EVERY NBA TEAM SPENDS OVER $100 MILLION TO BUILD A ROSTER, so the NBA?s 30 teams collectively pay $3 billion each year to deserving players. Of course, most NBA players are not signed for just one season. Many are signed for three or four, occasionally even five, and that means at any given time, the NBA can owe something like $10 billion to the players. And with all that cash on the table, there are bound to be some really bad deals.
Not every deal is bad. Most rookie deals are pretty good, and it?s tough to go wrong on a veteran minimum. Some max players are worth far more than their salary, so big contracts can favor the team, too. But many deals are just downright bad.
For this article, I considered about 50 different contracts. That?s almost two bad contracts per team and, considering how many players aren?t even signed right now, it means something like 25% of the league is on a bad contract. The ratio gets even worse if you filter out rookie deals and minimum guys. The sad truth of the matter is that most free agency deals are immediate overpays. The best deals in the NBA are rookie deals and max deals, and almost everyone in between is getting paid too much. The NBA is not linear. The very best players control the league and are worth just about any amount. Everyone else is worth way, way less.
So what are the 20 worst contracts in the NBA right now? A few important guidelines:
- Salary numbers are rounded and approximate, to keep things easier.
- We?re not considering the contract?s value to their particular team. Some overpays aren?t so bad if a team is way over the cap anyway, while other teams are so desperate for talent that they?d pay almost anything for it. That?s simply too much context and too hard to distinguish everything, so we?ll look at contracts from a league-wide perspective.
- Length of contract matters. It?s worse to overpay someone by $10 for three years than by $20 once. The longer the overpay, the more it hurts your team. Technically, most NBA teams would probably care less about future contract pain than right now, but I don?t have a good way to adjust for that.
- Yes, this is obviously subjective. I?m looking at each player and evaluating what they should be worth in a fair market. Not what they would get paid, mind you, because we already know guys get overpaid in free agency. What should they get paid?
- Using that idea, I developed the idea of MARGINAL COST to evaluate contracts. If a player makes $10 million but is only worth $3 million, his marginal cost is $7 million. That?s how much of the cap he costs his team by being overpaid. If he?s signed three years, the marginal cost multiplies to $21 million. I look at the player and evaluate how much they ought to get in a market that fairly values them on a contract for the same length, and then I subtract that from the actual contract. That?s marginal cost, and it?s largely the way these contracts are being evaluated and ordered.
- I?m not faulting players for taking the contracts. Go get paid! But the salary cap is a zero-sum game, so each dollar spent on Player A is one less dollar available for Player B. Players can deserve every dollar offered them while teams can still be overpaying on contracts. Both can be true at once.
Okay, enough preamble. Let?s run through some dishonorable mentions, then count down the worst contracts in the NBA down from 20 to 1?
The Official 2018-19 NBA Awards
Giannis or Harden for MVP? Trae or Luka for Rookie of the Year? Time to look back and give out some awards?
Brooklyn NetsGolden State WarriorsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersNew Orleans PelicansNew York KnicksPhiladelphia 76ersSacramento Kings
Congratulations to these eight teams that only have good money on their teams! It?s not much of a feat for several like the Lakers, who literally have LeBron, Brow, and a few rookie contracts. Other teams like the Knicks and Nets spent the year paying big to dump all their bad contracts. Whatever the cost, we?re here now. Any team on this list didn?t have a single contract I considered among the bottom 50 or so deals around the league.
FINE, THANKS FOR ASKING
Danilo Gallinari, Clippers ? 1 year, $23 millionJusuf Nurkic, Blazers ? 3 years, $41 millionMike Conley, Jazz ? 2 years, $67 millionJrue Holiday, Pelicans ? 3 years, $80 million
These are all guys whose contracts were once disparaged ? admittedly by me, on a couple ? but now look just fine, thank you very much. Not every contract stays good or bad forever. Injury-prone guys can get healthy, players can learn how to shoot or expand their game, guys can start trying on defense. Heck, some contracts are bad on one team but perfectly fine on another. This stuff is hard, and these guys are a nice reminder of that.
