Building the All-Underpaid 2014 NBA Free-Agency Team
Some trips to the bank aren't as productive as they should be.
Overpaid players abound in the NBA, especially after this summer's free-agency extravaganza. Plenty of players are earning more than they should, cashing checks they don't—and possibly won't ever—deserve.
Only we already identified those players. It's time to explore the other side of the spectrum.
For every price-gouging contract, there is a cost-defying bargain—a player who isn't quite making what he should. The production of these players exceeds their salary. Their on-court value demands they be paid more.
Except they won't be.
Discounts happen for whatever reason, be it by choice or necessity. This summer saw plenty of free agents sign below-market contracts. And while their paychecks won't break the bank, their past performances suggest they should.
What would happen if we assembled a team of these underpriced talents? What would it look like? How many championships would it win? Who would be on it?
We're about to find out.
Think of this roster not as a what's what of the most improperly low-balled pacts, but as a comprehensive record highlighting the best deals at every position—contracts that ultimately fall short of matching their owner's value.
Let's start with (most of) the bench.
Although these free agents aren't starting on this hypothetical team, they were cheap enough to garner our attention.
Backup PG: Jameer Nelson, Dallas Mavericks
Jameer Nelson isn't the three-point assassin he was in 2010, but he's still someone who can give the Mavericks 30-plus minutes a night. That he'll earn under $2.8 million next season after being the Orlando Magic's highest-paid player in 2013-14 leaves him as one of the NBA's more understated steals.
Backup SG: Vince Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
Nothing about Vince Carter's deal with the Grizzlies is overly spectacular. Three years and a little over $12 million is just about right for the 37-year-old.
But the market for free-agent shooting guards was weird and pricey overall. Avery Bradley and Jodie Meeks know what yours truly is talking about. The Grizzlies locked up a solid two-way vet for two years (third year is non-guaranteed)—one who has made the transition from superstar to role player better than any future Hall of Famer in recent memory.
Backup SF: Luol Deng, Miami Heat
Say it with me now: Miami sure knows how to retool quickly.
After losing LeBron James to his free-agency mulligan, the Heat responded by landing two-time All-Star Luol Deng for two years and $20 million, the second of which is a player option.
Funny thing is, Deng turned down a three-year, $30 million deal from the Chicago Bulls before he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. The Heat signed him for just as much annually over less time when he might have been able to net more elsewhere. That's a win.
Backup SF: Shawn Marion, Cleveland Cavaliers
It's been 11 years since Shawn Marion played for anything under $6.6 million annually.
The Cavaliers landed him for the veteran's minimum.
Backup PF: Kris Humphries, Washington Wizards
No one's saying Kris Humphries is the steal of all steals, but his per-36 minute rebounding numbers are always solid, and he adds physical size up front.
At three years and $13 million, the Wizards will gladly take him off the Boston Celtics' hands.
Backup PF/C: Carlos Boozer, Los Angeles Lakers
Technically, Carlos Boozer wasn't a free agent. Technically, it doesn't matter.
Boozer was slated to earn $16.8 million next year. He'll still see every cent of that thanks to the amnesty clause, but the Lakers are footing a crazy-cheap $3.25 million for his services.
Those services still include scoring in bunches and registering the more-than-occasional double-double, by the way. So, yeah. Boozer is cheap labor for the Lakers.
Not so much for the Chicago Bulls, who are basically paying him $13 million-plus to play for another team.
Starting Point Guard: Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 Stats: 10.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 46.4 percent shooting, 42.5 percent three-point shooting, 18.7 PER
Contract: Three years, $12 million
No hypothetically constructed all-underpaid team would be complete without at least one player from the San Antonio Spurs, so here sits Patty Mills, right where he belongs, in the starting lineup.
Ill-timed shoulder injury be damned, this contract—like most deals they negotiate—is a steal for the Spurs. There have to be teams that would jump at the chance to start him. San Antonio, meanwhile, has him coming off the bench for a modest $3.8 million next season. Sometimes, life outside River City isn't fair.
