Ranking the 5 Best NBA Contracts at Each Position Right Now

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 22, 2017

Ranking the 5 Best NBA Contracts at Each Position Right Now

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    Handing out NBA contracts is an inexact science, but evaluating them doesn't have to be. 

    Here, we're not concerned about long-term ramifications. What happens in 2018-19 and beyond is irrelevant, and expiring deals aren't treated any differently than ones with plenty of years remaining. Only salary paid out in 2017-18 matters, and the same is true of production. The past and future are ignored entirely in favor of what's come to pass during the opening portion of the present season. 

    So in order to objectively determine which contracts pass muster at each position, we're turning to a best-fit exponential regression between 2017-18 salary and scores in NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric (which weighs both volume and efficiency) for every player in the league. 

    Essentially, we can come up with an expected baseline of production. Someone making $5 million (Marcus Morris) is expected to have produced 19.67 TPA at this stage of the season, based on plugging that salary into the aforementioned regression. A $10 million player (Darren Collison) should be at 25.11 TPA. Make $20 million (George Hill), and you should be at 40.95 TPA. Meanwhile, the highest-paid player in the league (Stephen Curry at $34.68 million) should fall in at 83.96 TPA. 

    By looking at the differences between actual production and expected production, we can quantify which players are serving as the biggest bargains—and, conversely, the biggest disappointments, which we'll cover at a later date. 

    One more important note before we proceed to the position-by-position rankings: Rookie-scale players are eligible for these rankings, but players on max contracts are not. Those operating on their initial NBA deals are still risky investments, and teams should be rewarded accordingly for picking the right ones. But because upper-end earnings are arbitrarily capped by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, the league's best players largely have values that drastically exceed their earning potential. 

5-3 Point Guards: Wright, Napier, Dinwiddie

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    5. Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors ($1,645,200)

    Now in his third professional season and still operating on his rookie-scale contract after the Toronto Raptors chose to pick up his team option for both this season and 2018-19, Delon Wright has developed into everything the Canadian franchise could've wanted from its backup point guard. Well, he "had" developed into that player prior to dislocating his right shoulder—the same troublesome body part that has kept him out of action in the past. 

    But assuming Wright returns to his early-season form when he re-enters the lineup, he'll continue to serve as a tremendous value off the Toronto bench. 

    His three-point stroke isn't there, as he was shooting only 28.6 percent from downtown prior to his injury. But his growing work as a facilitator, physical defense against both 1- and 2-guards, solid work on the glass and scoring acumen around the basket still made him quite valuable. Last year, the Raptors posted a 4.71 net rating with Wright playing and Kyle Lowry on the pine, per PBPStats.com; this season, that number has swelled to 7.18


    4. Shabazz Napier, Portland Trail Blazers ($2,361,360)

    Enjoy this while it lasts, because Shabazz Napier likely won't feature in a season's-end version of these rankings.

    This Portland Trail Blazers point guard is on the final go-round of his rookie deal, and that's perfect timing. He's never shot nearly this well, so his contract-year exploits could earn him a bit more cash over the summer as teams seek out bench sparks at the 1. But are his numbers really sustainable? 

    Napier fares so well because he's knocking down 54.4 percent of his shots from the field, 65.0 percent of his three-point attempts and 72.2 percent of his tries from the stripe. Those are sensational percentages. But they're also earned by a player whose career slash line stood at 37.3/35.4/76.7 heading into his fourth season. 

    Rip City has surely enjoyed his exploits during the opening salvo of 2017-18, but it shouldn't be too quick to buy into the success. 


    3. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets ($1,524,305)

    After stepping into the Brooklyn Nets starting lineup for the last three games, Spencer Dinwiddie has averaged 19.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 1.0 steals while shooting 41.5 percent from the field, 37.5 percent from downtown and 78.9 percent at the stripe. He's been an offensive revelation, helping keep the scoring pace afloat even while D'Angelo Russell spends time rehabbing. 

    But his stellar play extends beyond that three-game sample. Throughout the season as a whole, Dinwiddie has been a force in a number of different areas, ranging from his drive-and-kick passing to his work as an isolation scorer. 

    So yes, he's been a gem for the Nets. 

