Breaking Down The NBA's 30 Best Contracts

Thursday January 19th, 2017

The NBA’s two-year salary cap jump—brought on by a massive broadcasting rights deal—prompted a spending spree unlike any the league has ever seen. Every contract signed for the foreseeable future functions on a different sort of scale. The three largest contracts in NBA history (Mike Conley, Damian Lillard, and DeMar DeRozan) were all inked in this environment. Re-signing a player to a full max off of his rookie deal cost teams over $125 million over five years—some $30 million more than the season prior.

That spending spree has actually lowered projections for the 2017-18 salary cap, though even the revised figure ($102 million) would make for the highest the league has ever seen. On one hand, this kind of headroom makes even lavish contracts more manageable; not every deal is a good one, but even previously cumbersome salaries are now significantly easier for teams to work around. On the other, the relative value of any contract only stretches as the cap increases. A deal that looked like a bargain in 2014 might now be the kind of piece that allows for star-heavy team construction. Just one or two of those deals could afford a team a luxury player it might not have been able to fit under the cap otherwise.

For the sake of understanding where those opportunities lie, we’ll parse rosters around the league for the 30 best (read: most team-friendly) contracts in the league based on the value they present moving forward.

Note: For obvious reasons, rookie-scale deals are not included here. It’s understood that Karl-Anthony Towns is a bargain at $6 million, as are Kristaps Porzingis at $4.3 million and Myles Turner at $2.5 million. This is a collection of the 30 best contracts in the league that were actually negotiated independent of the confines of rookie scale

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Max deals

Jimmy Butler, Bulls: Four years (Player option), $75.9 million

The 28th-highest-paid player in the NBA this season does everything. Solo shot creation? Check. Facilitating for others? Butler makes it look easy. Those defensive assignments most of the league’s load-bearing superstars pass off? Butler somehow finds the energy to handle them in between high-energy offensive possessions. Having that kind of two-way pillar is an incredible luxury for a franchise, particularly when he has another three years remaining under contract beyond this season at a rate hardly becoming of a superstar. Such is the nature of the league with a sharply rising cap. Any players locked in on long-term at just the right time will give their teams wiggle room to build around a foundational talent. Considering how much roster reshapsing Chicago still has ahead, that lasting benefit could make all the difference.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs: Four years (PO), $77.9 million

San Antonio won on two fronts with Leonard’s contract: First by convincing Leonard to pass on signing an extension so that they could use their temporarily available cap space to sign LaMarcus Aldridge, and then by the fact that even the maximum value allowed to Leonard’s experience level hardly does him justice. Leonard is technically tied for the highest-paid player on this list for this season. He makes all of $17.7 million—less than Luol Deng, Allen Crabbe, Derrick Rose, and Chandler Parsons.

Kyrie Irving, Cavs: Four years, $77.9 million

One could lodge very reasonable complaints regarding Irving’s wild, unreliable defense and single-minded offensive approach. They just wouldn’t mean much relative to what the Cavs have invested financially. The skills that tend to run up the bill on the free agent market happen to align perfectly with Irving’s unimpeachable best. You can’t dog the the finishing ability, the poise off the dribble, and the impeccable ability to hit contested shots. The rest can be addressed over the life of a long deal and worked out through the variety of options that Irving’s deal leaves on the table.

John Wall, Wizards: Three years, $54.2 million

The man said it best himself: “I’m getting the same as Reggie Jackson.”

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings: Two years, $35 million

There is still no player in the league who can fully contain Cousins one-on-one, and frankly it’s a hell of a task to slow him down even with help. That’s a point of leverage worth paying for. Lesser teams go to such great lengths in their attempts to manufacture the kind of advantage that Cousins can dial up on demand. With that accessibility comes offensive freedom, a defense forced into overreaction, and the means to activate role players by easing their individual responsibilities. If Sacramento ever fields a roster that makes sense, Cousins will do a lot to elevate their floor.

