The NBA may be a star-driven league, but its financial structure ensures that building a roster requires more than identifying talent. It’s not just about finding the right player; it’s about finding the right player at the right price.
With team values continuing to climb, owners can afford to pay an underachieving player. The real pain is in the opportunity cost: What could you have gotten for that money instead? How else could you have beefed up your roster?
It’s no surprise, then, that teams continue to search for new inefficiencies and measures of value, in a statistical revolution.
As with any bet, though, occasionally you gamble and lose.
Here are some of this season’s big losses.
How We Determined Who’s ‘Overpaid’
The inventor of the methodology we’re using here is David Berri, a sports economist at Southern Utah University and a former Forbescontributor. The number-crunching involves a few thorny decisions, but the premise is beautifully straightforward.
Figure out what a player should be making. Compare that against what he is actually making. The difference between the numbers is the amount by which he’s overpaid (or underpaid). Rinse and repeat.
Berri’s big contribution is the method he devised to produce the first estimate—what a player should be making. We start with the fact that, under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players as a group are guaranteed roughly 50% of basketball-related income. Because we don’t yet know the BRI figure for the 2018-19 season, we’ll use last season’s: BRI was $7.147 billion, and the players’ share was $3.645 billion, according to Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ.
If we assume that teams are paying players to win, we can divide the players’ income by the total number of regular-season games (1,230) to produce an estimate of the value of a win: $2.963 million. (Yes, for the purposes of this analysis, we’re ignoring the fact that teams sometimes may not want to win or may be paying players for a reason other than winning, like boosting ticket sales. We’re also ignoring playoff games in computing the value of a win because players are paid out of their salaries solely during the regular season.)
From there, if we multiply our win value by the number of wins a player produces, we arrive at that player’s value for the season—his “expected” salary.
We have many win estimates to choose from in this player analysis, but all of them have the same basic goal: boil down a number of statistics (like points, rebounds and turnovers) into one number to measure how many wins a player contributed to his team. All of these metrics have their strengths and weaknesses, so in this analysis, we will be taking the average of three win estimates to try to minimize the blindspots of any one of them. Our three inputs: Wins Produced, a metric created by Berri and listed at BoxScoreGeeks.com; a wins estimate based on the metric Value Over Replacement Player, which is calculated by Basketball-Reference.com and is itself based on the metric Box Plus/Minus; and Win Shares, another metric calculated by Basketball-Reference.
Of course, these metrics are limited by the inputs they’re using; if the metric doesn’t account for something that’s inherently hard to quantify—for instance, a player’s ability to man up on defense—then that metric won’t fully capture a player’s value. But while it’s easy to point out that problem, it’s not so easy to solve it. We’re left with an imperfect measure.
Because these metrics are assessing a player’s contributions relative to a theoretical replacement-level player, they can be negative—that would suggest the player is actually worse than a replacement the team could pluck out of, say, the G League. In our analysis, though, a negative win estimate would make the player’s expected salary a negative number, suggesting the player was actually paying the team to play. While many fans might take that deal, we’ve substituted in zeroes whenever a metric turns negative so the lowest an expected salary can go is $0.
For player salaries, we are using data from Spotrac. Importantly, we are using the player’s cap figure—which is what the team is actually paying him—rather than his base salary. In the vast majority of cases, those numbers are the same, but when they differ, the cap figure will provide a more accurate measure of value.
Who We Considered For The ‘Honor’
We could perform this analysis on all 530 players who appeared in an NBA game this season, but because players accumulate wins across games, our overpaid list would be dominated by players who barely saw the court, many of them because of injury. To avoid that, we added in minimum thresholds of 41 games and 500 minutes played. Those are fairly arbitrary numbers, but they do measure a large enough portion of the season that a player’s real value should start to come through.
We also excluded players whose contracts are governed by the rookie salary scale. That left us with 257 players to analyze.
We compiled the data. We crunched the numbers. These are the 10 players who appeared to be the most overpaid.
10. Chris Paul
Point guard, Houston Rockets
- Wins Estimate Average: 7.4 (6.5 VORP wins, 6.6 Win Shares, 9.1 Wins Produced)
- Expected Salary: $21,906,447
- Cap Figure: $35,654,150
- Difference: $13,747,703
Paul is having a reasonably productive season—with 9.1 Wins Produced, he is tied for 45th in the league despite playing only 58 games—but his Win Shares and VORP wins figures are easily career lows and are noticeably down from the 10.2 and 11.6 he posted last year, when he also played 58 games. If he could stay healthy, this contract wouldn’t look so bad—he still has two years to go, plus a player option for 2021-22 at $44,211,146—but he’s missed 69 games across the last three seasons. Can the Rockets really count on having him for a full season?