    Originally unearthed after two ineffective—and oft-injured—years with the Detroit Pistons and a short stint with the Chicago Bulls that actually saw him waived twice, Dinwiddie is on the second season of a three-year, bargain-bin deal with Brooklyn. Now, its patience has been rewarded after he teased minor improvements throughout 2016-17.

No. 2 Point Guard: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets ($12,000,000)

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    Finding non-max, non-rookie-scale point guards capable of emerging as top-tier values is a difficult endeavor. The NBA is presently structured so that the league's leading floor generals are all established studs cashing in with massive paydays or youngsters only starting to strut their stuff, which makes it hard for any other players to ascend toward true stardom. 

    But Kemba Walker is an exception. 

    The speedy point guard signed a four-year extension worth $48 million just prior to the 2014-15 season, back when he was coming off a year in which he'd averaged 17.7 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 39.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from downtown. The Charlotte Hornets surely hoped for substantial improvements to his jumper, but they had no idea what he'd become. 

    Now, Walker is coming off an All-Star campaign and looks like a serious threat to make an All-NBA squad for the first time in his impressive career. He's made tremendous improvements to his three-point stroke, honing it so well that defenders now think of it as a death sentence to duck underneath a screen and cede a pull-up triple. 

    And he's still playing for only $12 million per year. Excluding max deals and rookie-scale contracts—the latter of which, again, are still included in these rankings—he'd be the NBA's fifth-best value in 2017-18, regardless of position. 

No. 1 Point Guard: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers ($6,168,840)

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    Ben Simmons has been an absolute revelation for the Philadelphia 76ers. 

    His passing, as expected, has been dazzling, opening up one opportunity after another for his running mates. Even though he can't shoot jumpers to save his life, he's shown little hesitation attacking the basket and has finished plays around the hoop at an elite rate. And somewhat shockingly, he's quickly emerged as one of the NBA's most impactful defenders with his quick feet and preternatural instincts. 

    Already, Simmons vs. Joel Embiid has become a legitimate debate. And in my opinion, as expressed in a textual battle with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, this floor general is already the superior building block. The Sixers might not trade him for anyone, even with only a handful of actual games under his belt. 

    According to NBA Math's TPA, Simmons ranks fourth among point guards with a score of 62.09 that lags behind just Stephen Curry (86.11), Kyrie Irving (81.98) and Damian Lillard (75.89). If we exclude positional limitations, he'd sit at No. 10 overall. 

    But Curry, Irving and Lillard are all operating on max contracts (of different values, since they signed at different times). Simmons is still on his rookie deal, which provides Philadelphia with a tremendous luxury. Having such an impact presence making so little money allows the organization to chase after one-year balloon deals like J.J. Redick's, and it'll also give the Sixers a chance to pursue some marquee free agents in the coming years. 

    Point guards simply aren't supposed to be this good, this quickly. 

5-3 Shooting Guards: Lee, Barton, Lamb

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    5. Courtney Lee, New York Knicks ($11,747,890)

    In general, shooting guards are overpaid, simply because the NBA overvalues points per game. Even the smartest front offices can fall victim to the allure of gaudy scoring figures. That's not a comment on Courtney Lee specifically, but rather a trend that holds true for this position as a whole. 

    So why mention it in the section devoted to Lee, who's scoring 10.9 points per game, has remained efficient from all areas of the half-court set and holds his own defensively against even the league's tougher perimeter assignments? Because he's the fifth-ranked value at the 2 and still provides less impact than expected, based on our regression model and the New York Knicks' expenditures.

    Per the model used to determine placement in this article, a player with Lee's salary is expected to have 27.35 TPA at this stage of the season. Lee has 18.65, per NBA Math. And that still leaves him behind only four other players at his position, just two of whom actually provided positive scores. 


    4. Will Barton, Denver Nuggets ($3,533,333)

    Though Nikola Jokic and the other big names on the Denver Nuggets roster might draw most of the media attention, Will Barton has quietly developed into one of the league's leading contenders for Sixth Man of the Year. He's absolutely vital to the Mile High City's second unit, providing a distinct scoring spark with some distributing flair. 

    The Nuggets originally found Barton in February 2015 as part of the Arron Afflalo trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, and it took them only a few months to sign him to an extension. That deal spanned three seasons and was worth a mere $10.6 million, but it'll soon pale in comparison to his next figure.

