The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement is far from perfect, but it’s certainly more punitive to teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold. While the playing field between small-market and big-market teams will never be completely level, the CBA does help even things up a bit.
That said, owners who aren’t afraid to spend will always find ways to do so. This season has proved to be no exception.
Are the big spenders this year enjoying a distinct advantage over teams with significantly lower payrolls? Let’s take a look at how the top 10 most expensive rosters this year are faring compared to the rest of the league.
Data accurate as of December 5, 2013.
Total Salary: $70.3 million
Current Cost Per Win: $5.4 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $1.1 million
The Oklahoma City Thunder catch a lot of flak for their supposed tightfisted ways, but they still have the 10th-highest salary in the league.
At this current pace, Oklahoma City is on track to spend $1.1 million of roster payroll per win. The only other teams in the league who currently have a projected cost per win lower than Oklahoma City are the Indiana Pacers ($953,615), the San Antonio Spurs ($931,185) and the surprising Portland Trail Blazers ($890,804).
Portland should come back down to earth a bit, and Indiana isn't going to win the 73 games for which it's currently on pace.
There's a decent chance the Thunder finish as the most cost-effective team in the league, depending on how many games Gregg Popovich lets his starters take off in San Antonio. It's a little scary to imagine how much bang for their buck the Thunder could get if Kendrick Perkins weren't making $8.7 million this season.
While win shares is an imperfect stat, it's interesting to note that Perkins has just 0.1 win shares this season (via Basketball Reference).
For comparison's sake, Thunder backup center Steven Adams has 0.9 win shares this season. OKC is paying him $232,320 for every 0.1 win share compared to $8.7 million for Perkins. Big difference.
Total Salary: $70.3 million
Current Cost Per Win: $7.8 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $1.7 million
This is a surprisingly expensive roster, particularly since John Wall's max extension hasn't kicked in yet. Washington has a lot of mid-range salaries (e.g. Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat) and expensive draft picks on the books, which makes it somewhat unique in the NBA landscape.
The Wizards are projected to pay $1.7 million per win this season, which isn't all that bad for being in a major media market.
The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls are all projected to pay more per win this season. Philadelphia is the only major-market team in the East slated to pay less, and that's in large part due to its ridiculously low payroll of $48.1 million.
The Wizards have made some nice decisions of late. Remember how the Martell Webster signing was lambasted? Well, Webster leads all Wizards with 2.1 win shares so far on a $5.1 million deal. That means Webster is making $2.45 million per win share produced.
There are 23 players in the league registering more win shares than Webster, but none of those players on non-rookie deals are providing a lower price per win share than Webster is. Wesley Matthews and Kevin Martin are right there, but Webster is providing more value by that metric.
Washington is slated to have cap space to play with next offseason, so we'll see if the Wizards end up becoming a bigger spender like a few of their Eastern Conference contemporaries.
Total Salary: $70.9 million
Current Cost Per Win: $11.8 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $2.4 million
The Toronto Raptors have the eighth-most expensive roster in the league, hampered mostly by Rudy Gay's $17.8 million salary this season.
The dollar amount might be tolerable to Toronto's management if the Raptors were winning, but a 6-11 start has the Raptors on the outside of the playoff picture right now, which takes some doing in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto is on pace to spend $2.4 million per win, which is over a million more per win than what the Atlanta Hawks are spending. That's a hefty chunk of money.
There may be hope on the horizon, though. Rudy Gay could opt to become a free agent in the summer, and Toronto should be doing everything it can to make that happen.
Gay has 0.4 win shares so far this season, which comes out to $4.45 million for every 0.1 win share. If LeBron James were paid at that same price, he'd be paid $177 million this season.
Don't be surprised if Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri blows this thing up soon.
Total Salary: $71.2 million
Cost Per Win: $8.9 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $2.2 million
Why is there such a big focus on trading Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee and a few others off the Boston Celtics roster? Just look at what Boston's ownership is spending per win right now, and you start to understand.
We don't know if the Celtics will trade Rajon Rondo, but it's a safe bet that Celtics GM Danny Ainge will try and attach a damaging long-term salary to Rondo in any deal. Ownership is paying too much in this rebuilding process right now.
While there are some high-dollar players and some recognizable names on the roster, it's actually Jordan Crawford who leads the Celtics in win shares. He's on a measly salary worth $2.1 million this year.
It's hard to find ways to be competitive if you're a Celtics fan right now, but picking a fight with Lakers fans is always a good way to burn time. Right now, the Lakers are spending slightly less per win than the C's. It's not quite an NBA Finals matchup, but it should be at least mildly interesting to see which franchise was more cost-effective at the end of the year.
Or Celtics and Lakers fans can argue about whether Showtime or the original Big Three were more dominant at their peaks. That might be slightly less depressing.
Total Salary: $73.3 million
Current Cost Per Win: $6.1 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $1.4 million
I'm not sure I'm prepared to live in a world where a team owned by Donald Sterling actually outspent the Lakers, but that day is not quite upon us yet.