9. Wesley Matthews
Shooting guard, Indiana Pacers
- Wins Estimate Average: 1.6 (0.8, 2.7, 1.4)
- Expected Salary: $4,849,443
- Cap Figure: $19,135,259
- Difference: $14,285,816
Matthews’ current contract might not look so bad—he counts $512,746 against the Pacers’ cap—but that’s only because he was waived by the Knicks in February. For this analysis, we combined his two cap figures, as well as his on-court production across his three stops this season.
8. Kent Bazemore
Shooting guard, Atlanta Hawks
- Wins Estimate Average: 0.5 (0, 0.7, 0.9)
- Expected Salary: $1,580,267
- Cap Figure: $18,089,887
- Difference: $16,509,620
Bazemore hasn’t come close to living up to a deal he signed in 2016—the year the salary cap spiked and the value of contracts surged. Bazemore still has a player option for next season; count on him taking the $19,269,662.
7. Tim Hardaway Jr.
Shooting guard, Dallas Mavericks
- Wins Estimate Average: 0.7 (0, 1.8, 0.3)
- Expected Salary: $2,074,100
- Cap Figure: $19,200,127
- Difference: $17,126,027
The Mavericks took on Hardaway’s pricey contract as a cost of acquiring Kristaps Porzingis. On top of his $17,325,000 base salary, he earned $1,875,127 when the Knicks dealt him as a result of a trade kicker.
Hardaway averaged a career-high 18.1 points this season, but he didn’t get there particularly efficiently, shooting .393 from the field and .340 from 3. With another year on the deal and a player option for 2020-21, he won’t be coming off Dallas’ books as soon as the team might like.
6. Allen Crabbe
Shooting guard, Brooklyn Nets
- Wins Estimate Average: 0.3 (0, 0.8, 0.1)
- Expected Salary: $888,900
- Cap Figure: $18,500,000
- Difference: $17,611,100
Crabbe’s contract is another from the fateful summer of 2016. He appeared in just 43 games this season because of injuries and had middling numbers when he did play, shooting an abominable .342 on 2-pointers. Coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, he seems likely to pick up his $18,500,000 option for next season.
5. Otto Porter Jr.
Small forward, Chicago Bulls
- Wins Estimate Average: 2.8 (2.7, 3.2, 2.5)
- Expected Salary: $8,296,400
- Cap Figure: $26,011,913
- Difference: $17,715,513
Porter, whom the Bulls acquired from the Wizards in February, is a good player, shooting .429 on 4.3 3-point attempts a game over the last three seasons. But he is more of a complementary piece, not the No. 1 option his contract would suggest. With a player option for 2020-21, the Bulls may be paying him $55,739,813 over the next two years. (Then again, who else are they going to spend their money on?)
4. Gordon Hayward
Small forward, Boston Celtics
- Wins Estimate Average: 4.4 (3.2, 4.9, 5.1)
- Expected Salary: $13,076,707
- Cap Figure: $31,214,295
- Difference: $18,137,588
Hayward is still scraping off the rust after returning this season from the leg injury he suffered in the 2017 season opener. If he can get back to the form he showed with the Jazz in 2016-17, this contract won’t be a problem. That season, he was worth 10.8 VORP wins, 10.4 Win Shares and 12.5 Wins Produced, for an average of 11.2. That translates to an expected salary of more than $33 million (using this season’s win value figure).
3. Jabari Parker
Power forward, Washington Wizards
- Wins Estimate Average: 0.5 (0, 1.4, 0.2)
- Expected Salary: $1,580,267
- Cap Figure: $20,000,000
- Difference: $18,419,733
Parker ended up on the Wizards in the big-money swap for Otto Porter Jr. Parker, though, performed little better than a replacement-level player this season. In a particularly bad sign, his Defensive Win Shares figure exceeded his Offensive Win Shares figure with both of his 2018-19 teams—and this is not a player known for lock-down defense. The Wizards hold a club option for next season that they will almost certainly decline.
2. Harrison Barnes
Small forward, Sacramento Kings
- Wins Estimate Average: 1.2 (0, 3.6, 0)
- Expected Salary: $3,555,600
- Cap Figure: $24,793,702
- Difference: $21,238,102
Barnes is the fifth player on this list to have changed teams this season, joining the Kings from the Mavericks in a February trade that earned him a $686,444 kicker. His shooting percentages perked up after the move, and his Win Shares Per 48 Minutes figure rose to .084, from .059. But that won’t be enough to justify the $25,102,513 salary Sacramento will have to pay him next season if he exercises his player option. He would probably offer more value at power forward, but the Kings have a big-man logjam.
1. Andrew Wiggins
Small forward, Minnesota Timberwolves
- Wins Estimate Average: 0.2 (0, 0.6, 0)
- Expected Salary: $592,600
- Cap Figure: $25,467,250
- Difference: $24,874,650
Wiggins essentially played at a replacement level this season; his $592,600 expected salary is about $1 million lower than the minimum a player of his experience could have been paid. In fact, his VORP figure was -0.6, suggesting he actually cost his team about 1.6 wins relative to a replacement player. The really bad news: This was just the first year in a five-year extension, with his salary rising all the way to $33,616,770 for 2022-23.
