5 Best NBA Contracts at Every Position
Most of these deals were signed in a different salary-cap climate, and they're being evaluated against the current one. Nothing is wrong with this.
Context is important, but it does not invalidate the exercise. The league's cap changes every year, for better or worse, to minor extents and drastic leaps. That's the NBA. Luck and foresight play a role in everything. Teams don't know beyond a shadow of a doubt which deals will look terrible and which will turn up bargains. That's the gamble they make in signing everyone.
With this is mind, let's lay down some ground rules.
Expiring contracts are excluded from consideration. (Player and team options are fine.) Apologies to Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas, but this is too much of a gray area. Are they great contracts because they cost next to nothing now? Or are they bad ones because they're one year away from mushrooming?
Rookie-scale deals don't count. Karl-Anthony Towns is on a great contract. We get it. Second-round prospects, however, are eligible for inclusion. They didn't sign their contracts on the mandated rookie scale. If they've developed into a primo asset, we're rewarding them and their teams.
Full-blown max contracts miss the cut as well, even if they look great. LeBron James can't top every performance-based list. Superstars need to have accepted $10 million or more below their max scale for the life of their deal to receive a nod.
Remember: These contracts are being selected from the eyes of the teams, not the players, many of whom are outperforming their salaries by a mile and are underpaid as a result. They have our sympathies.
No. 5 Point Guard: Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 40.2 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $29.2 million
Ricky Rubio's fit with the Utah Jazz is imperfect. And ideal. And potentially ugly. But also possibly beautiful. It's risky. It's safe. It is whatever you want it to be.
A lot is going on here—a thousand-way tug-of-war between gut feelings. Rubio's arrival was steeped in intrigue and hesitation before Gordon Hayward left, and it's only more of a crapshoot following his departure.
But his arrival is neither difficult to defend nor embrace—in no small part because of his contract. As SI.com's Ben Golliver explained:
"Simply put, he's more proven than any of Utah's non-[George] Hill options, and he's under contract at average starter money. As far as placeholders go, Rubio is not prohibitively expensive in terms of salary or length, and he bears no major red flags from a personality standpoint. Although he missed most of the 2014-15 season due to injury, he's moved on to log 2,300-plus minutes in each of the last two seasons and he's coming off of a career year. He's at no risk of injury-related decline."
Starting point guard vacancies are virtually nonexistent, but floor generals don't come cheaply. Rubio's 2017-18 salary ranks 17th at his position and is nearly $6 million cheaper than what Hill is getting from the Sacramento Kings.
Spacing hiccups are a fair tradeoff at this price point. Utah has four to six above-average shooters at the 2 and 3, with the personnel to run out smaller lineups that give Rubio three reliable assassins to find off the dribble.
His own limitations, meanwhile, didn't cap the Minnesota Timberwolves' ceiling. They placed eighth in points scored per 100 possessions after the All-Star break and were even better with him handling the reins. And take this with a grain of salt, but Rubio shot 35.3 percent (24-of-68) from distance over that span.
Utah may struggle to score next season. Losing Hayward and Hill in the same summer compromises its shot creation and floor balance. But Rubio is used to working in tight spaces, and his aggressive approach to defense will pay more dividends with Rudy Gobert lurking behind him. To get that kind of proven upside without breaking the bank is a big deal.
No. 4 Point Guard: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $29.5 million
Eric Bledsoe's contract doesn't turn enough heads, which is fitting, because his play doesn't garner anywhere near the attention it deserves.
Such is life in the Western Conference, where you're grappling for recognition with MVP and All-Star point guards at almost every turn. Standing out from that pack is basically impossible—particularly when a sprained left knee prematurely ends your 2015-16 campaign and the Phoenix Suns' preference to lose games cuts your 2016-17 crusade short as well.
Get Bledsoe to the Eastern Conference (hi, Cleveland), and he's an All-Star candidate. He might even be a top-three point guard. Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall edge him out in any given season, but his status relative to Goran Dragic, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker is far more fluid.
Stick him elsewhere, in the East or West, and he'll be one of the best two-way point men in the league before his contract expires. He's already close. His defense should be much better, but his inconsistencies are to some degree a symptom of the players around him. It's hard to find your niche when starting beside the porous Devin Booker, equally erratic T.J. Warren and foul-happy Marquese Chriss.
Last season marked the first time of his career that Bledsoe didn't register a positive defensive box plus-minus—a box-score estimation of how much a player impacts his team relative to the league average. This isn't a tell-all measurement, but it's reflective of Bledsoe's peak, as is this:
Since arriving in Phoenix, he's one of four players clearing 20.0 points, 6.0 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes with an above-average box plus-minus on both ends. His company: James Harden, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.