THE ENDLESS GLUT OF AWFUL EXPIRING DEALS
C.J. Miles, Grizzlies ? $8.7 millionMatthew Dellavedova, Cavs ? $9.6 millionJon Leuer, Bucks ? $9.7 millionJohn Henson, Cavs ? $9.7 millionMeyers Leonard, Blazers ? $11.3 millionCourtney Lee, Mavs ? $12.8 millionMichael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hornets ? $13 millionJordan Clarkson, Cavs ? $13.4 millionMason Plumlee, Nuggets ? $14 millionMarvin Williams, Hornets ? $15 million
Holy cow, that?s a lot of bad money, about $117 million, enough that this terrible roster alone puts you over the salary cap. And it?s almost all leftover from the awful summer of 2016 free agency spending spree. Still, none of these contracts make the bottom 20 ? at least not anymore. Some would have a year or two ago, a few from the moment the ink dried on the contract. But expiring contracts are different; one year of bad money can be swallowed.
For some teams, these contracts become positive assets. A team like the Timberwolves might decide to move on from an expensive player like Andrew Wiggins in hopes of getting a young asset, but Wiggins costs so much that the other team will have to include some big salaries to match in a deal, without sending more bad contracts back. That?s where expiring deals come in. Remember how the Knicks and Nets are finally on the no-bad-contracts list? It?s because they traded for guys that were on this list a year ago, and now the slate is clean. Expiring contracts can be valuable and, at the very least, are no longer the worst contracts in the league. Everyone above is under $10 million marginal cost.
And here?s the crazy thing. Those aren?t even the worst expiring contracts in the NBA. Check out these doozies.
Miles Plumlee, Hawks ? $12.5 millionSolomon Hill, Hawks ? $12.7 millionIan Mahinmi, Wizards ? $15.5 millionBrandon Knight, Cavs ? $15.6 millionRyan Anderson, Heat ? $15.6 million (if cut early)Timofey Mozgov, Magic ? $16.7 millionBismack Biyombo, Hornets ? $17 millionTristan Thompson, Cavs ? $18.5 millionAllen Crabbe, Hawks ? $18.5 millionEvan Turner, Hawks ? $18.6 millionTyler Johnson, Suns ? $19.2 millionHassan Whiteside, Heat ? $27.1 million
Woof. There goes another $200+ million down the drain ? two more entire teams worth of salary cap. Summer 2016 was wild. Mozgov?s deal was announced by the Lakers at the stroke of midnight. He?s not a Laker anymore, nor on the team they traded him to. Most of the players in this group are no longer with the team that signed them, and the teams that unloaded them paid a hefty price. And don?t forget names like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng who would?ve joined this list if they weren?t already waived and stretched.
Not everyone here is useless, but none are worth anything even close to their contract. Everyone here is paid at least $10 million more than they ought to be this year, over $15 million marginal cost for a few. But because of their value as expiring contracts, they?re not quite bottom 20 contracts anymore.
AN OVERPAID ARCHETYPE
Evan Fournier, Magic ? 2 years, $34 millionTim Hardaway Jr., Mavs ? 2 years, $39 millionZach LaVine, Bulls ? 3 years, $59 millionDeMar DeRozan, Spurs ? 2 years, $56 million
Notice anything in common?
I?m not a fan of the shoot-first-shoot-second NBA shooting guard. These guys were put on this earth to score. Unfortunately, they just don?t seem to contribute in a ton of other ways. They?re not good enough handlers or decision makers to run the offense as the point guard and not good enough defenders to play as true wings. Instead we stick them at the two and let them take a ton of mostly inefficient shots and rack up points and All-Star berths.
I don?t get it. I don?t want any of these guys at their current contract. They?re all overpaid, and some I wouldn?t want in my lineup at any price. There?s value in a player that can create a bucket out of nothing, but a couple MJ and Kobe generations have tricked us into thinking BUCKETZ are somehow more valuable than creating for others or stopping opponents from scoring. This is the exact same reason I was down on R.J. Barrett in this year?s draft. He fits the same archetype, a me-first scorer who isn?t going to contribute a ton other than having the ball in his hands and looking to score by any means possible. I fully expect R.J. Barrett to show up on a list like this someday.
Having said all of that? the NBA clearly disagrees with me. They keep paying this archetype, and there?s no point in me throwing 10 shooting guards into the top 20 and making this list about that, so I?m leaving them as dishonorable mentions. Just know that I genuinely don?t think these players help their teams nearly as much as most assume ? including their teams.