Mills became a ridiculously lethal spark plug for the Spurs last year. His per-36 minute averages were insane. He was one of only seven players to record at least 19 points, four rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while connecting on 46 percent or more of his shots. The other six include James, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Manu Ginobili and Chris Paul.
"Pretty impressive" doesn't even begin to describe Mills' performance through the regular season and playoffs. He figures to be an even bigger part of the Spurs rotation—when healthy—as Tony Parker starts to age.
Perhaps we'll even see Gregg Popovich run more dual-point guard lineups moving forward. Mills isn't someone he can justify sitting much, after all. He's too good.
“I think obviously my goal is to be a starting point guard in this league, and I’ve said that from the first day that I got drafted," he said, per NBA Australia (via Project Spurs' Jeff Garcia).
Starting doesn't appear to be an option next season once he's healthy. Not unless Popovich goes full Phoenix Suns. But there is a starting spot here for Mills, whose production and value to the Spurs' championship cause belie his pay grade.
Starting Shooting Guard: Mike Miller, Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Stats: 7.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 48.1 percent shooting, 45.9 percent three-point shooting, 12.5 PER
Contract: Two years, $5.5 million
This LeBron James guy must be quite the recruiter, eh?
Mike Miller left some serious cash on the table to join the NBA's newest superteam. According to ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman, the Denver Nuggets were offering him $12 million over three years, but he took the comfort of James' shadow instead. And he did so at a discount.
No, Miller isn't young. He's not especially spry, either. There were nights during his time with the Heat when you couldn't help but wonder if his body was being held together with Scotch tape and weeks-old bubble gum.
Last season, though, Miller was spectacular, appearing in all 82 regular-season games for the first time of his career. He was also unstoppable behind the arc, becoming just the 19th player in league history to convert more than 45.5 percent of his long balls while hoisting at least 230 for the entire year.
That shooting touch of his makes him a key cog in the Cavaliers' presumably powerful offensive machine. Miller isn't a star, but like Bleacher Report's Thomas Duffy says, he is important to what Cleveland is trying to do:
James will be the star, the headliner and the superhero in Cleveland this year. He'll get all of the glory in victory and all of the blame in defeat.
But Mike Miller, one of LBJ's most crucial sidekicks, will need to bring his A-game if James is to end Cleveland's championship drought and save the people of Ohio from another season of heartache.
If Miller does, in fact, bring his A-game to Cleveland, the Cavaliers—during the golden age of shooting, no less—will have purchased it for pennies on the dollar.
Seems like the city of Cleveland might owe James yet another thank you.
Starting Small Forward: Evan Turner, Boston Celtics
2013-14 Stats: 14.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 42.5 percent shooting, 12.4 PER
Make way for an exceptional free-agency case.
As The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn points out, Evan Turner's deal with the Celtics hasn't yet been announced. The Celtics are attempting to fiddle with the roster to make room in the rotation for their newest addition before anything becomes official.
For now, Turner—not unlike Kevin Love's situation with the Cavaliers—is an unofficially official member of the Celtics, and an incredibly cheap one at that.
Exact terms haven't been released, but Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald first reported that Turner would get a "portion" of Boston's midlevel exception. Ahem: A portion.
Former No. 2 picks who can actually play don't typically come that cheap. Turner was owed an $8.7 million qualifying offer the Indiana Pacers didn't give him. No matter how much of Boston's midlevel exception he costs, he'll be earning less than projected.
Turner's stock did take a dip in Indiana, where he was bogged down by inconsistent playing time and an uncertain role. The numbers he put up with the Philadelphia 76ers—17.4 points, six rebounds and 3.7 assists per game—were also bolstered by general manager Sam Hinkie's blatant tank job and head coach Brett Brown's pace-promoting slop-fest on the offensive end.
Even so, Turner can put up numbers in the right situation. Advanced metrics leave us forever skeptical—and rightly so—but this isn't a lost cause the Celtics are signing. They're getting a promising prospect, who, if he finally lives up to his potential, can be a legitimate cornerstone.
Paying what will likely amount to under $5 million for that chance, for that risk-free opportunity, is an undeniable steal regardless of what happens.
