Ranking the NBA's 10 Most Underpaid Players Right Now

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 15, 2020

Ranking the NBA's 10 Most Underpaid Players Right Now

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The roster-building goal of every NBA team is simple: Get more than you're paying for.

    In a league where each organization has a finite amount of money to spend, stretching cash by signing players to below-market deals is basically a prerequisite to success. Remember those dynastic Golden State Warriors teams? They couldn't have put such dominant rosters together if they hadn't been paying Stephen Curry, a two-time MVP, like a seventh man.

    That's an extreme case, but it underscores the importance of underpaying.

    We'll base the rankings on 2020-21 salaries, so impending free agents (including those with player options they'll likely decline) are off limits, as are players likely to sign massive rookie extensions. In fact, we'll exclude players on rookie contracts altogether. Otherwise, we'd just fill this thing up with the likes of Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell and be done with it.

    Also excluded: max players. While it's true many making the max are worth even more, including them would defeat the purpose of hunting for real value. Plus, it's not hard for a general manager to conclude LeBron James is worth as much as you can possibly pay him. It's more difficult to identify a hidden gem, sign him for cheap and then reap the benefits as he shines.

    In that spirit, with one exception, we'll limit this to players making less than $15 million per year. If a player has multiple seasons on his below-market deal, all the better. And if a player is offering outsized value on a winner, that counts for a little extra.

    It's time now to do 10 players the backhanded honor of singling them out for making less money than they ought to.

10. Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

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    Joe Mahoney/Associated Press

    We're dealing in small samples and stats produced on a bad team, so Richaun Holmes' inclusion here comes with a cavalcade of caveats. With that said, there's reason to trust the 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds he put up for the Sacramento Kings in his first full year as a starting center.

    Holmes had a career year in 2019-20, but his production on a per-36-minute basis was right in line with what he'd done in each of the prior three seasons. All he needed was an opportunity, and the Kings only had to pay $4.8 million last year and $5 million in 2020-21 to give him one.

    It's a quick-and-dirty approach, but consider this when weighing Holmes' value against what he's being paid. Last year, only he and three other centers averaged at least 12.0 points and 8.0 rebounds with a true shooting percentage north of 64.0 percent (Holmes was at 68.1 percent, for what it's worth): Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. 

    All of them made at least five times Holmes' salary.

    A skilled roll man with one of the best floaters in the game, Holmes can finish over the top of defenders at the rim or flip in his ugly-but-effective push shot from outside the charge circle. This past season, he was actually more accurate relative to his peers from the short mid-range, where he ranked in the 92nd percentile in accuracy, than at the rim, where he was still respectably in the 77th.

    Holmes is an active defender with high block and steal rates. He's a break-even defensive rebounder, but he excels chasing down loose balls on the offensive glass.

    A better-than-average starter who makes his team better on both ends normally costs at least $20 million. The Kings have an absolute steal in Holmes, who'll surely cash in when his contract expires after the 2020-21 season.

9. Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    Is shooting still the most important skill in the NBA? It is? OK, great. That means Seth Curry is still vastly underpaid.

    Health used to be a real concern for Curry, who lost the entire 2017-18 season due to injury and struggled through stress fractures earlier in his career. But he only sat out eight games in 2018-19 and eight more before the bubble this past season. That pre-2017 history is why he came so cheap at four years and $32 million.

    Otherwise, there's no way the Dallas Mavericks would have gotten the guy with the second-highest three-point percentage of all time (among players with at least 500 career attempts) for an average of $8 million per season.

    Curry sits at 44.3 percent from deep for his career and has canned at least 45.0 percent of his treys in three of the last four years. If that were all he could do, he'd be worth more than he's making, but Curry is also an underrated defender on the ball (just ask his brother) and plays intelligently within his team's schemes.

    Nobody would confuse Curry with a true shutdown stopper, but guys with a stroke like his are often total zeros on D. He's far from a one-way weapon.

    Dallas has no shortage of fantastic deals. Dorian Finney-Smith, a legitimate three-and-D starter, is wildly underpaid at $4 million per year through 2021-22, and Maxi Kleiber is only due to collect $26 million over the next three seasons, with his 2022-23 salary including a team-friendly nonguarantee.

    Curry, though, is the biggest bargain. The Mavs will have one of the best pure shooters in the NBA under contract for the next three years at only $24.4 million.

8. Daniel Theis, Boston Celtics

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics didn't win the title or even reach the Finals, but they were on the very shot list of teams that could have with a couple of better breaks.

    Daniel Theis started at center for them during a deep postseason run and was a key contributor on both ends, which is a lot more than teams typically get for a measly $5 million per season. Fully guaranteeing the $5 million he's owed for 2020-21 will be the easiest decision of the Celtics' offseason.