    Denver and Barton were unable to agree to another extension during the 2017 offseason, and he'll test the waters as an unrestricted free agent after this campaign. Chances are good he'll earn more per year than he has throughout the entirety of his current contract. 


    3. Jeremy Lamb, Charlotte Hornets ($7,000,000)

    Almost every aspect of Jeremy Lamb's game has improved during the 2017-18 season. 

    He's a more consistent presence on the defensive end for the Charlotte Hornets, who are now certainly enjoying the three-year, $21 million extension that kicked in for the 2016-17 campaign. While maintaining his mid-range prowess and basket-attacking habits, he's started to drain triples at a 41.4 percent clip, which opens up so many more offensive opportunities. He's even exhibited growth as a facilitator, more than doubling his previous high in assists per game. 

    Last year, Lamb's contract, even at an affordable $6,511,628, seemed like a drastic overpay. But he's flipped the script rather nicely with continued hard work and a steady stream of improvements, to the point that he'll be a steal even if his three-point shooting trends back toward his career clip of 33.1 percent.

No. 2 Shooting Guard: Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets ($2,550,055)

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    Will Barton is a great value for the Denver Nuggets; Gary Harris is even better. 

    Of course, this might change next year, and not just because the former will be seeking a new deal, whether with the same team or a different organization. Harris has already inked a four-year extension worth $84 million that kicks in for 2018-19 with an escalating structure, so he won't be quite the same value that he's served as throughout his rookie-scale contract. 

    Even still, this Michigan State product has been so good that his $16,517,857 salary next season would still leave him as a beneficial presence with his current level of play. He'd fall out of these rankings and into the 80s overall, but he'd still be on par with C.J. McCollum and Paul George in this particular competition. 

    Harris has morphed into a true two-way contributor for the Nuggets, accepting tough perimeter responsibilities on the defensive end while filling his traditional role on offense. Whether he's spotting up and hitting an astounding 47.4 percent of his triples or cutting to the hoop for an in-stride feed from Nikola Jokic or one of Denver's other distributors, he's an efficient player who both accepts his role and thrives within it. 

    Would this 2-guard excel as the true leader of a team? Probably not. His game is set up for him to serve as a complementary figure, as he's required assists on 54.3 percent of his made twos and 97.3 percent of his buckets from beyond the arc. 

    And that's perfectly fine. Denver isn't asking him to be an alpha dog, and it's getting plenty more production than his salary-cap figure would initially indicate. 

No. 1 Shooting Guard: Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies ($3,290,000)

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    As Ronald Tillery made clear for the Memphis Commercial Appeal after Tyreke Evans inked a one-year, $3.3 million deal with the Memphis Grizzlies this summer, health limited the guard's offseason earning potential: 

    "But age wasn’t an issue when the Grizzlies signed Evans, 28, to a one-year, $3.3 million contract this summer. Evans’ health will determine whether he can rejuvenate an always promising career in Memphis.

    "Evans earned the 2010 Rookie of the Year award. Injuries have dogged him since then.

    "A sore knee. A sore heel. Another sore knee. A sore ankle. Another sore knee.

    "Evans appeared in only 40 games last season between stints with New Orleans and Sacramento. When Evans was activated in mid-December of 2016, he had not fully recovered from a right knee procedure that caused him to miss the second half of the 2015-16 campaign."

    He's fully recovered now. 

    Evans has been a terror for Memphis, emerging as arguably the team's most effective player by dominating in isolation, showing off a revamped shooting stroke (41.2 percent from downtown) and providing plenty of consistent offense. He's looked like the evolved version of the man who won that Rookie of the Year title all that time ago, albeit in fewer minutes as he comes off the Beale Street bench. 

    The Grizzlies presumably figured they'd be getting a bargain if Evans stayed healthy on his short-term contract. But they couldn't possibly have imagined they'd be getting one of the 10 best values in the entire NBA, even after factoring in max contracts and rookie-scale players. 

5-3 Small Forwards: Sefolosha, Ariza, Durant

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    5. Thabo Sefolosha, Utah Jazz ($5,250,000)

    Even after transferring from the Atlanta Hawks to the Utah Jazz as a free agent this past summer, Thabo Sefolosha hasn't skipped a beat on defense. He remains an impactful presence who can body up against multiple positions, and he current sits at No. 2 among small forwards in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, trailing only a player (Robert Covington) who's spent the majority of his minutes at power forward. 