Insert your finest cherry-picking witticism here, but it doesn't change a damn thing. Bledsoe's five-year, $70 million deal has aged better than Gregg Popovich's wine collection.
No. 3 Point Guard: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.7 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $4.8 million (qualifying offer for 2019-20)
Malcolm Brogdon's Rookie of the Year victory does not put him on the fast track to stardom. This year's newbie ladder functioned more than anything like an obituary for Joel Embiid's clean bill of health—not to mention a short-term indictment of the 2016 draft class.
None of which diminishes Brogdon's inaugural performance with the Milwaukee Bucks. He proved to be a necessary lifeline for a playoff team and an optimal companion for superstar cornerstone Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee parlayed Brogdon's length into usage at three different positions, and he seldom looked overmatched. He held his own when facing solo acts and wreaked havoc against pick-and-roll figureheads. Ball-handlers averaged just 0.67 points per possession when challenging him (88th percentile), and among the 169 players who defended at least 100 of these players, only Tony Allen forced turnovers with more frequency.
There are wrinkles to Brogdon's offensive game—obstacles that wouldn't be so easy to gloss over if Antetokounmpo weren't on his team. He gets into the lane, but his first step isn't a weapon. He has to do a better job converting around the rim and drawing contact, and the Bucks need him to be more than a low-key game manager when Antetokounmpo is taking a breather. The offense cratered when Brogdon played without him, and he's probably the third or fourth player from this team that you'd want directing pick-and-rolls.
But...Antetokounmpo is in Milwaukee. And Brodgon, while less than a half-year out from his 25th birthday, is a sophomore. He'll fill in some gaps. In the meantime, he'll fly around on defense and swish 40-plus percent of his spot-up triples—a mid-end starter's bang for a 15th-man's buck.
No. 2 Point Guard: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $24 million
Kemba Walker's progression from good player to no-brainer All-Star has quickly outpaced the four-year, $48 million deal he signed in 2014.
To be fair, this development wasn't even sort of supposed to be in the cards. The reaction to his contract at the time verged on indifferent rather than optimistic or pessimistic. Folks knew the TV money was coming, and Walker could score in bunches and drop dimes in measured doses. This was fair.
Then 2015-16 happened.
And then 2016-17 followed it.
Walker has reinvented the weakest parts of his game the past two years. His outside shot, once a detriment, is now a dependable tool, if not an ironclad strength. The idea he can't be the fulcrum for a top-10 offense is gone. So, too, are the struggles associated with playing him beside other ball-handlers. He made it work with Jeremy Lin, and Nicolas Batum is the one who has slogged through an adjustment period since joining the Charlotte Hornets.
Opposing offenses will always summon ways to overwhelm Walker. His 6'1" frame betrays him, and they'll run him through a gauntlet of screens and cuts—anything that forces him to change directions or bounce off burlier bodies.
Walker has countered with smarter pick-and-roll coverage; he's a wash-to-patented plus when dropping back on ball-handlers, and his recovery onto trailing shooters is getting better. And if all else fails, he always has his transcendent mix of scoring and passing—minus the price tag that's supposed to come with it.
No. 1 Point Guard: Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.4 blocks, 42.0 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $10.5 million (non-guaranteed for 2018-19)
Patrick Beverley's contract looks absurd at its halfway point.
Paying him $28 million over four years is one thing. But a declining salary scale? And a full non-guarantee on the last year? Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey outdid himself with this humdinger—and the Los Angeles Clippers are lucky he did.
Losing Chris Paul cannot be repackaged as a silver lining. The Clippers are worse off without him. But Beverley is the NBA's best plug-and-play point guard. He's content sticking to a steady diet of spot-up jumpers, with lead-ball-handler cheat meals.
Almost 40 percent of Beverley's looks last year came as spot-up threes, on which he shot 39.9 percent. He shouldn't be doing much else, but he's a better pick-and-roll alternative to Austin Rivers or the departed Jamal Crawford.
Besides, Beverley needn't be more than an offensive specialist when he's a defensive savior. He doesn't just absorb every point guard assignment. He wins them. It doesn't matter if it's Stephen Curry or Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook or Kris Dunn.
His playground intensity and disregard for personal space give him a puncher's chance at winning any individual battle—even if it's against All-Stars, and even if those All-Stars happen to play the 2 or 3.
