The 10 Best NBA Seasons on Bargain-Bin Contracts of the Past 30 Years
It takes a perfect blend of circumstances to score a bargain with an NBA superstar.
Some players fly under the radar because of perceptions tied to size, injury history or draft status. Others sign deals that may appear lucrative only to dissolve as the years soldier forward. Finally, some sacrifice financial status for immortality. We have chosen not to include athletes on rookie deals—we're looking for those who signed at a bargain-bin discount only to outplay their monetary value.
Regardless of how they earned the title of being "underpaid," these players were selected as the 10 most poorly compensated for their efforts in the past 30 years.
10. Kemba Walker: 2018-19
Salary: $12 million
Salary Rank: 111th
Awards: Third-Team All-NBA, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Solomon Hill, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gorgui Dieng
Kemba Walker's stop-and-pop game allowed the jitterbug point guard to overcome his lack of length within head coach Steve Clifford's offense.
His pick-and-roll manipulation (90.9 percentile) and strong isolation play (82.0 percentile) granted him 25.6 points per game, good for 10th in the NBA. Also averaging 5.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds, he led one of the NBA's weakest rosters to 39 wins even as it lost arguably its second-best player (Cody Zeller) for 33 games. Zeller's net rating (1.4) was by far the group's best.
Rob Mahoney referred to Kemba Walker's four-year, $48 million extension as a "dangerous game" in a Sports Illustrated article penned in 2014, just two months after calling him the NBA's 94th-best player.
Fast-forward five years and Walker has signed a four-year, $141 million contract with the Boston Celtics following three All-Star appearances and a 2018-19 season in which he earned All-NBA honors.
9. Isaiah Thomas: 2016-17
Salary: $6.6 million
Salary Rank: 153rd
Awards: Second-Team All-NBA, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Sergio Rodriguez, Cole Aldrich, Festus Ezeli
Following the infamous deal that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for long-term draft capital, the Boston Celtics seemed to enter the beginning of an extensive rebuild.
Isaiah Thomas had other plans.
After he was acquired for Marcus Thornton and a future first-round pick in a three-team trade, Thomas led the Celtics to 16 wins in their last 23 games and a 40-42 record in 2014-15. In 2015-16, they'd win 48 games.
But in 2016-17, Thomas broke out as one of the NBA's best closers and most explosive playmakers, finishing fifth in MVP voting while leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference's best record and the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor described Thomas as the "King of the Fourth," a title he earned while averaging double digits in the fourth quarter. No player had done that in 20 years. With 28.9 points per game, Thomas finished third to Russell Westbrook and James Harden, albeit with far superior efficiency numbers.
During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Thomas gave perhaps the best performance of his career against the Washington Wizards, scoring 53 points on 33 shots on his late sister's birthday.
During Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Cleveland, Thomas would be sidelined indefinitely with a reaggravated labral tear. He has yet to regain the form that made him an MVP candidate and arguably the game's greatest closer.
8. Rajon Rondo: 2011-12
Salary: $8.1 million
Salary Rank: 58th
Awards: Third-Team All-NBA, Second-Team All-Defensive, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Mehmet Okur, Corey Maggette, Chris Kaman
During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, Rajon Rondo would surpass the Boston Celtics' Big Three as arguably the team's best player with 11.9 points, 11.7 assists (league-best), 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game while appearing in 53 of 66 contests.
Despite this regular-season success, it was the postseason in which Rondo earned his stripes and emerged as one of the NBA's most dangerous players.
Rondo led this aging group to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat, averaging 20.9 points, 11.3 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 45.2 minutes per game during the series. He led the group in points, assists and steals and finished second to Kevin Garnett in rebounds.
Game 2 of that series was Rondo's most memorable outing. Playing all 53 minutes of the 115-111 overtime loss, he accrued 44 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and three steals while shooting 16-of-24 from the field.
Over 19 playoff games that season, Rondo put in 17.3 points, 11.9 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game while playing a monstrous 42.6 minutes per contest.
7. Larry Bird: 1990-91
Salary: $1.5 million
Salary Rank: tied for 54th
Awards: All-Star (did not play because of injury)
Notable Players to Earn More: Alec Kessler, Mike Gminski
Despite missing 22 games with an ailing back, Larry Bird helped lead the Boston Celtics to 56 wins—second in the Eastern Conference—as the only player in the NBA to assemble 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game during the 1990-91 season.
