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Countdown: Which teams get the most, least out of their payroll?

Our annual review of money and how it has been spent on players finds a total of $2,108,698,855 obligated to 502 players -- some to contracts of six years, others to contracts of 10 days -- for an average of $4.2 million per player this season, according to official NBA payroll figures I viewed Monday. This amounts to a reduction of $35.6 million in player salaries since last season.

The cheapest and most expensive players were both employed by the Lakers, who paid Tony Gaffney $5,383 early this season. The highest-paid star is KobeBryant, who is making $23,034,375 (or $18,375 more than Miami's Jermaine O'Neal), which means the Lakers are paying Bryant $280,907 per game whether he plays or not.

Please note that forecasts of total victories were based on winning percentages as of Monday morning. Luxury-tax fees are not included in these numbers.

Oklahoma City Thunder, $55.9 million payroll, $1.12 million per win.Clay Bennett's payroll is the envy of his fellow owners. For starters, no team has less salary on the books than the Thunder, but look deeper: More than $5 million is covered by an insurance policy on Matt Harpring, whose contract the Thunder took on while netting rookie point guard Eric Maynor in the deal. That leaves the Thunder at $49 million in actual operating costs -- or an unheard-of $1 million per win. Of that total, another $8.7 million is paid to veterans Etan Thomas and Kevin Ollie, who rarely play. Boil it all down and their nine-man rotation is making $32.8 million this season in return for the league's 10th-best record and fourth-stingiest field-goal defense.

Of those nine contributors, a half-dozen are on rookie contracts, including a quartet of top-five picks. General manager Sam Presti is set up to retain as many of them as he'd like, especially as Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Maynor can be re-signed under the next collective bargaining agreement, when the terms should be more amenable to management.

Rival teams are jealous of their payroll, but don't take for granted the pain of the last two years -- the surrendering of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the risky choice of Westbrook with the No. 4 pick in 2008, and the discipline of preparing and sticking with a plan to build from the ground up around Kevin Durant. There is much work ahead but the foundation is strong.

Portland Trail Blazers, $58.2 million payroll, $1.16 million per win. The irony here is that GM Kevin Pritchard's job is in danger even as he is making the most of his depleted roster. This is another young team with a half-dozen contributors on rookie deals: It helps that Brandon Roy ($3.9 million) and LaMarcus Aldridge ($5.8 million) are in the final year of their original contracts before shifting into their big extensions next season. The Blazers were a high-payroll team last year and they may soar back over the luxury-tax threshold in the near future. They must decide whether to compete in a bidding war for free-agent center MarcusCamby, and whether to risk their chemistry by dangling Andre Miller to acquire a prolific-scoring small forward to be paired with Roy, and, alas, whether to wash their hands of Greg Oden.

Atlanta Hawks, $65.1 million payroll, $1.23 million per win. This is the most successful team not paying a luxury tax this season. The Hawks don't have a horrible contract on the books, which is something few teams can say. Their highest-paid player is their biggest star, Joe Johnson, and their top five earners are among their six leading scorers (along with All-Star center Al Horford, who is still on his rookie deal). The obvious worry this summer will be whether they can re-sign Johnson (who will be difficult to replace), and if so, will they have the wherewithal to also extend Horford? Working in their favor -- should they choose to wait through next season -- will be the new CBA in 2011, which could limit the money Horford may demand.

Memphis Grizzlies, $57.1 million payroll, $1.33 million per win. Coach Lionel Hollins has made the most of this roster, compelling the Grizzlies to run and play to their athleticism. Apart from Zach Randolph at $16 million and Marko Jaric's buyout worth $6.6 million this season (with an additional $6.8 million tied to his name on their books next season), the highest-paid Grizzly is rookie Hasheem Thabeet at $4.5 million. The worst investment may have been the $437,609 paid on the failed experiment with Allen Iverson, whose draining presence contributed to a 1-8 start that ultimately prevented Memphis from reaching the playoffs. This summer owner Michael Heisley faces a momentous decision of whether to re-sign Rudy Gay, who is expected to receive a large offer sheet as a restricted free agent and is indispensable to this rising team.