    But that was expected. The Jazz wouldn't have handed him a two-year deal worth $10.5 million if he wasn't going to be a beneficial defensive presence. 

    More surprising has been his success in a smaller offensive role, as Sefolosha has drilled exactly half of his first 90 field-goal attempts, made 43.8 percent of his triples and hit 85.2 percent of his looks at the charity stripe. All three of those figures are among the two best marks of his career, allowing him to look like a league-average offensive player and climb the value ranks. 


    4. Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets ($7,420,912)

    Three. And. D. 

    Trevor Ariza doesn't fill a glamorous role for the Houston Rockets, but his continued efforts on both ends of the court help this team reach its ceiling. The offense wouldn't function as smoothly if he weren't spotting up on the perimeter and waiting for catch-and-shoot opportunities that drag defenders out of the painted area and open driving lanes for James Harden. The defense wouldn't be nearly as successful if he weren't taking on difficult assignments every night. 

    Now, imagine what a bargain he'd become if he could connect on those three-point tries. Ariza has largely gotten by on reputation in the last few years, connecting on just 34.4 percent of his triples last year and falling to a 33.3 percent clip in the early portion of 2017-18. 

    He still has gravity, but he might have to start hitting some of the deep looks to maintain that pull. 


    3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors ($25,000,000) 

    Even though Kevin Durant is making $25 million in 2017-18, he's actually not operating on a max contract. 

    Remember how he turned down quite a bit of money so the Golden State Warriors could re-sign Andre Iguodala and preserve the core that had helped them win the 2017 title? That sacrifice isn't even factored into this analysis, though counting the benefits the Dubs have received from their Durant-aided bench would push him up into the No. 1 spot at his position. 

    Either way, Durant has been brilliant for the defending champions, proving worthy of every penny he's receiving on his still-massive deal.

    The small forward is averaging 24.9 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.7 steals and 2.2 blocks while slashing 53.3/42.2/86.5. He's been one of the league's best off-ball options, and he's perfectly comfortable taking over possessions by leading pick-and-rolls or going to work in isolation. He's swatting shots frequently enough to make an impact in the Defensive Player of the Year race, finally living up to his length-boosted potential on that less glamorous end of the floor. 

    Basically, Durant has continued to serve as one of the league's premier players. If he keeps this pace, he'll factor into the back end of the MVP conversation, even if he hasn't established himself as the clear-cut best player on his own team (see: persistent offensive heroics of a certain point guard). 

    He'd be a value on a max deal, and that's doubly true after his monetary sacrifice this past summer. 

No. 2 Small Forward: Kyle Anderson, San Antonio Spurs ($2,151,704)

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    Kyle Anderson has managed to develop into one of the NBA's most fascinating players. 

    Speed is supposed to be a prerequisite for forwards attempting to make an impact at the sport's highest level, but Anderson isn't particularly fleet of foot—hence the Slow Mo nickname. He instead moves at a deliberate speed on both ends of the floor, thriving on defense because his length and anticipatory skills allow him to overcome those velocity disadvantages and excelling on offense because every move is so carefully calculated. 

    What part of his game is a weakness?

    His 37.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc, which allows him to remain a gravitational presence? The passing skills that let him function as a secondary distributor for the San Antonio Spurs? The suffocating defense that works against guards and forwards alike? 

    Anderson is playing out the final year of his rookie contract, and the payday coming his way next summer will help prove just how much of a bargain he's been this year and the last. 

    According to NBA Math's TPA, he's been one of the Spurs most responsible for the team's impressive record even while Kawhi Leonard works his way back from a mysterious and enduring quadriceps injury. Only LaMarcus Aldridge (37.99) and Pau Gasol (32.84) have higher scores than Anderson's 26.77, and those are the only three men providing positive value on both ends of the floor. 

No. 1 Small Forward: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics ($5,645,400)

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    Rookies aren't supposed to play like this. 

    Jayson Tatum has rather easily been the premier member of the 2017 NBA draft class, even if he's trailing Ben Simmons in the Rookie of the Year race by a sizable margin. That's not meant as disrespect to the Boston Celtics small forward, but rather as an extreme compliment to the Philadelphia 76ers point guard. Both players should—gasp—factor into the All-Star conversation come February. 