    Though by no means a star, Theis started 64 of the 65 games he played for Boston and was part of its five most used lineups, all but one of which had positive net ratings during the year. The lone outlier didn't have Jayson Tatum in it, so Theis can hardly be blamed for that.

    Despite standing just 6'8", Theis anchored the league's No. 4 defense, was in the 82nd percentile in block rate, contested the third-most shots among players under 6'10" and enabled the Celtics to change up coverages to suit shifting matchups on a nightly basis. Mobile, smart, unselfish and relentlessly competitive, Theis did the work of a high-end starter on a winning team for what you'd normally pay a 10th man.

    He'd be an even better bargain if officials didn't insist on calling him for (unofficial count) two dubious fouls per game. Anecdotally, nobody drew a tougher whistle this past season than Theis.

    The Celtics' discount expires after next season, but Theis' larger role and bigger impact on a hugely successful team makes his short deal more valuable than Curry's longer one.

7. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    It's hard to score 20 points per game in the NBA, and it's even harder to do it if you lag behind the league average in accuracy from the field and from beyond the arc.

    Spencer Dinwiddie, then, does things the hard way. And he does them well.

    A handful off the dribble and still respected enough by defenses to command serious attention from distance, even though he made just 30.8 percent of his threes in 2019-20, Dinwiddie leaned on second-to-none foul-drawing craft to reach 20.6 points per game. The threat of his pull-up triple forced defenders onto their toes, at which point Dinwiddie's slick handle and quick-strike first step would propel him past them and into the lane.

    From there, Dinwiddie would either finish at close range, work himself to the foul line or set up teammates. His foul-drawing frequency has ranked in the 99th percentile or better at his position in three of the last four seasons, and his assist rate was in the 96th percentile this past year.

    Dinwiddie made just $10.6 million in 2019-20. Excluding players on rookie deals, nobody scored at least 20.0 points per game for less money than that.

    He'll make $11.4 million in 2020-21 and has a player option for $12.3 million the following season.

    Brooklyn has a pair of high-priced superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, which makes Dinwiddie's way-below-market contract all the more valuable.

    Oh, and shout out to Caris LeVert, who's on a slightly more expensive deal than Dinwiddie, but whose future might be even brighter. If not for persistent health concerns, LeVert could have landed here instead of his teammate.

6. P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    This is a high ranking for an expiring deal, but P.J. Tucker's $7.9 million salary for 2020-21 is such an eye-popping bargain that it more than deserves its position here.

    Tucker essentially enabled the Houston Rockets to scrap convention and ditch centers. There aren't many (any?) 6'5" players who almost never give up a strength advantage to opposing bigs, and there are even fewer who can also stick with point guards in space. That Tucker was such a multifaceted and critical piece of his team's success at age 35 makes him even more remarkable.

    Though he can't break down a defense off the dribble or operate well as either part of a pick-and-roll, Tucker still brings immense offensive value with his three-point shot. An extreme specialist, Tucker attempted 68.3 percent of his shots on the catch from beyond the arc. He hit a solid 35.8 percent of them overall and made 38.0 percent from the corners.

    Tucker is a walking matchup problem, as opponents who use like-sized players against him risk getting bullied underneath. Conventional centers with the size to dislodge him down low struggle to defend the rim and still get back out to contest his looks from long range.

    A ruggedly tough, incomprehensibly strong and seemingly ageless force, Tucker, as much as anyone not named James Harden, is why the Rockets are able to play how they play.

    Teams would pay more than $7.9 million for Tucker's contributions on defense alone.

5. Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    It doesn't matter now that the Los Angeles Lakers are NBA champs, but they got royally hosed in the trade that sent Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Los Angeles Clippers for Mike Muscala at the 2019 deadline.

    Muscala was of no help to the Lakers in the whopping 17 games he played for them, but Zubac quickly proved himself to be one of the best young centers in the league. That Zubac is the youngest player on this list and locked into one of the longest deals only adds insult to injury.

    The 7-footer just completed his age-22 season as a full-time starter for a Clippers team that profiled as one of the title favorites until its ugly second-round collapse. Among the chief arguments offered by the Monday-morning quarterbacks after the Clips' failure: Zubac should have played more.

    Though he hasn't showed much stretch to date, Zubac has terrific hands and moves his feet well for a player his size. He's no statue out there, and his mobility on both ends manifests clearly with sky-high rebounding rates. Zubac finished 2019-20 in the 87th percentile in defensive rebound percentage and the 98th percentile on the offensive glass.

    You can't put up numbers like that, especially on offense, without a motor.

    The Clippers owe Zubac just $7 million in 2020-21 and $7.5 million for 2021-22. They also own a team option for $7.5 million in 2022-23 that they'd probably pick up right now if they could.