LeBron James, Cavaliers: Three years (PO), $99.9 million

Sometimes the best way to get a good deal is to find a player so tremendously valuable that even a year-to-year max couldn’t approximate his value.

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Unspeakable bargains

Isaiah Thomas, Celtics: Two years, $12.9 million

Which is more unbelievable in retrospect: That a dynamo like Thomas was once signed for $27 million over four years, or that the team he signed with actually traded him seven months into that deal? This contract looked to be such an excellent value at the moment it was signed that it was hard not to read into it. Players don’t put up the numbers Thomas did and sign for mid-level money without some serious red flags. In Thomas’s case, most every concern—some ball-hogginess? Defensive limitations? Attitude questions?—has been either resolved or eclipsed entirely.

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Nikola Jokic, Nuggets: Three years (TO), $4.4 million

The single most cost-efficient star in the league. Hitting this big on a second-round pick can prove transformative—particularly for a Nuggets team stocked with good-not-great veterans and good-not-great prospects.

Stephen Curry, Warriors: One year, $12.1 million

Curry’s deal is proof that a single great contract can change the fate of an entire franchise. It was because Curry’s deal was so reasonable that there was room to acquire bigger contracts and pile up more total salary without buckling. Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut’s deals work just fine as a composite with Curry’s savings. Or trade one of them away and pair one MVP with another—all because Curry’s wobbly ankles, once upon a time, created enough doubt in his future as to validate a contract this modest.

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Affordable stars

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: Five years, $103 million

This contract is a godsend for the Bucks. The fact that Antetokounmpo took slightly less than the max drew warranted attention, but the bigger deal here is that he signed up for a four-year extension with no player option or early termination option. Milwaukee can plan to have one of the best players in the league propelling its team for each of the next five years with no clear ceiling in sight.

Kemba Walker, Hornets: Three years, $36 million

Walker's deal is oddly reminiscent of Mike Conley’s controversial contract extension back in 2010. At the time of this deal’s signing, Walker had seemed to plateau. He came into the league at 21. He played four consecutive seasons at essentially the same level, during which he shot worse than 40% from the field overall without reliable three-point range, the ability to rack up free throws, or gaudy assist numbers. Then, in a single season, everything came together. Walker will likely be an All-Star this year because of the substantive changes he made to his jumper and the world of efficiency that single tweak opened up for him. A quick guard can get anywhere he needs to when his shot demands respect. Walker has reached that point and built outward—stringing together dribble moves and counters that play off of a defender’s panic. There was plenty to be unsure of when Walker actually signed this deal, but what a bargain it has turned out to be.

Draymond Green, Warriors: Four years, $67.7 million

Championship goodwill coupled with restricted free agency netted the Warriors one of the best deals in the league. All told, Green accepted a deal for around $11 million less than the max in 2015—and thus $11 million less than he arguably deserved. Green is easily a max-worthy player within this experience bracket. To edge down even further from those CBA-imposed limits is an incredible boon for Golden State, both in terms of easing the luxury tax burden and making the very idea of a max-salary addition like Durant more feasible.

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Gordon Hayward, Jazz: Two years (PO), $32.8 million

The only drag in Hayward’s deal is that—by virtue of that player option Charlotte signed into his initial offer sheet—it ends so soon.

Kyle Lowry, Raptors: Two years (ETO), $24 million

There was some risk implicit in signing the injury-prone Lowry to a four-year deal back in 2014, though the rising cap has all but erased it as a matter of scale. This is just an absurdly low number for the kind of player that Lowry has turned out to be. His two most recent seasons, in particular, have been a revelation of gutsy drives and back-breaking shooting. Keeping up with Lowry demands so much guile of a defender that some breakdown is inevitable. From that, Lowry works every inch and angle to take a slight breakdown to its fullest payoff.

