Best and Worst Contracts in the NBA Right Now

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2015

Best and Worst Contracts in the NBA Right Now

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Not all NBA contracts are structured equally.

    Or, for that matter, wisely.

    Player salaries are a cornerstone of professional sporting debates, and the question of who's overpaid and who's underpaid is an unending one. Dealing with so many zeroes will have that effect.

    Singling out the NBA's best and worst agreements is no predetermined task. It takes contract length and worth, potential trade value and current performance under advisement.

    Players still on rookie-scale deals or expiring pacts will not be considered. Only those who are under contract for the next two seasons, including this one, are eligible for selection. You're welcome, Kobe Bryant, Joe Johnson, etc. And sorry, Evan Turner, Hassan Whiteside, etc.

    Those with player options, team options and early-termination options for 2016-17 will also be excluded, as they could end up being expiring deals. So, here's to you, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, etc.

    Finally, we won't be playing the unquantifiable value game. LeBron James cannot be paid enough. We get it. But he, and megastars like him, are not up for "Best Contract" honors.

    Every other contract, good and bad alike, is fair game.

No. 5 Worst: Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Four years, $101.6 million (early-termination option in 2018-19) 

    Carmelo Anthony's standing is more about his no-trade clause than anything else.

    Sure, his salary increases each season until it reaches $27.9 million in 2018-19, when he will be 35. And, yes, he may already be enduring the irreversible effects of last year's left knee injury. He is shooting a career-worst percentage from the floor, and his effective field-goal rate—a cumulative measurement of two- and three-point efficiency—is the lowest it's been since 2011-12.

    All things considered, though, the New York Knicks wouldn't have any issues dealing Anthony—in a vacuum.

    He is still among the game's best scorers and has shown in recent years that he can function off the ball, as a secondary scorer. This season, amid tussles with inefficiency, he is still finding nylon on 40-plus percent of his catch-and-shoot triples.

    But that no-trade clause gives Anthony veto power. So if he ever gives New York the green light to move him, team president Phil Jackson will be bound by a presumably short list of acceptable destinations.

    Convincing suitors to absorb salaries north of $20 million is hard enough. The cap is set to explode in each of the next two summers, and few teams will be apt to compromising financial flexibility for a superstar fast approaching his twilight.

    Even fewer will be amenable to forking over legitimate assets in such a deal. Anthony will undoubtedly have eyes exclusively for ready-made contenders, and championship-chasing squads seldom possess a palatable combination of picks and prospects and expiring contracts.

    The good news? There's a chance Anthony's pact doesn't look horrible down the line.

    It was signed before the impending cap eruptions, saving New York millions in wiggle room, and the Knicks might not ever see a need to move him. If they strike it big in 2016 free agency and rookie Kristaps Porzingis' rapid progression continues, Anthony will become a pivotal part of a Big Apple-made contender.

    That's about the only scenario in which this massive deal counts as irrefutably worthwhile. Nine-figure commitments to 30-something bruisers are never sure things, and the Knicks' inability to adequately capitalize on a botched marriage puts them in a bind tight enough to taint perception of Anthony's earnings.

No. 5 Best: C.J. Miles, Indiana Pacers

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $13.8 million (player option in 2017-18)

    Paul George's move to power forward is most associated with the Indiana Pacers' shift in identity. He's creating mismatches on the offensive end while functioning at a high level defensively, and that's helped the Pacers evolve into a top-10 unit on both sides of the hardwood.

    But C.J. Miles, a 28-year-old career role player, is proving equally important to this stylistic reinvention.

    It's often Miles, not George, who is lining up against opposing 4s on the defensive end before dotting the three-point line as a de facto shooting guard and small forward. That's saying something for someone listed at only 6'6". 

    Not only does Miles allow George to play "Musical Defensive Assignments," but he helps cover up for Monta Ellis. The Pacers are the first team to ever deploy a premier defense with Ellis in the fold, and that simply doesn't happen without Miles flittering around the perimeter—an Energizer Bunny on a perpetual caffeine kick, gobbling up off-ball floaters as Ellis seeks out steals.

    Opponents are shooting at slightly above-average clips when Miles is defending them, and Indiana's defense is allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. But that's more a byproduct of him routinely shimmying between three different positions, sometimes in the same defensive set.

