Ranking the Best Bargain NBA Free-Agent Contracts Since 2000
In a salary-cap sport such as the NBA, athletes are rarely paid their actual market values. Often, the most successful teams are the ones who capitalize on that discrepancy.
Over the last 20 years, many league champions have built winners because of one particular team-friendly contract. Sometimes, a player accepted a pay cut. In others, a franchise signed a player to an extension, and then he became a superstar.
It's true that neither case guarantees team success. Steve Nash or Kemba Walker never won a championship on their bargain deals, but they produced at an incredible level.
Team success and individual contributions factored in to these rankings. Players on rookie deals were not considered; the list is focused on second contracts and beyond.
8. Ray Allen, Miami Heat, 2012
In the 12 seasons prior to joining the Miami Heat, Ray Allen collected at least $10 million per year. But when he departed the Boston Celtics in summer 2012, the sharpshooter took a dramatic pay cut.
Allen joined Miami for two years and $6.3 million, a remarkably paltry contract for a career 40 percent three-point shooter who had provided 14.2 points per game in 2011-12.
That, my friends, is called foreshadowing.
During Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Allen hit a series-saving three-pointer. Sure, it's theoretically possible a different player would've hit the shot. But it was on obvious edge for the Heat to have one of the NBA's best-ever shooters standing in the corner.
And it was an absolute steal to have him on a $3.1 million salary.
7. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets, 2014
Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets didn't accomplish a whole lot during his contract. Given his production, however, the value was incredible.
From the 2015-16 season through 2018-19, Walker made $12 million annually. He headed to three All-Star Games and landed third-team All-NBA honors in his last season, averaging 23.0 points and 5.5 assists per game throughout the four-year contract.
The Hornets struggled because—other than Walker—their marquee signings and extensions didn't live up to expectations. Nicolas Batum, Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller had eight-figure salaries, but, for varying reasons, left much to be desired.
Walker departed for the Boston Celtics following the 2018-19 season, signing a four-year, $140.8 million deal. His individual success during the contract gives him the edge over Allen.
6. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns, 2004
During the 1996 draft, the Phoenix Suns selected Steve Nash with the 15th pick. They shipped him to the Dallas Mavericks two years later, and he performed reasonably well in six seasons. But when Nash hit free agency in 2004, Dallas hesitated.
In a word: Oops.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called it his "biggest mistake ever" in an appearance on The Rematch with Etan Thomas. Nash turned down a four-year, $36 million pact and returned to Phoenix, which gave him with a six-year contract for $65.6 million.
Nash thrived with the Suns, winning back-to-back MVP Awards and landing All-NBA recognition five times in six years. Yet his salary always remained below those of the 30 highest-paid players in the league.
Nash is behind the next five players because Phoenix lost in three Western Conference Finals from 2004-05 to 2009-10. Still, he made the Suns a perennial contender.
5. Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons, 2002
As a free agent in 2002, Chauncey Billups picked the Detroit Pistons and a five-year deal worth $27.3 million. Within two seasons, Billups led the "starless" squad to a championship.
While that moniker is a bit unfair—Billups became a five-time All-Star—he certainly wasn't paid like a star.
During the 2003-04 title-winning season, his $5 million salary ranked 116th in the NBA, per HoopsHype. And he checked in at 111th when Detroit repeated as the Eastern Conference champion the next year.
Throughout the contract, Billups averaged 17.0 points and 6.3 assists while shooting 40.0 percent from three. He was named the 2004 Finals MVP and landed two All-Star nods, two All-NBA accolades and two All-Defensive honors.
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors, 2016
During summer 2016, Kevin Durant bolted the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. He earned $26.5 million as the Warriors cruised to an NBA title that season.
And after reaching the ultimate goal, he wanted a second ring. However, the Warriors needed to re-sign Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Keeping the roster together meant someone needed to sacrifice.
After declining a player option for 2017-18, Durant agreed to a $25 million deal, which was $9.5 million less than his max salary.
"Well, I'm a smart guy and I want to keep this thing going and looking at Andre and Shaun and Steph—they all should make the most money that they can make and get what they deserve. Because they were all underpaid and I knew at some point they'd want to get what they deserve," he said, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic. "So I just took a step back and let the chips fall where they may. Then I took it in my hands. I wanted to keep the team together and I thought it was going to help the ownership bring all the guys back. And on top of that, it's my money. It's my decision. I can do what the hell I want with it."
The decision paid off. Golden State repeated as NBA champion, and Durant won his second straight Finals MVP Award.
3. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 2012
From the 2001-02 season through 2011-12, Tim Duncan had a salary north of $10 million. Preceding summer 2012, he had surpassed the $20 million mark in three of the previous four seasons.
But unlike many players who—understandably—chase one final huge contract, the 36-year-old Duncan slashed his salary in half. He signed a three-year, $30 million deal. Duncan's decision gave the San Antonio Spurs the flexibility to retain Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills—three invaluable pieces.
The Spurs subsequently won the Western Conference in 2012-13, falling one painful game short of winning the NBA Finals partly because of Ray Allen's shot. They returned to the championship stage in 2013-14 and brought home the title.
Duncan received first-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defensive recognition in 2012-13 and earned third-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defensive honors the following year.
He's ranked ahead of Durant because, relative to KD's salary, Duncan's $10 million was a greater bargain.
2. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2010
Well below, really.
James and Bosh agreed to identical deals, beginning with $14.5 million salaries in 2010-11. At the time, they weren't even among the top-20 highest-paid players in the league.
Bosh held a pivotal role, of course, but James was the biggest bargain. He earned $67.1 million over a four-year period that featured two championships, four MVP Awards (two in the regular season and two in the Finals), four All-NBA honors and four All-Defensive picks.
LeBron has since signed big contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, winning a title at each stop. His current deal is worth $153.3 million over four years.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2012
The Golden State Warriors built their dynasty on Stephen Curry's contract.
Earlier in his career, Curry showed outstanding upside but struggled with ankle injuries. Both he and the Warriors took calculated risks on a four-year contract, and Curry's sustained health during the $44 million deal helped create a juggernaut.
Curry collected two MVP Awards, four All-NBA selections, four All-Star appearances and two championships during the contract. His $11 million average salary facilitated Golden State's ability to re-sign Draymond Green to his first extension and later add Kevin Durant as a free agent.
When the contract expired, Curry signed a five-year, $201 million pact that runs through the 2021-22 season. Curry takes the list's top spot for having a cheaper deal than LeBron's contract.