Derrick Favors, Jazz: Two years, $23.1 million

Favors has fallen off the map a bit due to a lingering injury this season, but this is an insanely good deal for a big who can hold his own switching on the perimeter, power-post his way through mismatches, and score comfortably on the move. Part of the reason the future of this Jazz core is somewhat tenuous is that Favors and Rudy Gobert have enough spatial overlap in their games to consider the alternatives. Another part is that all of these quality young players Utah has amassed will have to be paid, a fact disguised by rookie-scale deals and value extensions/re-signings like this one.

Klay Thompson, Warriors: Three years, $53.5 million

It says everything you need to know about Golden State’s fortuitous cap situation that the team’s fourth-best player is an All-NBA-level talent on the team’s third-best contract. Golden State did smart work in protecting itself, too, by locking in Thompson’s extension at a hard, set figure rather than hinge it to fluid cap projections.

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Micro-salaries

Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks: Three years (last year non-guaranteed), $3.9 million

Far steadier than a second-round rookie point guard has any right to be. How is it that his presence is already so calming? How could he possibly have this kind of command so soon after joining the league? Brogdon is a clear first-round value who can swing between both guard positions and make his teammates look good. Shooting alone (43.5% from three) makes the 24-year-old worth much more than his deal. Factor in a more complete game and Brogdon registers an entirely different level of value and importance.

David West, Warriors: One year, $1.6 million (cap hit: $980k)

The twilight is calling for West, for whom nothing on the court comes as easily as it once did. At this price point, that hardly matters; Golden State is paying the smallest amount possible for a smart contributor who knows his lane, an adult who understands the dynamic of a locker room, and a seasoned competitor who knows how to work when the game tightens up. To get all of that for the veteran minimum is a dream.

Dewayne Dedmon, Spurs: Two years (PO), $5.9 million

A targeted, low-cost specialist is the easiest way for an NBA team to clear up redundancy. Dedmon and the Spurs are a perfect case study. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol will always be an imperfect pairing, and within certain matchups a damaging one. Through Dedmon, Gregg Popovich always has the option to fall back on a more balanced sort of pairing. To get that kind of player—just the sort San Antonio needed—while committing $14+ million to five different players is nothing short of miraculous. 

Norman Powell, Raptors: Two years (last year non-guaranteed), $2.4 million

Powell can never seem to hold down a steady gig in Toronto’s rotation, but that speaks more to the glut of capable wings than any particular deficiency on Powell’s part. Two years in and Powell is nothing if not dependable; nothing in his game really jumps out, but to be a competent shooter, confident with the ball, and committed to his defensive assignments goes a long way at this price point. 

Montrezl Harrell, Rockets: Two years, $2.5 million

Another second-round pick who makes for a tremendous bargain. The going rate for capable reserve centers in the current market can range up toward $10 million a year. Even some lesser third-stringers are making between $4 million and $6 million on a one-year deal. Harrell, who wound up starting 11 games while Clint Capela was sidelined by injury, is locked in for this season and next at a figure that allows the Rockets to keep financially nimble. That the combination of Harrell, Clint Capela (rookie scale), and Nene make a combined $5.3 million this season is a big reason why Houston ranks 20th in total team payroll—a standing which allowed for meatier commitments to Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

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Discount role players

George Hill, Jazz: One year, $8 million

A bargain even before Hill’s game really started to flourish in Utah. Coaches dream of players who keep their options open. Hill takes nothing off the table; he allows a team to play through its do-it-all wings or high-usage bigs, he makes your defenseless guards all the more playable, he stretches the floor, he keeps an offense moving, and he doesn’t grouse. What a player.

J.J. Redick, Clippers: One year, $7.4 million

So effective in his role that he exerts a star-like impact. The summer of 2017 will effectively decide the future of the Clippers and the fate of this current core. All eyes are on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, both of whom have early termination options that will allow them to become free agents. Re-signing both would be a huge financial commitment to a team that as of yet has run up against every possible obstacle in its attempts to get over the hump. But those stars, along with DeAndre Jordan, only hit their peak when Redick is around to occupy defenses and space the floor. His upcoming free agency is a quiet, critical subplot of what figures to be a fascinating offseason.