    A 23-year-old starter (on a really good team) with loads of room to improve should make at least twice what Zubac will get over the life of his deal. 

4. T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    This isn't just about T.J. Warren's bubble explosion, though that effort certainly put the 27-year-old forward on the casual-fan radar to a degree he wasn't before.

    Warren just completed his second straight season averaging over 18.0 points per game with at least 40.0 percent shooting from deep. The list of players who equaled or exceeded those figures over the last two seasons is short. Only Karl-Anthony Towns, Bojan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari join him.

    Bogdanovic is a bargain in his own right, but the $17.8 million he'll get from the Utah Jazz in 2020-21 blows Warren's $11.7 million away. The Indiana Pacers will also get to keep their consistently improving wing for $12.6 million in 2021-22. It's cruel, but we also have to remind everyone that the Phoenix Suns gave Indiana a draft pick to take Warren's salary into its books.

    Oops.

    Warren can get his own shot effectively, and he's still a dangerous mid-range operator. But now that he's a dead-eye three-point sniper who also (finally!) committed to playing quality defense, he's one of the best two-way forwards in the league.

3. Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Marcus Smart doesn't have Warren's counting numbers or easily digestible stats. He's nowhere near a 20-point scorer, having just posted a career-best 12.9 points per game in 2019-20—on wholly underwhelming efficiency rates.

    Smart, though, is an eye-test megastar.

    He alters the complexion of the game whenever he's on the floor, ratcheting up the intensity, turning loose-ball pursuits into frantic freakouts where the fate of the world seems to depend on who comes up with the rock. He baits opponents into cheap fouls, he flops and, at the end of it all, he's at the very top of the list of players you'd hate to suit up against but would love to have on your side.

    Opponent turnover rates skyrocket with Smart on the floor, and he's the rare nominal point guard who can credibly defend centers. The defensive end of the floor is where Smart's mostly stat-free play still gets love. He's been on the All-Defensive first team two years running.

    Best appreciated for his high-wire energy, Smart is also, well...smart.

    "I think that his instincts make our whole team better," head coach Brad Stevens told reporters after Smart made this past season's All-Defensive first team. "They help when we make a mistake as a team. He’s in the right place. He sees the game. He can direct people where to go. He knows how to play."

    The Celtics have Smart locked in for $13.4 million in 2020-21 and $14.3 million in 2021-22. For the toughness, competitive edge and incomparable defense the 26-year-old provides, that's a straight-up steal. 

2. Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Duncan Robinson was the NBA's most dangerous off-ball weapon this past season, a human five-alarm fire that never stood still, forcing defenses into panicked scrambles as they tried to keep track of him, hoping they could douse him before another of his long-range incendiary devices could scorch the net.

    Accounting for shooters like him (insofar as there are any quite like him) forces defenses to compromise in other areas of the floor. The Miami Heat's Finals run happened for several reasons, but Robinson's gravity was one of the big ones.

    Undrafted and originally signed to a two-way deal in 2018, Robinson made just $1.4 million in 2019-20 after having his salary guaranteed prior to the season. The Heat will bring him back for just $1.6 million next year.

    That's a criminally low pay rate for a high-volume bomber who hit 44.6 percent of his threes, many of which involved him stopping on a dime after a dead sprint and rising over desperate, "in his jersey" contests.

    We've avoided rookie contracts here, and Robinson's makes the cut on a technicality. It's his first deal in the league, but not the standard kind draftees ink. He paid his two-way dues first. We should nod to Luguentz Dort and Terence Davis in this space, as they, like Robinson, provided significant value for their teams on deals structured similarly.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's virtually impossible to get a superstar under contract for less than the max. In fact, teams willingly hand out max rookie extensions long before the players receiving them are actually stars; they fork over hundreds of millions of dollars on the basis of hope. Informed hope, usually, but still: hope.

    This is why Giannis Antetokounmpo tops this list. He's a superstar, or whatever tier exists above superstar, playing for less money than his team had the ability to pay him.

    Yes, he's heading into the final year of his deal. And yes, he's making roughly $6 million less than he could have on the four-year agreement he inked in 2016 because he willingly sacrificed so the Bucks could use the leftovers to better the supporting cast.

    But the fact remains: The two-time MVP will collect just $27.5 million in 2020-21, making him the 39th-highest-paid player in the league next year. He's dead even with Steven Adams and one slot above Al Horford.

    These other guys on the list are good players. They're helpful—significantly so in some cases. But none of them is "put this dude on. your roster, and you're winning 60 games" brilliant. None of them has even made an All-Star game, let alone been recognized as the league's best player two years running.

    Antetokounmpo's salary is nearly double that of anyone else's in the top 10, but exceptions belong to the exceptional.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.