    And Miles more than evens out the give-and-take nature of his inchoate role on the offensive end. He is converting more than 40 percent of his long balls as the Pacers' second-leading scorer and shooting even better from downtown off the catch.

    Just three other players are averaging at least 19 points and seven three-point attempts per 36 minutes while matching Miles' outside efficiency: Stephen Curry, George and Klay Thompson. 

    The average 2015-16 salary between those three? Roughly $14.7 million.

    Until Miles signs his next deal, which will be after 2016-17 at the earliest, he will never earn even one-third of that in a single season.

No 4. Worst: Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Remaining Contract Value: Four years, $70 million

    Compared to other inexplicably overpriced contracts, Enes Kanter's $70 million millstone registers as a rational misappropriation of logic. As Ben Rohrbach previously wrote for Yahoo Sports, the Oklahoma City Thunder had no other choice:

    Sam Presti had to do it. With Kevin Durant’s free agency looming over the franchise, the OKC general manager couldn’t part with another player over a price tag, even if matching Portland’s four-year, $70 million contract offer to Kanter meant spending $10 million more than it would’ve cost to keep James Harden in a Thunder uniform only a few years earlier.

    Presti had to show Durant the team was willing to exceed the luxury tax in order to appease the former MVP’s fears that the organization would never spend enough to build a title contender around him, even if it meant handicapping the roster with one of the league’s worst defensive centers at a rate of $17.5 million per season.

    None of this makes Kanter's price point acceptable. 

    Defensible detriments are still detriments. Kanter is a net minus on both offense and defense, and Oklahoma City's first-year head coach, Billy Donovan, only uses him in small, calculated doses.

    His per-36-minute splits are solid, once again topping 19 points and 11 rebounds. But he still needs the ball in his hands to be effective and cannot keep pace with opposing offenses.

    Using him as a post-up and pick-and-roll specialist hasn't helped the Thunder find him a meaningful spot in the rotation. He fails to crack the 50th percentile of roll-man efficiency, and his back-to-the-basket sets, though statistically potent, sap the Oklahoma City offense of its flow—which is already strained by the above-average number of isolation plays allotted for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

    Kanter is young enough at 23 to seduce offense-starved teams into eating the remainder of his deal. But most offenses aren't assembled around post-up brutes anymore, let alone those who can't move the defensive needle.

    Unless the game swiftly becomes more accommodating for traditional bigs with minimal defensive awareness, Kanter's pay grade figures to grace this list for at least the next few years.

No. 4 Best: Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $19.8 million

    Don't bother starting an "Isaiah Thomas deserves to be an NBA All-Star" conversation. But only because that discussion is already underway.

    Thomas is one of just three players averaging 23 points and seven assists per 36 minutes. His company? Fellow should-be All-Stars Reggie Jackson and Westbrook.

    Critics tend to focus on Thomas' high-volume inefficiency and defensive lapses. But he's posting an above-average true shooting percentage—accuracy of two-point, three-point and free-throw shooting—and his player efficiency rating ranks third among all Eastern Conference guards.

    Defensive concerns are mostly justified. At 5'9" Thomas gives up inches to opponents on a regular basis, and he can get picked off easily on screens.

    That hasn't prevented the Boston Celtics from piecing together a top-tier defense, and Thomas, to his credit, has drastically improved his three-point prevention.

    Frankly, though, Thomas is too valuable offensively to overlook, even if it means measurably jeopardizing Boston's defensive ranks:

    Celtics...Off. Rtg.(Would-Be) RankDef. Rtg.RankNet. Rtg.Rank

    With Thomas

    107.35102.3115.05
    Without Thomas97.52996.421.114

    This from a diminutive floor general who doesn't even rank in the top 20 of individual salaries at his own position and who doesn't have the ability to become a free agent until 2018.

    It's safe to say the Celtics have no regrets about taking him off the Phoenix Suns' hands.

No. 3 Worst: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $41.4 million

    Contract length is the only thing that prevents Derrick Rose from skyrocketing up the unflattering side of this listicle. 

    Making an appearance at all is actually quite the unfortunate accomplishment. Rose's deal comes off the books after next season, and there might be some team, somewhere, willing to take a shot on the MVP-turned-liability.