The Celtics showed glimpses of the 1980s squad that won three titles, bursting out to a 29-5 record before Bird's health struggles contributed to six losses in their final eight contests.
Bird soldiered on as the Celtics needed every bit of his prowess in a winner-take-all Game 5 with the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. After spending the previous night in the hospital with a compressed nerve in his back (which would end his career the following year), Bird forced his way into Game 5. After falling awkwardly to the floor in the first half, he headed to the locker room and stayed there throughout halftime.
Then it happened. Bird returned and led his Celtics to a 124-121 victory with 32 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in 33 minutes.
Bird missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and the Celtics fell to the Detroit Pistons in six games. Still, his overall effect far outweighed the modest salary that made him the NBA's 54th-highest-paid player.
6. Tim Duncan/Tony Parker: 2012-13
Awards: First-Team All-NBA, Second-Team All-Defensive, All-Star for Duncan; Second-Team All-NBA, All-Star for Parker
Notable Players to Earn More: Manu Ginobli, Kevin Martin, Emeka Okafor
The 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs fell short in Game 7 against the Miami Heat to end one of the most exciting NBA Finals in modern NBA history, and the team was flush with talent. With Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard patrolling the perimeter, the trio of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan led the franchise to the brink of what could have been its fifth title, which it would earn one season later.
Parker and Duncan, though, weren't to blame for the Spurs falling short.
The two led San Antonio to 58 wins while finishing sixth and seventh in MVP voting, respectively. In addition, Duncan finished sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, and both played at a significant discount. In fact, Duncan served as the team's fourth-highest-paid player behind Ginobli ($14.1 million), Parker and Stephen Jackson ($10.1 million).
Parker was 11th in scoring and the only player to log at least 20.0 points and 7.5 assists per game. He did so while shooting remarkably well from the field, going 52.2 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three. Duncan was 15th in rebounds per game (9.9) and averaged 17.3 points despite playing just 30.1 minutes per contest.
In 2013-14, Parker and Duncan led the Spurs to the Finals once more, overcoming the Heat in just five games and sending the short-lived Miami dynasty into a rebuild as just the NBA's 41st and 58th highest-earning athletes, respectively. While they achieved greater team success, their regular-season roles were minimized thanks to the continued improvement of Leonard.
That makes their talents even greater values in 2012-13.
5. Steve Nash: 2006-07
Salary: $10.5 million
Salary Rank: 46th
Awards: First-Team All-NBA, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Raef LaFrentz, Theo Ratliff, Wally Szczerbiak
The MVP award winner in 2004-05 and 2005-06 failed to earn the honor again in 2006-07 despite contributing his best season yet. He'd finish just short of former teammate Dirk Nowitzki despite posting the league's best assist mark and effective field-goal percentage as well as improving the Suns to 61 wins from 54 the previous season.
Nash's supreme talents and effort couldn't take the Suns over the top as they were dismissed in the postseason by the eventual Western Conference champion for the third consecutive season. In 11 postseason games, he amassed 18.9 points, 13.3 assists and 3.2 rebounds while shooting 46.3/48.7/89.1.
Nash gave one of just three postseason performances ever of at least 15 points and 10 assists per game while shooting above 45 percent from three (Chris Paul, Deron Williams). He also joined Magic Johnson, Johnny Moore, John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Maurice Cheeks as the only players to average 13 assists per game in a postseason.
Nash's Suns finished first in offensive rating yet again. They ranked first or second in the category in six consecutive seasons from 2004-05 to 2009-10.
4. Jason Kidd: 2001-02
Salary: $8.5 million
Salary Rank: 50th
Awards: First-Team All-NBA, First-Team All-Defensive, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Tim Thomas, Bryant Reeves
The New Jersey Nets took an enormous leap forward after swapping superstar guard Stephon Marbury in favor of Jason Kidd, then a three-time assists leader, in the summer of 2001.
Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo thought he was moving the franchise cornerstone for an Allen Iverson type who could build momentum with a fanbase he claimed experienced "a general malaise" with Kidd at the helm.
But the Suns won just 36 games in 2001-02, while Kidd doubled the Nets' win total to 56 and led them to the first of two straight Finals appearances.
With a stacked stat sheet (14.7 points, 9.9 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 steals and a 4.2 plus/minus) that saw Kidd contribute in a variety of ways, he became an unlikely candidate for MVP, finishing second to Tim Duncan.