No. 5 Shooting Guard (Tie): Norman Powell (Raptors) and Josh Richardson (Heat)
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, 39.4 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $3.3 million (qualifying offer for 2018-19)
Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.4 points, 2.2 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, 44.9 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $3.3 million (qualifying offer for 2018-19)
Picking two players set to enter restricted free agency next summer might be a cheap-shot loophole. But there's appeal in owning the rights to these players when they're off the rookie scale now and not splashy enough to be flagrantly overpaid next summer.
You can thank the contract craze from 2016 for this, according to ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon.
"'Nuclear winter,' or summer, is probably a bit apocalyptic," he wrote. "Nevertheless, the consensus among several team executives was that the market correction would continue into next offseason. In particular, they projected the market to be tighter for the NBA's middle class in a star-studded free-agency crop."
"Free agents will get squeezed," a general manager added.
Aggressively overpaying restricted free agents is like a rite of passage for outside suitors interested in them. Incoming offers must come in high enough on non-max candidates to dissuade incumbents from matching. That's what the Brooklyn Nets tried to do with Allen Crabbe (now with them, ironically) and Tyler Johnson in 2016, but to no avail. It's what the New York Knicks (inexplicably) did to pry Tim Hardaway Jr. away from the Atlanta Hawks this year.
Over-the-top overtures will remain an active negotiating ploy. But if last summer's spending compels teams to pinch pennies for another year, or more, those unmatchable and near-unmatchable deals will be few and far between.
Both Norman Powell and Josh Richardson, then, are hitting the semi-open market at a convenient time for the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat, respectively. They'll both get raises, but the field may dictate those upticks are smaller than usual for 20-something swingmen with OK jumpers and high defensive ceilings.
That's a win for Miami and Toronto. It'd be a win for the Golden State Warriors with Patrick McCaw as well, if not for the likelihood another team overpays him anyway just to mess with this should-be dynasty.
No. 4 Shooting Guard: Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 41.3 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $4.8 million (qualifying offer for 2019-20)
Slim pickings alert!
As positional designations continue to wither away and die, the shooting guard pool is suffering more than most. Combo guard lineups and swingmen making the transition to full-blown wings appear to be at the root of this (non-)issue, so it's becoming a bit more difficult to find true 2s.
Alas, we power through, landing on a great flyer in Rodney McGruder.
Though the Heat have a lot of work to do with their pet project, he's already a defensive stud. He guarded more isolation possessions than anyone not named Hassan Whiteside, and they relied heavily on him to stamp out pick-and-rolls.
Something has to give with his own shooting. His 33.2 percent hit rate on threes can't stand. He shot better than 70 percent inside three feet of the hoop, but he won't handle the ball enough to attack the basket in volume—nor did his efficiency on drives give Miami reason to try otherwise.
Honing his three-point stroke and finishing off cuts and handoffs—a la Avery Bradley or Gary Harris—will be pivotal to his taking the next step. And at less than $1.5 million a pop for the next two years, with restricted free agency after that, it won't cost the Heat anything to let a polished defender find his offensive identity.
No. 3 Shooting Guard: Tony Snell, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.5 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Four years, $46 million (player option for 2020-21)
Tony Snell's victory lap says a great deal about his contract-year rise in Milwaukee. It says even more about the state of affairs at shooting guard. And on top of that, it speaks to how shaky positional classifications can be in the wing department these days.
Rolling with Snell is a gamble. He went from Michael Carter-Williams trade bait in Chicago to $46 million man in Milwaukee, thriving within a specific offensive role he's ill-equipped to broaden. As Brew Hoop's Adam Paris unpacked:
"Yes, his mercurial standing in Chicago is never an easy way to get your sea legs in the NBA, and Milwaukee provided a stability and confidence in Snell he seemed to lack from the baffling overlords in Chicago. However, his career-high 40.6 percent three-point percentage on nearly twice as many attempts as his other seasons feels ripe for a fallback. Even if he can hover around 37 percent, though, he'll still be a valued player, but I'm not so sure he'll be [a] valuable player at $11 million.
I doubt Snell will ever become a threat off the dribble; his 12.2 percent usage rate ranked him in the bottom 10 percent of all guards in the league. He rarely drove the ball on his own and lacks the ball-handling skills to create separation for his own shot, having attempted only 0.7 pull-up shots last year per game."
If we operate under the assumption that Snell won't get much better, the question becomes whether that's enough. And right now, it has to be.
The options here aren't fantastic, and a wing who works his butt off on defense across multiple assignments and shoots enough spot-up threes to stay out of Antetokounmpo's grill on offense will have to do.
No. 2 Shooting Guard: Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.8 blocks, 39.2 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $20 million (player option for 2018-19)
The Danny Green from 2015 would not approve of making this list.