    Reasonable expectations had Tatum excelling on offense during his first venture into the NBA. He displayed plenty of scoring skills during his brief time at Duke, and his shooting stroke and knack for earning paths to the rim could certainly translate over to the professional level. 

    They have. 

    Tatum isn't just averaging 13.9 points per game for a team with 16 consecutive wins, he's also doing so while shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 46.0 percent from three-point territory and 83.8 percent at the stripe. He's excelled in his offensive role, rarely making any rookie mistakes and punishing defenses that devote too much attention to the more established pieces in the Boston offense. 

    But that's not nearly as surprising as his defensive impact. 

    Tatum has served as an integral part of the Celtics' stopping power, using his long arms and athleticism to contain opposing wings on a nightly basis. His defensive rebounding has been huge for a team that previously struggled in that area, and he already seems to display a full understanding of head coach Brad Stevens' schemes. 

    If he remains on this two-way pace, he could go down as one of the better non-Rookies of the Year in NBA history. 

5-3 Power Forwards: Gordon, Green, West

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    5. Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic ($5,504,420)

    Aaron Gordon's shooting is coming back to earth. After a 2-of-9 showing from downtown against the Indiana Pacers, he's now connecting on his triples at a 22.6 percent clip over his last five games, bringing his season-long mark to 43.8 percent. Further regression is likely, since the talented power forward probably isn't capable of making such a sizable leap after connecting on 28.8 percent of his deep tries in 2016-17. 

    And that's fine. 

    Gordon's three-point stroke has been a pleasant development, but he's made other strides now that he's moving back to his natural position as a power forward. He can initiate offense from the top of the key or go to work on the blocks, making the most of the lessons learned during his lost season spent operating as a wing for the stuck-in-the-mud Orlando Magic. 

    So long as he keeps shooting better from all over the floor and exhibiting more defensive discipline, he'll continue to be a strong value on the last year of his rookie deal. 


    4. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors ($16,400,000)

    Though Draymond Green won't ever score as many points as Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, he's every bit as important to the Golden State Warriors. The linchpin on the defensive end, this power forward helps give the Dubs their tough-nosed identity while simultaneously making a monumental offensive impact even without scoring too many points. 

    Is he the best power forward in the NBA? Probably not. But he's not too far from earning that title and actually sits in the No. 1 spot at his position in ESPN.com's real plus/minus. In NBA Math's TPA, he trails only three other players who have spent the majority of their 2017-18 minutes at the 4. 

    Fortunately for the Warriors, Green re-upped with the team for five years and $82 million back in 2015, just before he truly broke out into a fringe MVP candidate. He hadn't yet made an All-Star team or won Defensive Player of the Year, and that fortuitous timing helped the Bay Area residents afford their star-studded roster. 


    3. David West, Golden State Warriors ($2,328,652)

    Is David West nearly as impactful as Draymond Green?

    That would be a laughable claim. But considering he's making a smidgen over 14 percent of Green's yearly salary, he doesn't even have to be half as good as the starting power forward to emerge as a better value. And that's exactly what he's done, trailing the man for whom he sometimes subs 34.11 to 47.26 in NBA Math's TPA at the time of this early-season analysis.

    West has filled a small role for the Warriors, but he's refused to miss shots whenever he enters the action. While continuing to play tough, physical defense, he's knocked down a jaw-dropping 70 percent of his field-goal attempts, constantly feasting on his mid-range opportunities. 

    Basically, this power forward has been exactly what teams want out of the veterans they sign to minimum deals. 

No. 2 Power Forward: Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers ($16,577,230)

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    Robert Covington's rise to this point has been astounding. 

    Had the Philadelphia 76ers not been tanking so shameless during the true years of "The Process," he might not even be on an NBA roster, having failed to make much of an impression during his brief run with the Houston Rockets. Covington, at the time former general manager Sam Hinkie found him, was a standout in the D-League, but he was by no means a lock to make it in the Association. 

    Then he got his chance to play big minutes with the Sixers and worked his way through growing pains on a team that wasn't making any efforts to move up the Eastern Conference standings—more details on this path in a terrific piece by SBNation's Tom Ziller. The plan worked, and Covington is now the beneficiary of a four-year, $62 million extension that includes a $15 million salary bump this season, as reported by ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski

    So how good has Covington been in 2017-18? 

