovers. Also, for the season, the 11-year veteran is shooting a career-high 42.3 percent from three-point range.
SG: Wesley Matthews (Utah Jazz), $457,588: Since earning a roster spot after injuries sidelined Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles in training camp, the undrafted rookie has become a staple of Jerry Sloan's rotation. In 19 games as Deron Williams' starting backcourt partner, the Marquette product has averaged 9.5 point on 46.4 percent shooting. Overall, he is one of three rookies (along with Denver's Ty Lawson and Oklahoma City's James Harden) playing at least 20 minutes a game for a winning team.
SF: Anthony Morrow (Golden State Warriors), $736,420: Few coaches have a better eye for swingmen than Don Nelson. Undrafted out of Georgia Tech, Morrow signed with the Warriors as a free agent last season and led the NBA in three-point shooting accuracy at 46.7 percent. This season Morrow has remained a dangerous long-range threat, converting 43.9 percent, while averaging 12.0 points.
PF: Luis Scola (Houston Rockets), $3.3 million: Scola is turning in the best numbers of his three-year career, which is understandable considering the boost in shot opportunities without Yao Ming, but also impressive considering the additional defensive attention he has received. His averages of 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds have played a big part in keeping Houston in the playoff chase.
Sixth Man: Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies), $3.3 million: Maybe dealing Pau Gasol for his younger, and cheaper, brother may turn out to be not nearly as bad a deal as many around the league thought. After dropping 15 pounds in the offseason, the 24-year-old Marc is averaging a double-double (15.3 points, 10.0 rebounds) and connecting on 62.1 percent of his shot attempts. He also leads the team in plus-minus, making the Grizzlies 66 points better than their opponents overall when he's on the floor.
Least bang for the buck
PG: T.J. Ford (Indiana Pacers), $8.5 million: Indiana's decision to keep Ford while letting Jarrett Jack walk as a free agent isn't looking too hot now, is it? While Jack has been the equal of starter Jose Calderon in Toronto, Ford has been demoted from starter to third string by Pacers coach Jim O'Brien, who clearly had tired of watching his offense sputter under the guidance of a veteran floor leader averaging 3.7 assists and 1.9 turnovers. Those numbers don't help boost your playing time when you are 1-of-28 on three-point attempts.
SG: Larry Hughes (New York Knicks), $13.7 million: This isn't a contract the Knicks can be blamed for (Cleveland signed Hughes to a five-year, $70 million deal in 2005), but it is one for which they took responsibility in dealing for the 12-year veteran last season. This also isn't a performance entirely of Hughes' making, as coach Mike D'Antoni has rightly been more interested in developing youngsters Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. But in shooting a career-low 36.8 percent and falling into the abyss of a regular string of DNP-CDs, it's clear the man once signed to be LeBron James' Robin has become, well, not the Joker, but little more than the Riddler.
SF: Peja Stojakovic (New Orleans Hornets), $13.4 million: When you're paid a princely sum to shoot, shouldn't you be able to, y'know, shoot? Sorry, but connecting on 38.6 percent while averaging 11.2 points isn't our idea of shooting, and it's not much help to a team that ranks only 19th in scoring.
PF: Andrei Kirilenko (Utah Jazz), $16.4 million: He once anchored the Jazz's defense along with regularly providing 15 points a game. After four years of sinking play, it's clear that guy isn't coming back. But Utah is paying the Kirilenko of 2009-10 as if he was the performer of 2005-06. That version was a big-minutes starter; this year's version is the league's highest-paid bench player working for a team that can't afford the luxury-tax hit his salary has helped generate.
C: Eddy Curry (New York Knicks), $10.5 million: He's been unable to play himself into shape, logging only 62 minutes. That has left New York with a 300-pound anchor who hasn't attracted a single suitor for his contract, which the Knicks are desperate to unload because it includes an $11.3 million player option for next season.
Sixth Man: Kirk Hinrich (Chicago Bulls), $9.5 million: Remember when Hinrich was considered a rising star at point guard, a player who led the Bulls to a sweep of then-defending NBA champion Miami in the 2007 playoffs? We can't either. Hinrich, who recently moved into the starting lineup alongside Derrick Rose after coming off the bench the first two months of the season, is posting career lows of 9.0 points and 36.7 percent shooting.
• The Sandwich Hunter. No man can live on training-table food alone. Perhaps that's why Spurs forward Matt Bonner has taken to chronicling his quest for the perfect sandwich in a semi-regular blog on the Spurs' Web site. (Tip of the cap to the Plain Dealer's Brian Windhorst for spotting this.)