    As Zach Lowe wrote for ESPN.com:

    Off-loading Rose could give them almost $45 million in room, and rival executives believe the lure of the old Rose remains enticing enough that Chicago could actually get something for him. The Bulls aren't ready to go there yet, and probably won't be until the summer, if they ever consider a break-up with their home-grown MVP.

    Trading Rose at the end of this season lets the Bulls sell potential suitors on a low-risk gambit that, at worst, devolves into a bungled one-year dice roll. But shelling out $20-plus million annually for a low-end point guard, regardless of how long, offers absolutely no value.

    Rose is an injury magnet and offensive minus, and his shooting percentages are at rock bottom. Though he's toned down the three-point attempts, he's now a sub-25 percent shooter from long distance. 

    That cosmic athleticism he used to found his rise through the superstar ranks is gone. His drives per game are up from last season, but his per-36-minute free-throw rate has never been lower, and he's punting on opportunities at the rim.

    More than 37 percent of Rose's looks are coming inside five feet of the hoop, where he's shooting less than 42 percent. Curry has jacked more shots outside 25 feet than Rose has inside five, and he's still draining them nearly 45 percent of the time.

    Maybe Rose falls short of immovable on the trade market. But any deal the Bulls might strike would almost assuredly include them selling incredibly low and/or taking back some unwanted salary in return.

    Put another way: Rose's contract is to the NBA this season what Kobe Bryant's was last season.

No. 3 Best: Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $35.1 million

    Two players are on pace to average 19 points, nine rebounds and one block with a true shooting percentage better than 55 in each of the last two seasons.

    Anthony Davis and...wait for it...keep waiting...here it comes...how's your day going?...Derrick Favors. 

    There's really not much else worth adding. 

    Favors' on-court value is curbed by the absence of a three-point shot and the Utah Jazz's decision to use him at power forward. Most of his minutes have come at the 5 this season, but that's only because Rudy Gobert is on the shelf tending to a left knee injury. Last year, when 75 percent of his playing time came at the 4, was a more accurate portrayal of his role.

    Space is limited when Gobert and Favors share the floor, yet they find a way to make it work. And that's part of why Favors is so special. He can play off Gobert's passing and is not above serving as a screen-setting decoy.

    If it wasn't for the Western Conference's ridiculously deep crop of bigs, Favors would be a perennial All-Star—a frequently and, justifiably, recognized superstar who doesn't even rank in the top 50 of annual player salaries.

    For now, he's still all those things, just without the All-Star nods.

No. 2 Worst: Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $35.8 million

    Nikola Pekovic will earn more money over the next three years than Favors.

    And he hasn't played in a game for the Minnesota Timberwolves since last March.

    The soon-to-be 30-year-old big man is still rehabilitating an Achilles injury and, unless Minnesota is prepared to include the pot-sweetener to end all pot-sweeteners, he has no chance of being dealt before re-establishing himself as a viable NBA talent.

    Except there's no guarantee the Timberwolves will even give him the opportunity. 

    Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng, Kevin Garnett and Karl-Anthony Towns have the power forward and center rotations on lock, and a rebuilding Minnesota faction has little need for an aging, lumbering skyscraper who doesn't play defense and has missed almost 40 percent of the team's regular-season tilts since entering the league.

    Only time can diminish the awfulness of this deal. The impending salary-cap explosions cheapen its overall impact on a team's bottom line, making it easier to digest, and Pekovic will become an expiring asset following the 2016-17 campaign—prime salary-matching bait for a Timberwolves contingent that should be ready to make some win-now moves.

    In the meantime, Pekovic's pact is about as immovable as they come.

No. 2 Best: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $36 million (player option in 2017-18)

    Kyle Lowry is playing the best basketball of his career. But don't take my word for it.

    Instead, heed the sentiments of his backcourt running mate and fellow All-Star—DeMar DeRozan.

    "I definitely think this is [the best he's ever played]," DeRozan, told Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley. "The numbers show it. Everything shows it."

    About those numbers...wow.

    Should Lowry's play style hold, he will become just the second player in league history to clear 20 points, six assists and seven three-point attempts per 36 minutes while shooting 38 percent or better from deep.

    His lone statistical sibling: Stephen. Freaking. Curry.