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R.J. Barrett is one of the most naturally gifted players in the 2019 NBA Draft, so why is it so hard to see him?
THE BOTTOM 20 CONTRACTS BEGIN
20. Doug McDermott, Pacers ? 2 years, $15 million
I love Dougie McBuckets as much as the next guy, but it?s not entirely certain he should be in the NBA at this point. The normally stingy Pacers dropped the ball on this one.
Marginal Cost: $10 million over 2 years
19. Will Barton, Nuggets ? 3 years, $41 million
This one sneaks up on you. Barton was not inspiring as a starter this year, much more effective in a sixth-man role, and he?s being paid too much to do that. Not by a ton, but over three years, it adds up. Denver fans know Barton is the guy blocking their cap space and stopping them from adding one final piece to push them into the title hunt.
Marginal cost: $15 million over 3 years
18. James Johnson, Heat ? 2 years, $31 million
This one hurts because I love Bloodsport. When healthy and in the right role, James Johnson is one of maybe 10 players in the NBA that can legitimately switch one to five defensively. The problem is Johnson has had exactly one really good NBA season, and it happened to be his contract year. He?s gotten worse each year since signing this extension and at age 32, he?s headed in the wrong direction. Johnson could be a contributor on the right playoff team, perhaps a team like the Wolves or Nuggets as a defensive four next to a unicorn center. For now, he?s just not that valuable.
Marginal cost: $10 to $20 million over 2 years
17. Markelle Fultz, Magic ? 2 years, $22 million
Rookie deals can be bad too, if a player is taken top five and really stinks. Fultz went #1 and is actually quite expensive, even on a rookie deal. Fultz makes almost $10 million this year and over $12 million the year after if the Magic pick up his option, which they?ll be compelled to do after their investment. Like it or not, Markelle Fultz is not even an NBA player right now. Like, not even a minimum guy. He?s played 33 games and continues to have no injury timetable, and he?s been downright bad. There?s a very real chance this is just a wasted $22 million, and even if Fultz does hit, he probably won?t until the next fatter contract anyway at this point.
Marginal cost: $8 to $22 million over 2 years
16. Steven Adams, Thunder ? 2 years, $53 million15. Andre Drummond, Pistons ? 2 years, $56 million
Adams and Drummond are good not great centers that help teams win but also tie them to a specific plan, one that seems capped out as a first-round playoff exit. Both have trade kickers and are unlikely to be moved, and both are strong on defense without a ton of offense. Adams has more offensive versatility and Drummond has better rebounding numbers, though I?m not sure he?s actually the better rebounder. These are good players. They?re just overpaid given where the league has gone in 2019.
Marginal cost: $15 to $20 each over 2 years
SO CONTROVERSIAL HE GETS HIS OWN TIER
14. Devin Booker, Suns ? 5 years, $158 million
You should?ve seen this coming. I devoted an entire subsection to overpaid twos, and Devin Booker is the overpaidiest of them all. I like Devin Booker, I promise, and I think he could be really good someday, maybe even by the end of this contract. But, like? he?s not, right now. He?s just not. He?s not bad, not as bad as Andrew Wiggins, and he?s young and should keep getting better.
But? what if he doesn?t? What if his growth stagnates like other young players and the Suns are stuck paying $35 million a year to a guy who fills up the box score but has yet to contribute to winning basketball, as seen by the Suns picking near the top of the draft year after year with him as the lead. The best version of Booker might look something like James Harden. The problem is Harden is way better at both offense and defense, and you don?t pay a player like James Harden before he actually is him. Harden is an all-time great and it?s unreasonable and irresponsible to put those expectations on Booker.
Maybe Booker lives up to this contract, but it will be really hard for him to provide any surplus value. The most likely scenario has him topping out as a very good version of this archetype, which leaves Booker modestly overpaid. And there?s an obvious Wiggins scenario where Booker?s growth stagnates, he never really helps the Suns win, and suddenly they?re committed to a massive deal for half a decade that no one wants to trade for. It?s a real risk, and I?m not sure the upside comes close to outweighing it.
Put it this way ? it?s much easier to see this contract moving up this list than off it. I know you think this is crazy. You say many other teams would happily give Booker the max, and you?re absolutely right. You think he?s either too low on the list or should never be on it in the first place. This is my compromise, and that is the Devin Booker contract gamble.