    He's continued to serve as a defensive ace at both small forward and power forward for the Sixers, and an improved shooting stroke now has him connecting on an ostentatious 47.9 percent of his three-point attempts. The formerly unheralded contributor has become the NBA's leading three-and-D player at this early stage of the season. 

    But here's the most amazing part. 

    When this campaign began, Covington was making only $1.6 million, and the returns on that salary would've made him the league's seventh-best value, even after factoring in max contracts and rookie-scale deals. After that $15 million bump—by no means a negligible amount of money for even the world's richest basketball players—he's still been so good that only 12 players have emerged as better values. 

No. 1 Power Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks ($22,471,910)

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    If you call him a point guard, he'd be the No. 2 eligible value at his position. If you call him a shooting guard, he'd be the No. 1 value at his position. If you call him a small forward, he'd be the No. 1 value at his position. If you call him a power forward, he'd be the No. 1 value at his position. 

    Ultimately, it doesn't matter. 

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the NBA's leading examples of a truly positionless player, has been a game-changing presence for the Milwaukee Bucks, who have consistently shuffled him between spots in the lineup to maximize his talents alongside any combination of teammates. We have him listed at the 4 simply because that's where he's played the highest percentage of his minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com's positional breakdown. Feel free to take that with a grain of salt if you so desire. 

    No matter what he's doing on the court, Antetokounmpo is helping the Bucks win games. Rather than his play, it's largely the lackluster efforts of his teammates that have prevented Brewtown from rising higher up the Eastern Conference standings. Even without a three-point stroke, he's one of the league's deadliest scorers, capable of bursting by any defender to finish plays around the basket in efficient fashion. He's a devastating defender thanks to his length and athleticism. He can run the point and involve his running mates. He can rebound the ball like a big man. 

    Frankly, he can do everything. 

    Antetokounmpo was close to earning a max salary when he signed an extension with Milwaukee just before the start of 2016-17, but as general manager John Hammond explained (transcription via Adam McGee of Behind the Buck Pass), the forward chose to leave some money on the table: 

    "There was a max number out there, and that was discussed internally and externally. The one thing we asked Giannis to do was take that into consideration as we move forward to give us every opportunity to become a championship level team. There’s going to be guys, and guys that have done that and players who have given back some, and as we move forward hopefully within the organization we’ll have other guys who are willing to do that and those small pieces can turn into a bigger chunk at some point."

    Doing so now makes him even more of a value. 

5-3 Centers: Udoh, Embiid, Towns

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    5. Ekpe Udoh, Utah Jazz ($3,200,000)

    "I'm still one of the best defenders in the world, hands down..." Ekpe Udoh said this offseason, per Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News. "Like I said, I'm one of the best defenders in the world—I've really developed over the past two years overseas and I really look forward to that challenge over here."

    These comments weren't meant to be taken in anything but light-hearted fashion, as Sorensen makes clear. But truth often exists in jest. 

    To his credit, Udoh has done his darnedest to back up the claims while first spelling Rudy Gobert and then assuming a larger role after the starting center's injury. He sits at No. 11 overall in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus and No. 4 in NBA Math's defensive points saved. He's holding opponents to 43.9 percent shooting when he's the primary defender. The Utah Jazz are allowing a stifling 96.4 points per 100 possessions while he's on the floor.

    Udoh remains a massively limited offensive player, but he's emerged as one of the league's most overlooked defenders in the early stages of his return to the Association. 


    4. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers ($6,100,266)

    Honestly, this might be lower placement than you expected. 

    Joel Embiid is scoring an efficient 22.3 points per game, rebounding with aplomb, finding time to dish out plenty of dimes and playing some of the NBA's best defense. He's so impactful on the preventing end that opponents are legitimately afraid of entering his domain and testing him—and he might even troll them after blocking their shot, as Donovan Mitchell found out the hard way

    So why is this complete package at center not the league's best value at his position while still operating on his rookie deal? Well, in a word: turnovers. 