    The Toronto Raptors cannot function without Lowry on the floor. They go from outscoring opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions with him, to posting a minus-5.9 without him—a 12.5-point swing that pits him among the most valuable players not only at his position but the league.

    To wit: Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal uses a metric called "Total Points Added" (TPA) that measures how much better the average team is per 100 possessions with a given player on the hardwood. The latest prorated calculations have Lowry finishing the 2015-16 crusade with a TPA of around 445—the fifth-most of any player, behind only Kawhi Leonard (468), LeBron James (490), Westbrook (635) and Curry (719).

    So yeah...wow. 

    And to think Lowry, a bona fide superstar, isn't even earning as much as Ricky Rubio.

No. 1 Worst: Omer Asik, New Orleans Pelicans

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Remaining Contract Value: Five years, $53 million (early-termination option in 2019-20)

    With all due respect, in addition to the utmost disbelief, what in the world were the New Orleans Pelicans thinking when they handed Omer Asik a fat five-year deal over the offseason?

    Were they truly all aboard the nonexistent Omer Asik hype train? Did they feel obligated to retain him after sending the Houston Rockets a first-round pick in exchange for his services?

    Was there some kind of typo in the final numbers? 

    Something, anything, that would help us make sense of this situation would be greatly appreciated. Otherwise, we'll forever remain in the dark.

    Asik didn't play as poorly last season as he is now, but even in a league with a collective propensity for overcompensating any 7-footers who know how to put one foot in the front of the other, this contract always projected as a gross overpay.

    Now the Pelicans are paying the ultimate price: buyer's remorse.

    Head coach Alvin Gentry has used Asik sparingly through his first 20 appearances. The 29-year-old is seeing under 15 minutes per contest for the first time since Tom Thibodeau was his head coach, and he's shooting a career-worst 45.2 percent from the field. He is a monstrous minus on the offensive end, and while he improves the New Orleans defense ever so slightly, it's not enough to consistently play him.

    There's no sign that this will change anytime soon. Gentry is predominantly using Davis at center, and New Orleans plays too fast to successfully incorporate a plodding tower who can barely handle the ball.

    All the Pelicans can hope for at this point is that Asik, somehow, someway, renders himself playable and/or moveable—so, everything he's not right now.

No. 1 Best: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $23.5 million

    Stephen Curry, the NBA's reigning MVP, the favorite to repeat as MVP and all-around impossibly great basketball prodigy, is grossly underpaid.

    It wasn't always like this. No one was crying foul when Curry put pen to paper on a four-year, $44 million extension in 2012. If anything, there was an underlying sense of mistrust in Curry—a layer of skepticism rooted in recurring ankle injuries.

    But the benefit of hindsight, of perspective, doesn't make this any less absurd. Curry has been unfathomably underpaid since his extension kicked in during the 2013-14 season. And, yeah, you better believe he thinks about it.

    As he told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

    After three years, I've still got to remind myself every day. Number one, there's nothing I can do about it. There's no point to moaning and complaining and trying to change something that really can't be changed. I knew there might be a time down the road, after all the ankle injuries, that if I'm playing to my potential, it's going to be human nature to think, 'Oh, I should've done this, or that …'

    Endorsement deals have no doubt helped Curry recoup much of the green he missed out on. But this is the same player who remains on track to break just about every offensive record in existence, and he doesn't even rank inside the top 60 of individual salary.

    Neither does he rank in the top three of annual earnings on his own team. Curry is the fifth-highest paid player on the Golden State Warriors, behind Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Thompson.

    And it's going to get worse before it gets better.

    Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli will enter restricted free agency this summer, at which point both will secure contract offers, from the Warriors or another team, that pay them more in 2016-17 than the $12.1 million Curry is slated to take home.

    Before you go making tax-deductible donations to the "Properly Compensate Stephen Curry" fund, remember he will make bank when he becomes a free agent in 2017. After accounting for salary-cap spikes in each of the next two summers, a $175 million-plus deal is not out of the question, per Wojnarowski.

    Still, barring any roster upheaval between now and next season, it's likely, if inevitable, that Curry, a future Hall of Famer in his prime, begins 2016-17 as the seventh-highest paid player on the Warriors.

    Contracts do not get, neither have they ever gotten, any better.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on Dec. 23 unless otherwise noted. Contract information courtesy of Basketball Insiders.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.