He was even more instrumental in the playoffs, contributing four triple-doubles in 20 contests while nearly becoming the third player in NBA history to average 20/10/10 through a postseason (19.6 points, 9.1 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals). However, Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook achieved the feat in just four and five games, respectively.
With his defensive prowess, offensive playmaking and relentless effort, Kidd far outplayed his monetary figure and emerged as one of the NBA's most impactful players.
3. Stephen Curry: 2015-16
Salary: $11.4 million
Salary Rank: 65th
Awards: MVP, First-Team All-NBA, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Nicolas Batum, Amir Johnson, Nikola Pekovic
Lingering ankle concerns enabled this historic markdown.
Rewind to 2012 and we saw Curry on a table facing the prospect of a second reconstructive surgery of his right ankle. President of basketball operations Bob Myers later hypothesized that the conditions that led to Curry's ankle maladies may have been the best thing to happen to the future Hall of Famer.
"It made Steph what he is now," Myers told ESPN's Pablo S. Torre in 2016.
In 2015-16, Curry snatched opponents' ankles with his variety of crossovers and step-backs and a lightning-quick trigger.
Curry emerged as a two-time MVP, becoming one of just three players ever to average 50/45/90 shooting (Steve Kerr, Steve Nash) with over 30 three-point attempts. He became the only player to do so with 400 three-point attempts in 2015-16, and he led the league in scoring despite playing just 34.2 minutes per game, nearly four minutes fewer than the scoring runner-up, James Harden.
The NBA had never witnessed such an explosive and efficient offensive weapon.
In addition to leading the Warriors to the greatest regular season ever (73 wins), Curry destroyed all-time numbers. With 402 converted three-pointers, he obliterated his previous mark of 286. He made 10 or more threes in a game four times. Aside from Klay Thompson (twice in 2015-16), no player had ever done so more than once in a season.
Perhaps most impressive of all, Curry became the only player to have an effective field-goal percentage above 60 while scoring 20 or more points per game and set the record for true shooting percentage among that same group.
2. Scottie Pippen: 1994-95
Salary: $2.2 million
Salary Rank: 91st
Notable Players to Earn More: Frank Brickowski, Sedale Threatt, Calbert Cheaney
Fans of The Last Dance on ESPN may remember Scottie Pippen's holdout season of 1997-98 as the most underpaid during his tenure. However, it isn't even in the three or four most underpaid seasons of his career.
Despite the added attention from opponents, Pippen's usage, scoring, rebounding and NBA-best 2.9 steals in 1994-95 eclipsed every season of his career except the prior one in which the Bulls won 55 games without Michael Jordan. With a depleted roster void of Jordan and Horace Grant, Pippen still carried the Bulls to a 34-31 record as the league's 91st-highest-paid player before Jordan's late-season return.
In addition to his elite defense, Pippen was the only player in the 1994-95 season to average 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year and finished seventh in Most Valuable Player voting while earning first-team All-NBA and All-Defensive honors.
Pippen may have been even further underpaid in 1996-97 when he helped lead the Bulls to 69 wins and a six-game Finals win over the Utah Jazz. During that season, he was just the 128th-highest-paid player. While Pippen would earn plenty as his Hall of Fame career continued, he cemented his place as one of the NBA's most valuable players while being one of its most underpaid.
1. Michael Jordan: 1995-96
Salary: $3.9 million
Salary Rank: 32nd
Awards: MVP, First-Team All-NBA, First-Team All-Dkefensive, All-Star
Notable Players to Earn More: Christian Laettner, Benoit Benjamin, Clarence Weatherspoon
If you add 18 months of retroactive payments, the proportion of Michael Jordan's financial compensation changes considerably. But as a single monetary value scaled to the level of his play in 1995-96, the 32nd-highest-paid player was significantly undervalued.
Not only did Jordan secure his fourth MVP en route to his fourth title, but he also did so while the Chicago Bulls won a then-record 72 games. They began the season 41-3, including 37-0 at home, while winning 33 games on the road, the record until the Golden State Warriors eclipsed it in 2015-16.
Jordan took back the title of "game's best" in decisive fashion as the Bulls steamrolled through the playoffs with a 14-1 mark before dropping two games to the Seattle SuperSonics in the NBA Finals. That only delayed what everyone knew was an eventuality.
In 1996-97, Jordan earned one of the most significant salary bumps ($30.1 million) in NBA history, individually earning more than the NBA salary cap ($24.3 million) and the entire Utah Jazz roster (his NBA Finals counterpart in 1996-97).
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@PrestonEllis).