Marginal cost: $15 to $30 million, as much as $50+ million, over 5 years
13. Chandler Parsons, Grizzlies ? 1 year, $25 million
We had to sneak one expiring deal onto the list. Keep gettin? dem checks!
Marginal cost ? $25 million for 1 year
12. Dante Exum, Jazz ? 2 years, $19 million
Would you rather pay $20 million the next two years for Markelle Fultz or for Dante Exum? Exum?s still relatively young but can?t stay healthy and hasn?t been good even when he plays. Now I?m sad.
Marginal cost ? $15 to $19 million over 2 years
11. Cristiano Felicio, Bulls ? 2 years, $16 million
Just let Bulls fans believe the injuries are the reason he?s on this list, k?
Marginal cost ? $16 million over 2 years
10. Dion Waiters, Heat ? 2 years, $25 million
Waiters Island has been abandoned. All homes have been boarded up. The ships have left the port. A tumbleweed bounces softly across a quiet, empty field. Dion Waiters smiles triumphantly and raises his arms. The tumbleweed clangs and rims out.
Marginal cost ? $21 to $25 million over 2 years
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IT WASN?T SUPPOSED TO BE THIS WAY
9. Blake Griffin, Pistons ? 3 years, $110 million
Blake just had one of the finest seasons of his career, 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists across 75 games, his most in half a decade, and he?s suddenly hitting 2.5 threes a game too. Griffin made Third Team All-NBA and deserved it. And yet, he?s still overpaid.
Blake averaged only 55 games the four previous seasons, and though his game is aging nicely, the defense has still slipped mightily and he?s still a major injury threat. Give Griffin credit ? this deal ranked much closer to #1 a couple years ago. Just getting this low is an accomplishment all on its own.
Marginal cost: $15 to $40 million over 2?3 years
8. Gordon Hayward ? 2 years, $67 million
Hayward wasn?t good last season but was also only a year removed from that horrific leg injury. He?s not a max contract guy right now, no matter how you slice it, but maybe he?ll get back there with an extra summer of rehab. It?s hard to know what Hayward should be paid, but it ain?t this much.
Marginal cost: $10 to $35 million over 2 years
U-G-L-Y, YOU AIN?T GOT NO ALIBI, YOU UGLY
7. Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves ? 2 years, $34 million
Wiggins takes all of the heat in Minnesota, but Dieng?s deal started the problems. Dieng looked like a nice stretch big at the time of signing, but he never stretched his game beyond the arc and couldn?t find any playing time under Thibs. Maybe the Wolves can rehab some value, but for now, Dieng is barely even worth the veteran minimum as a rotation big man.
Marginal cost: $25 to $30 million over 2 years
6. Nicolas Batum, Hornets ? 2 years, $53 million
Technically that second year is a player option but yeahhh, Batum is gonna be picking up that option. Batum is a smart player I?ve always loved, and he?d be more valuable on a winning team, but he?s not good enough at the 3-and-D and handling stuff he is getting paid for, and the contract many once called a bargain for being sub-max (myself included) continues to be an albatross that weighs down the Hornets franchise.
Marginal cost: $30 to $35 million over 2 years
5. Kevin Love, Cavaliers ? 4 years, $120 million
Cavs fans will not stand for this, but the truth hurts. Love has gotten old quickly, and his body is not cooperating. He?s averaged 47 games over the last three seasons and saw his shooting and efficiency numbers take a troubling dive this year at age 30. On top of that, Love?s defense is worse than ever, downright horrendous now, actively harmful to the team.
Cavs fans want a ransom for a guy that once averaged 20/15, but this is not that guy. Love can?t score like that anymore, and his body can?t handle that usage. He?s probably best as a decent third or good fourth banana on a contending team, and no contending team can afford to pay him this much to do that. Really, what does Love give you that someone like Ryan Anderson or Kelly Olynyk can?t? He?s better than those guys for sure, certainly a better rebounder, but is he better by $15 or $20 million a year?
If you?re a contending team thinking of trading for Love, what are the chances this is the guy that will put your team over the top? I don?t see it. What team desperately needs a high-usage stretch four that can?t defend? This contract is a modest overpay at best. At worst, you may get nothing out of Love for an entire season or two of the contract, and he might not be playable in May or June. Can he put you over the top? I doubt it. But he could definitely sink your franchise for a few years if things go south.