    Embiid is coughing the ball up 4.3 times per game, seemingly incapable of passing out of double teams and exposing the rock far too frequently when jump-starting his post moves. Those possessions decimate his offensive value, depressing his impact on the scoring end so drastically that he has trouble exceeding the league-average baseline in offensive box plus/minus

    Until that changes, he won't grade out nearly as well as he could. 


    3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves ($6,216,840)

    This is the second-to-last year in which the Minnesota Timberwolves will have the luxury of watching Karl-Anthony Towns play on his rookie-scale contract. Then, the seemingly inevitable max deal will kick in. 

    But for now, the 'Wolves get to feature arguably the NBA's deadliest offensive center going to work on the cheap.

    Towns is a scoring juggernaut, capable of getting buckets from all over the half-court set with an inexhaustible supply of back-to-the-basket moves, a lethal face-up jumper and legitimate three-point range. He hasn't enjoyed quite as much involvement as he did in 2016-17 now that Minnesota is trying to incorporate Jimmy Butler, but his field-goal attempts should eventually track upward as head coach Tom Thibodeau realizes it's in his best interest to force-feed the big man as often as possible. 

    Defense hasn't been quite as large a weakness this year as in previous seasons, but that's still the only thing holding Towns back, both from a potential perch atop the positional hierarchy and top billing in this particular competition.  

2. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets ($2,334,520)

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    Roughly 3.9 times per game, Clint Capela sets a screen for the Houston Rockets and then rolls to the hoop, awaiting an alley-oop feed or pocket pass so that he can put the ball away for an easy pair of points. He's scoring 1.37 points per possession in those situations, which leaves him in the 90.5 percentile, but it's the combination of volume and efficiency that truly makes him special. 

    Using the same methodology employed to build the isolation-scoring leaderboard, Capela has added 20.22 points above what a league-average roll man would've scored in the same number of possessions. The gap between him and No. 2 Rudy Gobert (14.43) is nearly as large as the separation between Gobert and No. 9 Jonas Valanciunas (8.5). And somehow, even that's not as impressive as actually seeing the top five on the rolling ladder:

    1. Clint Capela: 20.22
    2. Rudy Gobert: 14.43
    3. Julius Randle: 14.08
    4. Alex Len: 13.22
    5. Lucas Nogueira: 11.36

    Are Capela's attempts largely close-range finishes? Absolutely, since that's just about the only way to shoot a league-best 68.1 percent from the field. But as is always the case, more players would be filling such roles if more were capable of actually doing so. 

    This big man has a potent combination of size, athleticism and touch, and it's all come together nicely during this breakout season. Throw in Capela's impressive defense, phenomenal rebounding and improved stroke at the free-throw line, and you shouldn't have trouble seeing why he's such a value on the last year of a non-lottery rookie-scale contract. 

No. 1 Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets ($1,471,382)

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    This might come as a shock, but Nikola Jokic hasn't been a bad defender in 2017-18. 

    He's actually the overall leader in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, and the Denver Nuggets are allowing 12.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. No one will ever mistake him for a premier rim-protector or intimidating shot-swatter who forces opponents to avoid him, but his understanding of positioning and quick hands are having a large impact on his team's defensive success. 

    Jokic is an offensive stud first and foremost, capable of winning games for his troops without even showing off his unbelievable close-range accuracy and dangerous perimeter stroke. His passing opens up easy opportunities for every member of the Nuggets, and it's become such a weapon that opponents are now game-planning against those unorthodox passing lanes and exposing other exploitable weaknesses. 

    At this point, Jokic's overall value shouldn't be questioned. Even if you don't believe he's one of the three best centers in basketball, you should at least be on board with him threatening to join that club. He has the longevity now that proves he's not merely a one-season flash in the pan, and any other stances rely far too strongly on per-game scoring figures. 

    But even if that placement is up for debate (and, once more, it shouldn't be), Jokic's status at the top of these rankings is completely impervious. To fall behind Capela in our objective hierarchy, he'd need to be paid slightly more than $22 million for his efforts in 2017-18, and he's instead playing out the three-year, $4 million deal he signed as a former second-round pick trying to come over to the States (with a club option for 2018-19).

    Seriously. That's not a joke. The exact monetary figure he'd need to make in order to move behind Capela is $22,329,859. 

    That's over 15 times his actual salary. 


    You can see the full results of this analysis (including players on max contracts) here.

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current entering Nov. 21.


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