Starting Power Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
2013-14 Stats: 21.7 points points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 49.7 percent shooting, 23.6 PER
Contract: Three years and $25 million
Color me sheepish for initially forgetting about Dirk Nowitzki.
Three years and $25 million is nothing for one of the greatest NBA players ever. Why the original oversight? Well, this pay cut was his decision. It was contrived—so much so, you almost forget he's underpaid because of how underpaid he actually is.
Max offers came in from the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, but Nowitzki rebuffed their overtures, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein. He opted to stick with the Mavericks instead, generously giving them flexibility they put to immediate use when they overpaid Chandler Parsons.
That the perpetual 50/40/90 flirt is earning under $8 million next season is absurd. It would be criminal if it wasn't for the fact that Nowitzki committed this crime himself.
Finding a better deal in the NBA borders on impossible. Maybe it belongs to Curry. Or Tim Duncan. Whatever the case, finding five non-rookie deals better than Nowitzki's new one actually isn't possible. He's incredibly underpaid.
Willingly underpaid, to be sure, but underpaid all the same.
Starting Center: Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
2013-14 Stats: 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 blocks, 48 percent shooting, 19.3 PER
Contract: Three years, $22.7 million
Certain people have the audacity to crown the Bulls preseason Eastern Conference favorites despite James' glorious return to Cleveland.
Pau Gasol is one of the many reasons why.
At its core, this deal is a consolation prize for the Bulls and their fans—their reward for chasing big names they couldn't catch. And yet, at Gasol's core, he's no consolation prize.
"If the Bulls are just adding Gasol instead of Carmelo, not in addition to him, it will feel to many like a disappointing offseason," the folks over at Blog A Bull wrote in July. "That shouldn't belie the fact that Pau Gasol is still one of the most productive offensive frontcourt players in the NBA."
Productive, as it relates to Gasol's age and position, is an understatement. He was the only player in the NBA to reach benchmarks of 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists and 1.5 blocks per game last season. Sure, it came on the tanktastic Lakers, but there are no such things as "gimmes" at Gasol's age.
In fact, Gasol is just the fourth player in NBA history aged 33 or older to maintain the aforementioned per-game touchstones while also shooting 48 percent or better from the floor. Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the other three. Here we were thinking Ed Davis' company was good.
Big men don't usually age gracefully, and Gasol has battled injuries over the last two seasons. But coordinated centers—especially ones with Gasol's playmaking abilities—are also typically overpaid.
Size is still a commodity in the NBA, if only because it's rare. The Bulls now house two of the NBA's best bigs in Joakim Noah and Gasol, the latter of whom is working for roughly $13.2 million less than he did last season.
When terrific talent comes that cheap, it's not difficult to understand the unbridled optimism it creates.
Sixth Man: Ed Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
2013-14 Stats: 5.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 53.4 percent shooting, 15.9 PER
Contract: Two years, $2 million
When the Lakers go on bargain-bin binges, they have this unique ability to score what should be regular-priced items at obnoxiously steep discounts. Apparently.
Ed Davis is now one of the most criminally underpaid players in the NBA. He was due a qualifying offer worth over $4.3 million, but the Memphis Grizzlies never gave it to him. The Lakers signed him to a cut-rate two-year deal—with a player option for 2015-16—instead.
Why? Allow us to answer this with another question: Why has Davis failed to receive consistent playing time wherever he goes?
Answer to both: We don't know.
By no means is Davis a star. He's a relatively raw project. But he's also a per-36 minute stud.
Here's the list of players who averaged at least 13 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 53 percent shooting per 36 minutes while appearing in at least 60 games last season:
Limited playing time helps, but Davis' company doesn't lie. There's something there—something for the Lakers to monitor and, perhaps, hold on to beyond next season.
"I still feel I'm a starter in this league," Davis said just before free agency began, per the Commercial Appeal's Ronald Tillery, "and I'm gong to prove a lot of your colleagues wrong."
If and when he does, the Lakers will have reason to smile. Well, actually, they're already smiling.
Investing chump change in top-notch ventures has that effect.