Cleveland Cavaliers, $84.9 million, $1.33 million per win. They have the second-highest payroll -- approaching $100 million after the luxury tax is assessed -- but the Cavs are on the verge of earning the league's best record and they should be favorites to win the championship around LeBron James ($15.8 million), Antawn Jamison ($11.6 million) and Mo Williams ($8.9 million), with Shaquille O'Neal ($21 million) expected to return from a thumb injury for the playoffs. The enormous investment is worthwhile not only for the opportunity at a title buy but also to persuade James to re-sign this summer.

New Jersey Nets, $60.1 million payroll, $6.01 million per win. How many times can this be repeated: Though they were at risk of the worst season in league history, the Nets have a strong future. They'll have the best chance in the lottery for the No. 1 pick; they have a terrific second-year center in Brook Lopez and a one-time All-Star guard in Devin Harris; they have max cap space this summer (which they can turn over for 2011 if they prefer); they'll be moving to a new arena in Brooklyn in three years; and they'll be funded by a rich Russian billionaire owner. The Nets were expecting to do better in this interim year, but the current problems will be viewed as a small price to pay if team president Rod Thorn's long-term vision can be fulfilled. Don't bet against it.

Minnesota Timberwolves, $62.8 million payroll, $4.19 million per win. By signing coach KurtRambis to four years and using the No. 5 pick on Ricky Rubio, who won't be available to leave his Spanish club until 2011, the Wolves proved they are rebuilding patiently for the long term. Going into the draft, they'll shed almost $28 million in payroll with as many as 10 names vanishing from the books next season. They'll have space to make an anticipated run at Gay or another free agent this summer to go with another high pick in the draft. And in the meantime, they've continued to develop KevinLove, rookie point guard JonnyFlynn and Corey Brewer, a candidate for the Most Improved Player award.

Washington Wizards, $68.3 million payroll, $2.85 million per win. The Wizards are shocked to be on this list: They assembled a roster deep with talent that was meant to contend this season, but chemistry issues and Gilbert Arenas' lapses undid those hopes. (The suspensions-without-pay to Arenas and Javaris Crittenton saved Washington $3.9 million, which is reflected in this ranking.) President Ernie Grunfeld reacted by unloading Jamison and CaronButler in midseason deals that nullified the luxury-tax bill while creating major cap space for this summer. They may not spend it immediately, but they will have access to a top pick in the draft. Some teams need a couple of years to turn over their roster, but apart from the immovable $17.7 million salary Arenas will earn next season, the next-highest-paid Wizard in 2010-11 may be their No. 1 pick.

New York Knicks, $84.6 million payroll, $2.82 million per win. The Knicks have operated this season like a business planning a move to a different location -- everything must go. Of the five players under contract for next year, three are keepers -- rookie point guard Toney Douglas and forwards Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler -- and the only albatross is Eddy Curry, who is owed $11.3 million next season. They have a much better coach and a few more players than the typical expansion franchise, but otherwise the shelves are empty as they prepare to spend more than $30 million on free agents this summer.

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

Who is a better supporting player for Kobe Bryant in his championship games: Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol?-- Wiiu

That's an interesting phrasing of the question. When Shaq was a Laker and he was the dominant force in basketball, Kobe was viewed as the younger "supporting" scorer on the perimeter. Today, the Lakers are built around Bryant, with Gasol providing the support.

The bottom line is that the duo of O'Neal and Bryant is stronger than that of Bryant and Gasol -- no one should argue with that.

Months prior to the NCAA tournament, I felt that if the Nets got the first pick, they should take Evan Turner. Turner isn't far behind John Wall in talent, and since they have Devin Harris, they should fill the need for a two-guard. It appears the LeBron infatuation in New Jersey is over, so the Nets should concentrate on acquiring other free agents to complement their roster: David Lee (rebounds, doesn't need plays run for him, great finisher) and Rudy Gay (outside shot, great finisher) would be excellent additions, making the Nets "Oklahoma City East" with a young team ready for the fans in Brooklyn.-- Albeon, Ridgeland, S.C.

