By Rob Mahoney
The NBA's salary cap and luxury tax rules make it, above all else, a value league. The best-run teams are those able to find maximum value for minimum cost, and thus, the contract has become part of a player's character, and certainly plays an inextricable role when assessing overall value. For that reason alone, it's good to consider a player's performance in context of the financial commitment to him, and so today we hone in on the best value contracts in the NBA. Before going through the list, note that two groups of players have been excluded:
Also note that all listed contract lengths and values include the 2012-13 season in its entirety, and that the players are listed in no particular order:
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Four years, $48 million
Horford's game -- which is predicated on his calming offensive influence, fluid high-post work, sturdy rebounding and flexible defense -- is remarkably understated, but absurdly compatible. He can work well alongside most any ball handler, as his balanced skill set allows him to post up, roll to the rim or flare out for a jumper. His defensive abilities (quick feet, good technique, long reach) make him a great match for most any big-man counterpart and a huge asset to any coach. He handles the ball well, creates terrific synergy with cutters and shooters and makes everything easier for his team on both ends of the court.
Yet because he does it all so quietly (and in the shadow of the more exciting and infuriating Josh Smith), the 26-year-old Horford doesn't often get the credit he deserves. It's a damn shame, and yet now it comes to serve Atlanta well. Hawks general manager Danny Ferry will see the vast majority of the team's contracts expire at the end of this season, with Horford's flat $12 million salary being the largest commitment on the books. That affordable value combined with Horford's complementary game should make Ferry's job that much easier. Rather than debate over who might fit next to the pieces already in place, Ferry and the rest of the front office can target players around the league purely based on their talent and availability.
Three years, $30 million (third-year player option)
At this point, I'm convinced that Duncan will walk the earth for all eternity. What was a decent deal upon its signing is now an utterly fantastic one for the Spurs, as the 36-year-old Duncan has refashioned his aging game into the precise combination of skills that San Antonio so desperately needed. He doesn't get to the low block with much consistency these days, but Duncan's defensive performance this season has been a true flashback. His footwork while defending the pick-and-roll has always been masterful (and minimal; he seldom takes a step in the wrong direction), but Duncan's observable spryness seems the main reason for San Antonio's defensive elevation. At $10 million per -- and with Duncan's crucial offensive game -- that's a hell of a bargain.
Plus, if things go south in the next two years and the Spurs need to restructure their finances, wouldn't Duncan be just the guy to forgo his player option to let the Spurs off the hook or re-sign at an even cheaper rate?
Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
One year, $5.4 million
Jack isn't just a terrific reserve; he's an invaluable part of the Warriors' rotation. He doesn't see all of the openings on the court and thus can be prone to overdribbling, but Jack's work off the bounce (and success from mid-range) have been huge elements of Golden State's offense. His chemistry with Stephen Curry, in particular, makes him tremendously useful. The burden of initiating every offensive action is alleviated whenever Jack is Curry's partner in the backcourt, and together that pair has given the Warriors a dependable vehicle for shot creation.
The only downside is that the 29-year-old Jack (who is in the last season of a four-year, $20 million deal) will be a free agent at the end of this season -- and thus the days of him being underpaid are numbered.
Three years, $7.8 million
Collison plays on a team with two superstars, one of the best bench scorers in the NBA, a Defensive Player of the Year darling and some terrific specialists. But whenever he steps on the court, the Thunder get better -- 2.8 points per 100 possessions better, in fact, according to NBA.com. His defense earns regular acclaim, but let's not sleep on Collison's offensive game. The screen-setting and passing are nice, but the 32-year-old Collison also has a great sense of court awareness and understands how to best play off of two ball-dominant stars. His style is amazingly undemanding, and his contract follows suit. What team wouldn't want a big man this helpful at less than $3 million a season for the next two years and change?
Two years, $6.3 million
Carter has rather gracefully transitioned into a do-it-all role player, the kind who can slide seamlessly into the lineup of a contending team as his career winds down. His shot selection can still be a bit questionable, but I'd contend that Carter's choices have far more to do with the Mavericks' shaky half-court execution this season than any individual vice. Otherwise, Carter is a solid pick-and-roll scorer, a good perimeter shooter and an improbably good defender. There are plenty of nights when Carter is entrusted to guard an opponent's top wing player for long stretches, and though he may be a bit ill-equipped to handle that kind of responsibility, he'd make for a fantastic complement alongside a more traditional wing stopper.
I say all of this in rather hypothetical terms only because the 36-year-old's value to a winning team is much higher than it is to the 26-33 Mavericks, though Dallas is undoubtedly grateful for the redeeming value that Carter has offered this season. Despite playing on a bargain-bin deal, Carter has been the Mavs' saving grace. He often controls the ball at the end of a close game, creates when Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo are having trouble and helps to boost some offensively limited lineups through tough stretches. But at this stage, he's simply much better suited for a role alongside an established core, one in which he can fill gaps without overstretching his offensive game.
Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Three years, $37.5 million
I hear this guy is pretty good.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Four years, $48 million
It's fitting that both Horford and Noah -- stylistic foils and former college teammates -- make this list with perfectly congruent contracts. Noah's game is a bit louder, to say the least, but his value as an anchor and facilitator is actually quite similar to that of his Atlanta counterpart. Chicago often uses Noah, 28, out on the perimeter to help free up the paint for off-ball movement, and he does a fantastic job of setting screens and moving the ball when he's not making his own dives down the lane. He's not quite as skilled on that end, but he makes up for his hitched mid-range game with discretion and hustle.
Defensively, it can be hard to tell where Noah's instincts end and Tom Thibodeau's mandates begin. It's a perfect fit; Noah is nimble and committed in executing his wide assortment of defensive responsibilities, and over the years he's become fully ingrained in Chicago's smothering team defense.
Three years, $35.9 million
Celtics president Danny Ainge was able to lock up Rondo on a long deal at a good rate, but the abstract value of his contract isn't quite as spectacular as some would have you believe. Even if we overlook the justifiable concern over how the 27-year-old point guard might recover from an ACL tear (and the portion of this deal eaten up by his rehabilitation), Rondo is an incredibly particular talent who requires specific conditions to be successful. That doesn't make him any less of a star, or any less valuable if we weigh talent directly against payout. But when you take into account Rondo's complete unwillingness to score, his deliberate pass-hunting, his slumping defense, his difficult personality and his lack of three-point range, this contract begins to look considerably more fair.
Good players with so many caveats to their games are often best served by slimmer deals, as they allow a team to build around them with the appropriate kinds of pieces. Still, those considerations can't come close to offsetting what Rondo provides as a playmaker or his potential to dominate a game with his penetration, defense (when disciplined) and rebounding.
Three years, $44.6 million
In trading Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies have essentially banked on the idea that Gasol can take on an even larger role in the offense at minimal cost (or even potential gain) to their overall efficiency. So far that's been the case, and if Gasol can continue to play such an active role as a creator from the elbow, then his value relative to his contract will only continue to grow.
But as it stands, the 28-year-old Gasol is only one of the best defensive big men in the league, a skilled passer and a legitimate back-to-the-basket threat. He gives a spark of life to an offense that frankly lacks imagination, and casts a shadow on every defensive possession by stepping up at the right time and filling the right spaces. Just an outstanding all-around player, and though the deal he earned as a restricted free agent in December 2011 was a sizable one, he more than validates every penny invested.
Two years, $4.7 million (second-year player option)
Another short-term deal that has worked out incredibly well for the team. I stop well short of claiming that Smith, 27, should have even been considered for an All-Star spot, but he's been one of the Knicks' most important players and an invaluable wild card. He's still very much a part of New York's defensive problems, but at this kind of salary you live with his shortcomings (relentless gunning on three-pointers included) for the sake of his 17.3 points per 36 minutes.
Lou Williams, Atlanta Hawks
Three years, $15.7 million
Williams' scoring output has slipped a bit since his Philadelphia heyday, but he's still one of the NBA's most efficient -- and focused -- bench scorers. Plenty of pros can fill it up, but what's amazing about the 26-year-old Williams is just how low maintenance his scoring game really is. His ability to generate points is barely affected by the teammates with whom he shares the floor, in part because he's so good at drawing fouls on the perimeter and can beat opponents off the dribble without the aid of a screen. He's also a perfectly viable spot-up option for those moments when a Williams-anchored offense may not be appropriate, and is quick to pass out when he gets into trouble.
The defense is another issue entirely, and Williams won't soon be confused for a pure point guard. But all in all, he's a condition-less scoring specialist on an affordable salary that can work alongside starting-caliber players or buoy an offensively inept second unit. That's good enough to make Williams one of the better uses of the mid-level exception in recent memory, even if he's due for a long recovery after tearing his ACL.
Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
Three years, $36 million (no-trade clause)
I don't put too much stock into the notion that the Celtics are better off without Rondo, but the fact that such conversations are even taking place is a testament to Garnett's play. He's having another outstanding defensive year, and if the Celtics' other big men were more consistent on that end, then Boston wouldn't have had to overcome such pronounced early-season hiccups. Garnett, 36, does what he can to keep this team executing at a high level, between his magnificent defensive play and his also-vital offensive contributions.
Teams without a traditional ball-handler need to find other ways to coordinate their sets, and Garnett has been invaluable in that regard as both an orchestrator and a finisher. His per-game stats have suffered some this season, but per 36 minutes he's sustained averages of 17.7 points. 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists. Miraculous stuff from a weary star at this stage in his career, particularly given how heavily the Celtics have relied on Garnett this season. Honorable Mentions: Shane Battier (Miami Heat), Tony Allen (Memphis Grizzlies), O.J. Mayo (Dallas Mavericks), Kosta Koufos (Denver Nuggets), Omer Asik (Houston Rockets) ... we could go on and on.