While they aren't quite on the level of the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers are on pace to pay $1.4 million per win, which is right in the neighborhood of the Miami Heat.
It should be interesting to see if the Clippers remain in the luxury tax this season. It seems like a trade to get under that line may be in store at some point, and that could alter both the projected wins and the cost per win.
The good news for the Clippers is that no individual player is really overpaid. No, not even DeAndre Jordan.
Fourteen starting centers are making more money this year than Jordan. Out of that group, only two of those players have registered more win shares (Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard). Again, win shares don't come close to measuring everything, but Jordan has been an above-average center this year even though he's getting paid like an average one.
Total Salary: $78.7 million
Cost Per Win: $8.7 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $1.9 million
The Los Angeles Lakers have $40 million invested in Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash, so it's pretty amazing that they're playing .500 ball in the Western Conference with more than half of the salary in suits every night. No other team has so much salary not on the floor right now.
Give credit to the Lakers front office for finding production from cheap sources, and give credit to Mike D'Antoni for making it work. The Lakers may not be far off from Bryant's return, and they've done well to keep the ship afloat while they await it.
The Lakers are the prototypical "big money" team, but GM Mitch Kupchak took a Moneyball approach by bringing in a lot of imperfect players like Nick Young and snatching up forgotten prospects like Xavier Henry. This was a job well done.
Will the Lakers load up with another max player next year, or will they trust Kupchak to build a complete roster with discounted guys like he's done this season?
We'll see, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see the Lakers back in the top five of the league in total salary again next year.
Total Salary: $79.2 million
Current Cost Per Win: $11.3 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $2.2 million
It's so hard to recover from a max-contract player being injured or not all that productive. The Chicago Bulls are dealing with both.
Derrick Rose's knee injury makes life difficult, but Carlos Boozer's $15.3 million salary has the Bulls well in the tax and on schedule to pay much more than the $2.2 million per win currently projected.
Even as is, Chicago is paying twice as much per win as the Oklahoma City Thunder.
When both teams were considered title contenders, it wasn't much of an issue. Now that Chicago is struggling to play .500 ball, though, ownership may balk at paying such a steep price.
If the Bulls don't get under the tax and stay at their current winning percentage, they'll be paying closer to $2.5 million per win by the end of the season. This isn't pretty.
Total Salary: $83.5 million
Cost Per Win: $5.9 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $1.3 million
With the more punitive tax, there are some luxuries for which even the league's wealthiest owners aren't prepared to splurge.
If the Miami Heat had kept Mike Miller, their salary and tax payments would have been much larger this year. But instead of keeping an extra shooter off the bench, the Heat opted to save over $40 million in tax payments for the next two seasons by using the amnesty provision on Miller.
Miami's actual cost per win will be higher than $1.3 million once the luxury tax is factored in, but it's still impressive that a team with three max or near-max deals can keep this cost relatively low. Pat Riley and company don't tend to get enough credit for some of the low-cost additions to the roster. Just look at what Michael Beasley is doing right now on a minimum deal.
So long as LeBron James is in Miami and healthy, the Heat will always be a title contender and worth spending big money on.
Total Salary: $88.2 million
Current Cost Per Win: $29.4 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $5.7 million
And now it gets ugly.
No team in the NBA is spending more per win than the New York Knicks. A lot of attention is being given to the Brooklyn Nets for spending so much, and that makes sense, but the Knicks are actually on pace to spend more at a whopping $5.7 million per win.
Think about that. The Knicks' cost per win is a greater amount than the midlevel exception. It's over five times more than what the San Antonio Spurs are spending per win. That's absurd.
While you'd expect the Knicks to turn things around once Tyson Chandler gets healthy, they're still a favorite to spend more per win than any team in the league.
So who is to blame? It's hard not to point the finger at Amar'e Stoudemire, who is making $21.6 million this year, which is the second-largest contract in the NBA next to that of Kobe Bryant. So far this season, Stoudemire has produced minus-0.3 win shares. Yes, you can produce negative win shares.
Get well soon, Tyson.
Total Salary: $102.2 million
Cost Per Win: $20.4 million
Cost Per Win Extrapolated over 82 Games: $4.48 million
It almost doesn't seem real, does it? The Brooklyn Nets have a nine-figure salary and a luxury tax payment of $87.1 million. That's just in tax! $87.1 million!
Let's put that in perspective: Brooklyn is paying more in tax than 28 other teams are paying in total salary. The only team excluded? The New York Knicks. Because of course.
Somehow, the Nets have managed to build a roster that's more than twice as expensive as the Philadelphia 76ers and yet worse in the standings.
Given the massive investment in the roster by billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets could end up being one of the most expensive mistakes in league history, especially when you remember that Brooklyn sacrificed three future first-round picks to build this team.
In terms of win shares, this is like paying Kendrick Perkins the max three times. Except it's even worse than that.
In the NBA, money doesn't always buy wins. Brooklyn is learning that the hard way.