Turner isn't far behind Wall, and most teams would love to have him. One highly respected scout rates Wall as No. 1 and Turner as No. 1a. Ultimately, most teams would use the No. 1 pick on Wall, who can become a star at both ends of the floor.

The few teams that might be interested in moving the No. 1 pick or using it for Turner would be those with an elite point guard already, such as Chicago (Derrick Rose), New Orleans (Chris Paul) or Utah (Deron Williams), which owns the unprotected rights to New York's pick this year. In the Nets' case, I doubt the presence of Harris would preclude them from taking Wall at No. 1. Harris was an All-Star last year while playing alongside Vince Carter, but his role as point guard of a team that until recently threatened to become the worst in league history is proof that he is not indispensable.

With Michael Jordan at the helm, do you think the Bobcats have a chance at landing LeBron over the summer? Of course, no one knows what James will do, but do you think Jordan brings enough to the Charlotte franchise to be able to lure the King?-- Sam, Matthews, North Carolina

No chance. The Bobcats are over the cap, which means he would be signing for the mid-level exception and a cut in salary of $10 million annually. Charlotte is one of the league's smallest markets, which would hurt his value with Nike and other sponsors, and it is less prepared to win a championship than his current Cavaliers.

All things being equal, Jordan may be able to lure free agents to Charlotte. But how often are all of the important factors equal? Good players will be more interested in their salary, role and title potential than in Jordan's charisma. Being Michael Jordan won't do much for his team on the court, but behaving like Michael Jordan -- which means exhibiting the work ethic and intelligence that separated him from others on the court -- will make a huge difference. Now that Jordan is investing his own money in the team, I believe we'll come to recognize the old virtues in him.

ALL-EXCESSIVE TEAMThese expensive players proved detrimental for a variety of reasons.

G Yao Ming, Rockets ($16.4 million): Foot surgery sidelined him for entire season.

F Elton Brand, 76ers ($14.9 million): His contract and style of play have set back Philly's plan to rebuild with young athletes.

F Darius Miles, Trail Blazers ($9 million): His presence on their payroll ruined the Blazers' hope for a max free agent last summer.

G Michael Redd, Bucks ($17 million): Major knee surgeries for two straight years have doomed this investment.

G Gilbert Arenas, Wizards ($16.2 million): While Arenas lost much of that income because of suspension, he is on the books for another four years at $80 million.

TOTAL: $73.5 million. These five players gathered on one team would instantly vault that roster over the luxury-tax threshold.

ALL-JUDICIOUS TEAM These bargains do not include players on rookie contracts.

C Juwan Howard, Trail Blazers ($800,000): He helped carry Portland through injuries to Oden and Joel Przybilla.

F Matt Barnes, Magic ($1.6 million): He's started 50 games as Orlando's most accurate shooter on the wing.

F Grant Hill, Suns ($3 million): At 37, he's missed one game while providing 30.2 minutes, 11.4 points and 5.5 rebounds.

G Arron Afflalo, Nuggets ($1.1 million): Coach George Karl believes he'll be a better defender than predecessor Dahntay Jones.

G Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder ($2.8 million): He's started every game while leading the way defensively.

TOTAL: $8.5 million. These players combined cost less than the $10.5 million the Knicks are paying Curry this season.

The luxury tax. Eleven teams are above the tax threshold this season. Ten of them will make the playoffs. All told, those 11 teams are on track to average 53 victories each.

The 19 teams below the tax threshold will average 35 wins this season. Among them, only the Hawks are on track to win as many as 53 games.

This breakdown is one of the big reasons owners are expected to take a hard line on cutting back salaries. Teams cannot hope to win a championship without paying the tax.

The teams below will have to the pay the tax:

These teams will get by without having to pay it:

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