Avery Bradley, Celtics: Two years, $17.1 million

A true developmental success story. Boston never forced Bradley’s game against the grain in an attempt to make him a true point guard. Instead, Bradley grew into one of the game’s most balanced two-way wings: a dogged defender, effective shooter, smart cutter, and—new this season—shockingly effective rebounder. It’s completely understandable why a player this good might be displeased with his current contract situation.

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Will Barton, Nuggets: Two years, $7.1 million

Barton has a wild game that, honestly, has never really settled down. The primary difference between his early struggles with the Blazers and his sparkplug seasons with the Nuggets is comfort. Barton knows he has room to make mistakes under Mike Malone and sprints into them full bore. At the same time, his energy on the floor—and the pressure it exerts—allows Barton to rack up points while keeping an opponent off-balance. Last season was the big surprise. This year is a quiet extension of all that made Barton so successful: 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per 36 minutes with uncharacteristically hot shooting to boot. Barton might be a tough piece to incorporate into a more orderly system, but his brand of chaos is valuable in its own right.

Patrick Patterson, Raptors: One year, $6.1 million

Teams get so locked into their pursuit of specific, targeted skills that sometimes a versatile non-specialist falls into a surprisingly affordable deal. Patterson was just one example, having signed a three-year, $18.2 million commitment with Toronto after being traded there a season prior. He wouldn’t address a need, per se, but Patterson has grown to be just the kind of player whose round, functional game makes everything around him go a bit more smoothly. It’s shooting, it’s passing, it’s switchable defense, it’s mistake-free system play—nothing truly elite, mind you, but just the kind of profile that can make a good team better.

Patty Mills, Spurs: One year, $3.6 million

Teams willing to do their homework before signing injured players can come out with a tremendous bargain. Mills signed a deal with a significant right shoulder injury priced in; though officially slated as a three-year contract, Mills’s deal overlapped with a projected 6-7 month recovery period that sideline him for training camp, the preseason, and at least two months of the 2014-15 regular season. There was no guarantee he would return to form and there could be no assurance that his following seasons would not be hampered by recurring injury. All turned out about as well as it could for the Spurs, given those circumstances, and Mills is in line to cash in this summer off of his considerable scoring ability.

Jae Crowder, Celtics: Four years, $28.2 million

A leap of faith that has paid off in a big, big way. At the time of this contract’s signing, Crowder was more enticing as an idea than an actual player. Boston took that idea and cultivated it into something real, all while betting on the strength of its developmental resources with the length of this contract. Every year the league demands a bit more versatility of its best players. Crowder fits in perfectly as a multipositional defender with a malleable offensive game.

Patrick Beverley, Rockets: Three years (last year non-guaranteed), $16.5 million

It was amazing that Houston, in an age where scouting has become a legitimate, worldwide industry, caught on to Beverley in Russia before any other team in the league and managed to land him on a multi-year, non-guaranteed deal. It might be even more so that the Rockets were able to re-sign Beverley to another deal at this favorable a rate. A loose-cannon specialist will naturally whittle down his suitors, but Beverley is such a tenacious on-ball defender and such a convenient fit alongside creative wing players that it’s a wonder some other team didn’t bid up the price. The team option in the final year of what was a four-year, $23 million deal is just icing on the cake.

Trevor Ariza, Rockets: Two years, $15.2 million

Consistently better than you’d think. Ariza’s game has fallen off slightly, but at a rate that pales next to the rising cost of effective wing players. Scarcity at his position, viable defense across a variety of matchups, and effective fill-in-the-gaps wing play grant him a lasting rotation value. Ariza is a bargain at nearly half the price of an average starter.

Salary data courtesy of Basketball Insiders (link: www.basketballinsiders.com)

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