The salary cap is a long-standing feature of American sports. It was designed to limit the deepest-pocketed owners from simply buying the best team every year, thereby improving parity (and I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that it also artificially deflates player salaries, controlling costs for owners).
Regardless of the motives, the salary cap means that every NBA team is constantly looking for bargains. Player A might be a significantly better player, but if he is on too large a contract, maybe his production can be replaced by less-skilled, but cheaper, player B? This type of arithmetic is involved in every front-office decision that teams make.
The best contracts, by far, are players who can outperform the constraints of the maximum contract. For example, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are paid almost the same amount annually, as set by the maximum allowable contracts they each signed. And who would you rather have? (Oops, maybe that’s a bad example…)
Giannis is getting paid $45 million a year, the maximum the NBA collective bargaining agreement allows. Yet the numbers would say he’s actually worth far more than that for his production since inferior players are getting paid similarly.
NBA players out-playing their contract this season
If absolute superstars are the best contract value, the NEXT best contract values are young studs on rookie deals. What team wouldn’t love to have superstars like Luka Doncic and Ja Morant on an even more cost-controlled deal?
We’ve seen similar stories in the NFL, where teams are desperate to build around young QBs on cheap deals before they hit the open market and command the enormous salaries that they deserve.
These are well-known salary cap quirks. This piece is not about those kinds of players.
Instead, we’re going to be looking for veterans who are signed for cheap, often minimum contracts, but still having major impacts on winning.
Methodology: I took salary data from Spotrac and combined it with Basketball-Reference’s advanced statistics. I then filtered out players who haven’t played at least 150 minutes, and excluded players who would’ve fallen into the categories above.
From there, I looked at players’ Win Shares per salary dollar and Box Plus/Minus per salary dollar to see, using two different all-in-one metrics, which players have contributed the most for their salaries.
A quick note for those who want to understand the advanced metrics a little more (feel free to skip):
Win Shares (WS) is a stat that attempts to divvy up a team’s actual wins according to its players’ statistical contributions. Therefore, it’s always going to be more generous to teams that actually, you know, win games, and it also is often higher for players who play more minutes (since it’s an aggregate, not rate, statistic). At the end of a season, a team’s players will have individual Win Shares that total up to approximately the team’s actual win total, so it’s an interesting stat that takes actual team success into direct account.
Box Plus/Minus (BPM) is a rate statistic that tries to figure out, purely off traditionally available box-score numbers, how much better a team is with a player on the court than off compared to an average player. A value of +2.0 means the team is 2 points per 100 possessions better with the player on the floor than an exactly average player. For context, 6.0 is generally All-Star level, and 10.0 is truly historic.
Ok, thanks for bearing with me! Onward to the good stuff.