"People keep saying that I took less," he said after signing his four-year, $40 million contract, per Dan McCarney, then of NBA.com. "I think I took what I was worth."
Fast forward to 2016, and Green had to be singing a different tune on the inside.
Kent Bazemore secured four years and $70 million. Ditto for Evan Turner. Allen Crabbe received four years and $74.8 million. Evan Fournier grabbed a five-year, $85 million deal. Harrison Barnes and Chandler Parsons commanded four years and $94.4 million
Heck, this summer, Tim Hardaway Jr. extracted a four-year, $71 million agreement from the New York Knicks.
Do you know how many of them closed 2016-17 bringing more value to their team than Green, according to NBA Math's Total Points Added (TPA)? Zero. It's the same deal for ESPN.com's Real Plus-Minus (RPM).
Make no bones about it: the markets in 2015 and 2016 were night and day. Last summer will go down as a blip in NBA history. But that only props up Green's case. There won't be as much money for him to snag next summer, assuming he even opts out, and the negotiating process from 2015 suggests he'll prioritize a quick resolution over a lucrative payday.
One way or the other, the Spurs seem destined to keep their second-best defender and career 40 percent three-point shooter at a cap-friendly price.
No. 1 Shooting Guard: Jonathon Simmons, Orlando Magic
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 42.0 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $18 million (non-guaranteed for 2019-20)
Jonathon Simmons is a complicated choice, because his fit with the Orlando Magic is weird. They ranked 17th in three-point attempt rate and 29th in long-range accuracy. Simmons' 29.4 percent outside clip from last season, on a limited number of attempts, doesn't do them any favors.
Betting on Simmons' rookie-year efficiency (38.3 percent) or his postseason success rate (37.5) turning into the norm is a stretch. Orlando still doesn't have the shooters or playmakers to manufacture a bunch of high-quality looks.
This contract more so keeps in theme with what the Magic tried to do last summer: form a defensive superpower—except this time, it makes a semblance of sense.
They aren't trying to squeeze bigs into wing positions. That's still an issue with Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Nikola Vucevic on the payroll, but Simmons doesn't exacerbate the situation. He's a strong perimeter defender who at times completely showed out in San Antonio.
Simmons rated as the Spurs' stingiest spot-up stopper and is used to seeing time against point guards. He isn't quite Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard, but he doesn't need to be. He's an above-board defender on a team-friendly deal that poses zero long-term risk for the Magic—which, with Gordon and Elfrid Payton nearing paydays, is just what they needed.
No. 5 Small Forward: Marcus Morris, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 41.8 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $10.4 million
There will be no thunderous rebuke if you wanted to see Giannis Antetokounmpo here. His four-year, $100 million pact checks in below the max ($106 million) and includes no options. It's a good deal.
But the discount misses the $10 million threshold, and the Milwaukee Bucks might not have dangled the fifth-year sweetener if Antetokounmpo waded into restricted free agency. He just misses the cut as a near-max superstar.
All the better for Marcus Morris.
Acquiring him in exchange for Avery Bradley was a stroke of genius. They saved $3 million this season and changed out whatever Bradley will make in free agency next summer for Morris' $5.4 million take-home in 2018-19. The market for non-stars could cool to a freezing cold, and Bradley should still command double, if not triple, that number.
Morris won't replace everything, or even anything, the Celtics lost on offense. He's more one-on-one player than backdoor cutter and spot-up sniper. But Gordon Hayward will cork whatever offensive holes Bradley leaves behind, while Morris advances the Celtics' positionless defensive mantra.
"I don't have the five positions anymore," head coach Brad Stevens said, per Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press. "It may be as simple as three positions now, where you're either a ball-handler, a wing or a big."
At 6'9", Morris opens more defensive doors for Boston. He shouldn't be rotating onto point guards with the frequency of Bradley, but he can gum up ball-handlers and survive on islands. He ranked in the 79th percentile of defense against pick-and-roll initiators and finished in the 85th percentile versus iso scorers.
The Celtics are getting him at less than the taxpayer's mid-level exception for the next two years, with no escape clause.
No. 4 Small Forward: Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.4 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $30 million (player option for 2019-20)
The Oklahoma City Thunder offered Andre Roberson a four-year, $48 million extension last fall, according to the Norman Transcript's Fred Katz. He declined, proceeded to re-establish himself as one of the NBA's best stoppers, earned an All-Defense bid and then...signed a deal worth around $2 million less per year.
Do we give general manager Sam Presti the Executive of the Year award now or after we go through the formality of playing out next season?