Marginal cost: $40 to $60 million over 4 years
4. Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves ? 4 years, $122 million
Andrew Wiggins is a 24-year-old averaging 19.4 points per game over a five-year NBA career. End of list of nice things anyone has to say about him. He?s an awful defender. He can?t shoot. He?s not useful without the ball in his hands, and he takes shots away from KAT. He?s still young enough to improve but hasn?t really done so yet. Wiggins is the worst version of the score-first-score-only archetype. He?s not only not a max player ? he?s not even a good one. He?s yet to even have a single season with positive Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).
Maybe that means Wiggins should be making the minimum, but that?s not how things work in the NBA. If he were a free agent, someone would pay him, and they?d pay more than you think. Maybe not the max, but he?d get $18 or $20 million a year to score inefficient buckets for some sucker of a team out there. I?m crediting Wiggins with a 4-year, $65-million deal going forward. And even then, I wouldn?t want it on my team.
Marginal cost: $55 million over 4 years
THE SUPER MAXES
3. Chris Paul, Rockets ? 3 years, $124 million
Yes, Chris Paul is miles better than Andrew Wiggins. Chris Paul could retire tomorrow, play video games for five seasons, then come back without any training and he?d still be better than Andrew Wiggins. But he?s also making $39 million, $41 million, and $44 million the next three seasons, and that is a whole heap of money for a 34-year-old that?s suffered a significant injury in four of his past five NBA seasons.
When his body is right, Chris Paul is still a top-5 point guard, one of the greatest to ever play the position. The problem is how infrequently we get that version. This year we got it for about a third of the season, and the good version?s usually gone by the time the playoffs roll around and his body hasn?t held up. How valuable can this contract be if you get the Point God for a third of the season but Cliff Paul for the other two thirds and the playoffs?
If you generously offer $30, 25, and 20 million the next three seasons to CP3, you?re still overpaying for his services, but you?re also saving a whopping $50 million from his actual deal. And at this stage of his career, he can really only get worth less, not more. That?s the one big difference between Wiggins and the three guys ranked below him. Wiggins is at least available to play and can theoretically improve in a new system. But bodies don?t unbreak themselves.
Marginal cost: $50 to $70 million over 3 years
2. Russell Westbrook, Thunder ? 4 years, $171 million
Westbrook has basically the exact same contract as Chris Paul ? he just also has a fourth year at the end, a $47-million player option I?d like to report right now he?ll most definitely be picking up. Sources say.
You tell me, which player would you rather pay the next three seasons? I say CP3, even knowing Russ can give me 150% of Paul?s effort and energy in the regular season because at least with CP, I have hope for the playoffs. Russ hasn?t won a playoff series without Durant, and there?s little reason to believe he?ll be able to. Westbrook?s game is predicated completely on nuclear athleticism that has to fade at some point and a shot that never got there in the first place and started looking bad real fast this year.
In the best case scenario, maybe Russ is still worth the max this year, then something like $32, 28, and 22 million the next three. That?s a 4-year $120-million deal that pays Russ over $50 million less than his real contract. But if you don?t think Russ is a max player now anyway, and if you think his aging curve could hit hard, like me, then this deal could turn into a real whopper.
Marginal cost: $50 to $75 million over 4 years
1. John Wall, Wizards ? 4 years, $171 million
Debate the rest all you want, but Wall has #1 locked up. He?ll make $38 million this year and might not even step on the court, then he?ll have played 73 games in three seasons with a style based entirely on burst and speed coming off the one injury we?ve never found an answer to.
Wall has the same contract as Westbrook, only instead of being possibly worth the max this season, he?s worth $0. Maybe he gets back to being an above average point guard. Maybe he?s never even really an NBA player again. For now, we?ll just hope for the best.
Marginal cost: $90 to $140 million over 4 years
The only good news for Wall and everyone else on this list?
In less than a week, 2019 free agency opens. And if history is any indication ? and it usually is ? at least half of these deals will be replaced by horrible freshly-minted contracts before you know it. ?
Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon?s writing archives here.
Huge thanks to Keith P. Smith and Jeff Siegel for their incredible cap resources.