• Omri Casspi: It's becoming clear that the Kings' rebuilding could take a lot less time than last season's 17-win debacle suggests. Already enjoying the fruits of Tyreke Evans, Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes, Sacramento has seemingly found another piece to its puzzle in the rookie from Israel, who, in 10 games as a starter, has averaged 17.7 points and 5.7 rebounds and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range.
• The front-office phones in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C.: With the Jazz desperate to pare salary and the Wizards' season going up in flames, both teams have put out the "For Sale" signs. With big contracts weighing on both teams, deals may not come easily. But with several contenders willing to dive deep into the luxury-tax pool, something is sure to get done.
• All-Star voters. Tracy McGrady was averaging 7.7 minutes before the Rockets decided to part ways over the holidays with the league's highest-paid player. Allen Iverson has averaged 14.5 points and shot 43 percent for a Sixers team that has gone 4-6 with him in the lineup. Why, exactly, are these two in line to start next month's All-Star Game?
• Michael Beasley. A few days after getting into a heated exchange with Heat teammate Quentin Richardson over defensive assignments in a loss to the Hornets, Beasley found himself the target of Dwyane Wade, who told the Miami Herald that the second-year forward is often benched late in games because "he's still learning the NBA defensive thing down the stretch." Said Beasley: "I told [the Heat veterans], 'I'm all for suggestions and I'm for guys trying to help.' But when everybody is telling me different things, that's when things kind of get mixed up."
• The Spurs' resurgence. With spotty performances from Manu Ginobili and a modest slip in their usual ironclad defense, the Spurs had some observers worried about their long-term prospects. Those concerns abated a bit with an 11-3 mark over their last 14 games -- but we're not sold yet. San Antonio played only three teams in that stretch that currently have winning records and lost to two of them. A January schedule that includes games with Dallas, the Lakers, Houston, Atlanta and Denver, as well as the surprising Thunder and Grizzlies (twice), will be a lot more telling.
• "i wake up this morning and seen i was the new JOHN WAYNE."-- Gilbert Arenas greets his Twitter followers with his early reaction to the story he reportedly pulled a gun on teammate Javaris Crittenton amid an argument over a gambling debt.
• "He's too little, man. He's not going to stop me from getting that damn ball. That wasn't going to happen."-- Kobe Bryant assesses why Sergio Rodriguez had no chance at stopping Bryant from launching his game-winning three last Friday in the Lakers' win over Sacramento.
• "Don't get me wrong, it's the home team and I enjoy playing there and I enjoy when the fans do come out. But by no stretch of the imagination have we got one of the best home crowds. We don't. I can't really even say it's getting there."-- Hawks guard Joe Johnson offers a frank rating of the Atlanta crowd.
•New York Times: What's it like to be the preseason Rookie of the Year favorite only to watch others play their way to the award while you wait to make your debut? Ask Blake Griffin.
•Sacramento Bee: Not every entourage is bad news; at least that's what Kings fans can hope with Tyreke Evans' carefully selected, and focused, crew.
•Basketball Prospectus: How have the Knicks risen from embarrassment to borderline Eastern playoff contender? By doing something very un-D'Antoni-like: slowing down.
1. Perhaps the most unfortunate subplot of the Gilbert Arenas situation is the brush it again hands critics to paint the NBA as an outlaw league run by "thugs." And while Arenas' alleged actions shouldn't be taken lightly, is his mistake any more of a black eye than Plaxico Burress' gun incident and conviction was for the NFL? Is it any more damaging to a sport than the steady rain of steroid allegations are to the integrity of baseball's record book? In this corner's opinion, no. Young people with lots of money and lots of disposable time often are going to follow their worst instincts, no matter if they are professional athletes, actors, trust-fund babies, you name it. Let's not make Arenas' mistake a referendum on a league that is far too accustomed to the preaching of those who only appreciate the sport when the Knicks win.
2. So GM Ed Stefanski isn't pleased with the performance of his 76ers. Might we suggest he start by looking in the mirror? It is there he will find the man who agreed to pay Elton Brand $82.2 million only to hire a coach the next season whose motion system doesn't fit an aging Brand, who is recovering from almost two seasons on the shelf with injuries. It is there he will find a man willing to threaten the development of his young squad by bringing in an ego-starved Allen Iverson for a few quick ticket sales. And it is there he will find a man who traded away sharpshooter Kyle Korver, whose contract expires after this season, only to add a thus-far disappointing Jason Kapono, whose more expensive deal lasts a year longer.
3. The NFL's decision to schedule the Cowboys-Eagles playoff game Saturday night at the same time the Mavericks play the Jazz didn't sit with Mark Cuban. (Shocking.) Sure, the NFL treats other sports like "pissants." But it can, and it will as long as it draws the biggest ratings and earns in the most money among pro leagues. If Cuban really wants to change the current sports hierarchy, he'd be wise to at least get his fellow NBA owners to join his campaign.