Some don't consider this a spectacular haul, and they have a viable leg on which to stand. As ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote:
"I don't love Roberson as much as most seem to. He is a fierce, annoying defender. He might be the worst shooter in the league, including from the foul line, and guys who are almost complete zeroes on one end just aren't that interesting. They become borderline unplayable in the postseason, though Roberson has found ways to make an occasional impact."
Concerns along these lines aren't unreasonable. Roberson canned under 25 percent of his three-point attempts in a contract year and was only marginally more accurate when left wide-open. You can't accept his 41.2 percent outside clip through five playoff games as a harbinger of change when he put down less than 15 percent—15 percent—of his free throws.
Still, Roberson is an all-world perimeter pest, someone capable of hanging with point guards, power forwards and everyone in between. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are the only wings who saved more points on defense, according to NBA Math.
Roberson's three-point efficiency will climb next to the combination of Paul George and Russell Westbrook, and his foul-line yips can only do so much damage when he's predominantly serving as a spot-up shooter.
Love this deal with confidence.
No. 3 Small Forward: C.J. Miles, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $25 million (player option for 2019-20)
C.J. Miles is one of the many players who shouldn't dwell on what would have happened if he reached free agency in 2016. The phrase "At least double what you got in 2017" immediately springs to mind.
Even now, in the aftermath of last year's spending spree, getting Miles for less than $9 million per year is a home run. Another team could have offered him eight figures annually without anyone second-guessing their logic.
Wings with a silky jumper who defend between three and four spots are supposed to be the NBA's most valuable commodities. Miles fits that bill. The Indiana Pacers weren't defensive dynamos with him in the lineup, but they would turn to him, all of 6'6", before Paul George to take on power forward assignments.
Few other role players can shimmy between post-up grinders and pick-and-roll playmakers so seamlessly. Miles ties this altogether with a brilliant off-ball game on the offensive end. He'll feast off cuts when given the opportunity, and his catch-and-fire marksmanship is second to none—sometimes literally.
Among the 240 players who cycled through 75 or more spot-up plays last season, no one tallied more points per possession than Miles.
No. 2 Small Forward: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks, 45.0 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $40.1 million (player option for 2019-20)
It's totally fine if you think Khris Middleton is too high. You're dead wrong, and it's actually not at all fine, but I've mastered imitation calm.
Middleton is about as close as a player can get to full-fledged stardom without being portrayed as a star. That'll probably change next year. The Eastern Conference will be a hotbed for first-time All-Stars, and Middleton has a leg up on fellow hopefuls by virtue of being the All-Star of non-All-Stars.
Just one other player is averaging more than 17.0 points, 4.0 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 40 percent or better from downtown since 2015-16: Stephen Curry. If you're looking for your jaw, you can find it on the floor.
Balance permeates Middleton's game. He doesn't command touches, but he's a proven secondary facilitator in the half court. The Milwaukee Bucks won't have him create his own shot from scratch, but he has the elusive first step and touch around the basket to be more than a low-usage complement. He isn't especially strong, but he'll guard power forwards on down.
Rattling off a list of wings who are better than Middleton isn't hard.
Finding players more adept at dancing between alpha-dog and fifth-option responsibilities is damn near impossible.
No. 1 Small Forward: Jae Crowder, Boston Celtics
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $21.9 million
Jae Crowder's claim to the NBA's best deal is only now coming under siege by a certain 6'11" Serbian lab experiment. And even this assault on his standing feels artificial when accounting for contract length. He will never register a top-150 salary over the remaining life of this pact, which doesn't include a built-in out.
Take everything Crowder is owed, roll it into one salary, and he wouldn't even have a top-30 income. Thirty-four players will earn more next season than he'll bring home through 2019-20.
Bargains don't get any more inconceivable. The Celtics rolled the dice on him after a 57-game tryout in 2014-15, and it has paid off in the most unfathomable way. Crowder isn't a star, but he's the best two-way player on some nights.
It's not just that he is an ideal fit for Boston. He's the prototypical addition for every team. His defensive execution isn't the slightest bit tied to his offensive involvement. More than 80 percent of his baskets have come off assists over the last two seasons, and his playmaking opportunities are mostly limited to driving pump-and-dumps.
And it genuinely appears he doesn't care.
Letting him switch everything on defense, feeding him the occasional kick out and, perhaps, being more coy about recruiting superstar free agents who play his position is all the leeway he seems to need.
No. 5 Power Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 43.7 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $10 million (team option for 2018-19)
Dirk Nowitzki is making approximately what a 39-year-old basketball player who's able to move should make, and it's somehow not enough. He's still too darn good.
Aging stars don't always segue into the next chapter of their career without issue. When they do, it's seldom for a rebuilding squad. They become a blockade in that situation, stealing touches and minutes from the youngsters.
Nowitzki is different. The Dallas Mavericks aren't overrun with kiddies, but they've already introduced Harrison Barnes into the family, and there's zero concern about Nowitzki's being a deterrent to rookie Dennis Smith Jr.
It helps that Nowitzki won't bristle over playing time. He's talked about coming off the bench without disdain. It's an even bigger help that his game, for all its one-legged flash, is compatible with ball-dominant scorers and facilitators.
More and more of Nowitzki's buckets are coming off assists in recent years, starting with 59.2 percent in 2013-14 and ending up at 83.1 percent for 2016-17. Shelling out $5 million for a 7-footer who doesn't need to monopolize touches and shoots close to 40 percent on standstill treys is an objectively good investment. Nowitzi will earn his keep and then some—especially if the Nerlens Noel situation resolves itself and they're able to resume the tantalizing 4-5 combo they formed through 20 appearances together.
Things get a little tricky with his team option. The Mavericks could decline it and give him another legacy payday, as they did last year. Or, more preferably, they could pick it up in hopes he'll feel some moral obligation to honor his contract and stave off retirement one more year.
No. 4 Power Forward: Markieff Morris, Washington Wizards
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 45.7 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $16.6 million
Markieff Morris' deal has long yielded above-average value. Switchy forwards with ball-handling and jump-shooting pulses should cost well into eight figures per year.
Maddening inconsistencies do drag down Morris' appeal. The beginning of last season was proof. He averaged 12.9 points on 40.8 percent shooting with more turnovers than assists through the first 23 games. But, with the exception of a post-All-Star malaise, he played like a stud the rest of way.
Morris tallied 14.5 points on 47.7 percent shooting, including a 37.8 percent display from three, over his final 53 appearances. His turnover-to-assist ratio improved (how could it not?), and the Washington Wizards outscored opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions with him in the game—the second-best mark on the team.
Establishing himself as an everyday offensive plus remains a challenge. Playing next to John Wall will carry his three-point percentage, but he's not an expert slasher, doesn't turn corners on the catch especially well and isn't a small-ball roller. And for someone who prefers to operate with the rock, he's not a trusted orchestrator.
Part of this is on head coach Scott Brooks. He's not going to install exceedingly creative schemes with Wall and Bradley Beal at his disposal. Morris is capable of more, which is all that matters.
His defense will carry this bargain over the top until his offensive role expands. He's a pretty good switcher and has no qualms about rumbling with thicker bodies and explosive Adonises. He helped out with pick-and-rolls and saw more action in one-on-one situations than any of his running mates.
No. 3 Power Forward: Patrick Patterson, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 40.1 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $16.4 million (player option for 2019-20)
"[Patrick] Patterson is a mediocre at best three-point shooter who is getting a ton of love from writers who don't look at analytics..."
That's a fragment of a comment from someone who was ticked off the Thunder received an "A+++" on their free-agency report card. This loyal reader would have a point if it weren't for the fact they don't.
Patterson led all Toronto Raptors rotation staples in net rating last season. He finished second in total plus-minus (plus-348)—10 points behind first-place Kyle Lowry (plus-358) and 171 points in front of the third-ranked Lucas Nogueira (plus-177).
Plopping Patterson at the 5 supercharged pretty much every lineup the Raptors deployed, and his partnership with almost every big also crawled into the green. Sure, his offense is touch-and-go when he has the ball. P.J. Tucker was the only rotation player to shoot a lower percentage around the rim, and Patterson is an unimpressive option out of the pick-and-roll for someone whose anticipation on defense sniffs perfection.
At the same time, it's tough to criticize someone who so willingly works off the rock. Only DeMarre Carroll jacked more spot-up looks, while Lowry and Tucker were the sole friendlies to average more points per standalone play.
Analytics and Patterson, as it turns out, are on cuddling terms. Oklahoma City has acquired a seamless fit for Paul George and Russell Westbrook—on a contract he's all but guaranteed to outperform.
No. 2 Power Forward: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks, 53.7 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $51.3 million (player option for 2018-19)
First Kevin Durant re-signs with the Golden State Warriors for a quantum discount. Now he's crashing the best-contract party because of that generosity.
Superstars aren't supposed to come this cheaply. Durant could have signed at 35 percent of a $99 million salary cap for $34.7 million. Instead, he'll make $25 million next year—about $1.5 million less than he earned last season and approximately $9.7 million south of this summer's max.
Signing a superstar, in the heart of his prime, mere weeks after he won NBA Finals MVP, for almost $10 million below market value is a coup. It's like the Warriors paying full price for every one of their superstars: It doesn't happen.
Durant would finish with the top spot if not for his player option. Conversely, he would fall even lower if not for this year's gift. But who's to say he won't opt in, eschewing the Early Bird max Golden State can peddle in favor of more luxury-tax savings for owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber?
Not after this summer.
No. 1 Power Forward: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.4 blocks, 41.8 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $52.4 million
Remember those heated debates over whether Draymond Green was a max player? They're dead. And now that they're extinct, his five-year, $85 million deal looks even better.
As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com while identifying Green as one of the NBA's best bargains back in January:
"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."
Green's deal buys the Warriors time—an extra year, maybe two, before they face the expensive reality that awaits them each time one of their incumbent four stars gets a raise.
Stephen Curry just signed his post-boom max. Kevin Durant is up next in 2018—if he lets the Warriors pay him. Klay Thompson must be paid by 2019, at which point the finances may become untenable, with the team's total cost from salaries and taxes blowing past $350 million, per projections from ESPN.com's Bobby Marks.
Golden State could bust up the Core Four at that point. Or, assuming no wholesale tweaks before then, perhaps it floats one last bank-breaking title run before reconciling the cost of Green in 2020.
No. 5 Center: Nene, Houston Rockets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.6 blocks, 61.7 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $11 million (player option for 2019-20)
Not one other position has a more clear-cut contract hierarchy than the center spot. Discernible separation and clarification exists between the overpaid, properly priced and clearance-rack cloud busters—owed in thanks to the increasing number of pint-sized 5s who spend a lion's share of their time at other slots.
Plus, it just so happens an overwhelming number of second-round prospects look like hits after signing low-obligation deals. For now, we begin with Nene.
Does he make this list if the initial four-year, $15 million agreement he reached with the Houston Rockets didn't breach the over-38 rule? Eh. Would his three-year, $11 million pact flash as brightly on another team? Debatable once again.
But he didn't end up with a four-year contract, and he does play for the Rockets. So, this deal looks great—even after accounting for his season-ending thigh injury during Houston's second-round series with San Antonio.
Nene is the perfect 5 for what the Rockets do. He's ditched post-ups and long twos for more beelines toward the basket. He wrapped 2016-17 averaging 1.25 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll, a top-four mark among 79 players to chew through at least 75 of those plays.
Houston cannot depend on Nene to switch at the less glamorous end; he doesn't have the lateral gait. But he can still explode when going north and south, so he'll cover serious ground on closeouts. And his post defense is a revelation, making him a nice alternative to Clint Capela when the Rockets are matching up with low-block brutes.
Speaking of Capela: He's happy Nene put pen to paper, too. Paying him under $4 million annually ensures Houston won't get pocket shy when it goes to negotiate with the 23-year-old lob-lover.
No. 4 Center: Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 8.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 52.9 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Three years, $4.7 million (non-guaranteed for 2019-20)
Drafting Kristaps Porzingis will go down as Phil Jackson's greatest triumph as an NBA executive.
Sending two second-rounders to the Philadelphia 76ers, in 2020 and 2021, for Willy Hernangomez will be remembered as his second-best decision.
Some of the luster is lost in Joakim Noah's contract. The New York Knicks wouldn't have given him four years and $72.6 million last summer if they were firm believers in Hernangomez, friend of Kristaps and the 35th overall pick in the 2015 prospect pageant. But injuries, rampant underachieving and a generally inconsistent rotation gave way to opportunity for the 6'11" big man, so here we are.
Hernangomez probably has the highest basketball IQ of anyone on the Knicks. Cases can be made for Porzingis, Courtney Lee and 2013-14 Joakim Noah, but it's tough to land on someone other than the sophomore superstructure.
Playing Hernangomez with another big does lend itself to some spacing concerns. He attempted 15 threes as a rookie and is unafraid to let 'er rip from just inside the arc, but his outside shot is a work in progress.
What he lacks in unicorn qualities, though, he makes up for with savvy. He has Noah-esque vision with the ball in his hands and slays off-ball reads. His screening is solid, and he's a good finisher on the move.
Andre Drummond (148) and Hernangomez (135) used about the same number of roll-man possessions last season, and it was the latter who added noticeably more value relative to the league average on those plays, according to NBA Math. Hernangomez will need to work on his cuts from above the break and role in transition, but he has the skeleton of a demonstrative plus on the offensive side.
Defense is another story. Hernangomez is a quality rebounder and can make some plays in space, but he's not a switcher's special. He'll need to be one of those guys who leverages his IQ and anticipation into overhead contributions—which, when you're under team control for three years at around $5 million, is perfectly fine.
No. 3 Center: Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.8 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $25 million
Do not let the Magic's misallocation of roster spots distract from the fact that Nikola Vucevic is still really good—a poor man's poorer friend's Nikola Jokic.
Vucevic's efficiency took something of a nosedive in 2016-17, but that's to be expected when you're incorporating more three-pointers into your arsenal while playing in the league's clunkiest frontcourt. And for someone who shot just 26.9 percent (7-of-26) from deep through the first five years of his career, his 30.7 percent clip (23-of-75) is encouraging.
That conversion rate eventually needs to climb. Having Bismack Biyombo, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac in the frontcourt rotation still makes for awkward floor balance. Vucevic's outside touch is among Orlando's few tickets out of spacing purgatory—and he's working to hone his three-point stroke, per Magic.com's Josh Cohen.
Another small spike would be an offensive springboard for the team. Jump-shooting 5s remain matchup nightmares for plodding towers, and Vucevic is one of the scant few bigs who can go and get buckets. His post-up production dipped last season, but again, he was being suffocated by his own teammates.
Staggering Biyombo's minutes and limiting the use of Isaac-Gordon 3-4 combinations should help Vucevic recapture his 50-plus percent back-to-the-basket clip. Bake in his nifty passing from just about anywhere on the court, and his contract is still a steal.
No. 1 options are worth substantially more—even when a surplus of centers derails Vucevic's trade value.
No. 2 Center: Richaun Holmes, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 9.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks, 55.8 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $3.1 million (team option for 2018-19)
Consider this a preemptive complaint about Richaun Holmes' playing time next year. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons should be healthy, which is great. But it's unclear how prominently Holmes fits in with Amir Johnson and Dario Saric riding the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt carousel.
Use Robert Covington at the 4, and his role blurs a bit more. Act like Jahlil Okafor needs to get minutes, and Holmes will need thermal night-vision goggles to see through the layers of fog obscuring his place in Philly's future.
Limited playing time changes nothing, though. We'll have to work a little harder to see Holmes' value, but it'll be there. It's been there. He logged almost 27 minutes per game after the All-Star break, during which time he averaged 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.2 blocks. The Sixers were slaughtered defensively with him in the lineup, but his three-point accuracy stayed respectable (34.1 percent) amid an uptick in volume (2.1 attempts per game).
Think of Holmes as a unicorn-light. He has outside range and flashed improvement as a pick-and-roll finisher. His defense can be a mess, but he has the physical tools to switch and the shot-blocking oomph to make opposing offenses fear rotations. He held rival scorers to a 49.1 percent knockdown rate at the hoop, putting him in Dwight Howard and Robin Lopez territory, and his reads against fellow rim-runners are on the come-up.
Throw Holmes into free agency, and he'll get big offers. The Sixers will find that out next summer if they decline his team option. But they can keep him through 2018-19 for peanuts. And they're not cutting him loose if they balk at his team option. He becomes a restricted free agent, giving them the flexibility to match any offers he fields.
No. 1 Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 57.8 percent shooting
Remaining Contract Value: Two years, $3.1 million (team option for 2018-19)
Nikola Jokic's contract isn't fair—not to his bank account, and most certainly not to other teams who need to pay their top-20 player like, well, a top-20 player.
Split hairs over his defense if you're into ruining a good time. It's your loss. He's a strong rebounder on the less glamorous end, and his rim protection should improve next to a master-of-all-trades power forward like Paul Millsap.
Turn your cheek to everything else. Jokic could be the worst defensive player in the game, and it wouldn't matter. His offensive accolades will always trump his defensive warts. He anchored one of the league's two best scoring machines after permanently taking over as the Denver Nuggets' starting 5, over which time he averaged a video game-like 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 58.7 percent shooting.
Look, no one saw Jokic's breakout coming—not to this degree. Luck is involved here. Good fortune is the foundation for this exercise. But, with the exception of maybe Jae Crowder, no one has a better contract in the NBA.
How much longer this lasts is up to the Nuggets. They can pick up his $1.6 million team option for 2018-19, or they can decline it so that he becomes a restricted free agent. He'll cost them way more in the latter scenario, but the mere thought of unrestricted free agency may be too much to bear. Either way, it's their choice, which eclipses any concerns attached to the remaining length of his deal.