-Brett Knight; Forbes Staff
The Springboks And The Cup Of Good Hope
After their epic win beating England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan on November 2, the Springboks returned home to South Africa, undertaking a nation-wide tour, in an open-top bus, holding high the Webb Ellis Cup. In this image, in the township of Soweto, they pass the iconic Vilakazi Street with throngs of screaming, cheering residents and Springbok fans lining the street. The sport united the racially-divided country. For the third time in history, the South African national rugby team was crowned world champions.
Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla
Déjà vu: South Africa Back to Winning
Our Publisher reflects on the recent Springbok victory in Yokohoma, Japan
By Rakesh Wahi, Publisher
Rugby is as foreign to me as cricket is to the average American. However, having lived in South Africa for 15 years, there is no way to avoid being pulled into the sport. November 2, 2019, is therefore a date that will be celebrated in South Africa’s sporting posterity. In many ways, it’s déjà vu for South Africans; at a pivotal time in history, on June 24, 1995, the Springboks beat the All Blacks (the national rugby team of New Zealand) in the final of the World Cup. The game united a racially-divided country coming out of apartheid and at the forefront of this victory was none other than President Nelson Mandela or our beloved Madiba. In a very symbolic coincidence, 24 years later, history repeated itself.
South Africans watched with pride as Siya Kolisi lifted the gold trophy in Yokohama, Japan, as had Francois Pienaar done so 24 years ago in Johannesburg. My mind immediately reflected on this extremely opportune event in South Africa’s history.
The last decade has not been easy; the country has slipped into economic doldrums from which there seems to be no clear path ahead. The political transition from the previously corrupt regime has not been easy and it has been disheartening to see a rapid deterioration in the economic condition of the country. The sad reality is that there literally seems to be no apparent light at the end of the tunnel; with blackouts and load-shedding, a currency that is amongst the most volatile in the world, rising unemployment and rising crime amongst many other issues facing the country.
Something needed to change. There was a need for an event to change this despondent state of mind and the South African rugby team seems to have given a glimmer of hope that could not have come at a more opportune time. As South African flags were flying all over the world on November 2, something clicked to say that there is hope ahead and if people come together under a common mission, they can be the change that they want to see.
Isn’t life all about hope? Nothing defies gravity and just goes up; Newton taught us that everything that goes up will come down. Vicissitudes are a part of life and the true character of people, society or a nation is tested on how they navigate past these curve balls that make us despair. As we head into 2020, it is my sincere prayer that we see a new dawn and a better future in South Africa with renewed vigor and vitality.
Talking about sports and sportsmen, there is another important lesson that we need to take away. Having been a sportsman all my life, I have had a belief that people who have played team sports like cricket, rugby, soccer, hockey etc make great team players and leaders. However, other sports like golf, diving and squash teach you focus. In all cases, the greatest attribute of all is how to reset your mind after adversity. While most of us moved on after amateur sports to find our place in the world, the real sportspeople to watch and learn from are professionals. It is their grit and determination.
My own belief is that one must learn how to detach from a rear view mirror. You cannot ignore what is behind you because that is your history; you must learn from it. Our experiences are unique and so is our history. It must be our greatest teacher. However, that’s where it must end. As humans, we must learn to break the proverbial rear view mirror and stop worrying about the past. You cannot change what is behind you but you can influence and change what is yet to come.
I had the good fortune of playing golf with Chester Williams (former rugby player who was the first person of color to play for the Springboks in the historic win in 1995 and sadly passed away in September 2019) more than once at the SuperSport Celebrity Golf Shootout.
Chester played his golf fearlessly; perhaps the way he led his life. He would drive the ball 300 meters and on occasion went into the woods or in deep rough. Psychologically, as golfers know, this sets you back just looking at a bad lie, an embedded or unplayable ball or a dropped shot in a hazard. For a seasoned golfer, it is not the shot that you have hit but the one that you are about to hit. Chester has a repertoire of recovery shots and always seemed to be in the game even after some wayward moments. There is a profound lesson in all of this. You have to blank your mind from the negativity or sometimes helplessness and bring a can do and positive frame of reference back into your game (and life). Hit that recovery shot well and get back in the game; that’s what champions do.
We need to now focus our attention on the next shot and try and change the future than stay in the past.
The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players 2019-20: LeBron James Scores Record $92 Million
NBA salaries have skyrocketed in recent years, but the biggest stars have earned more off the court than on it to this point in their careers. LeBron James, who tops the ranking for the 2019-2020 season, has made more than twice as much from endorsements than his $270 million in playing salary over his first 16 years. Kevin Durant’s on-court earnings of $187 million in 12 seasons is dwarfed by his current ten-year, $275 million Nike deal.
At $92 million, including salary and endorsements, James is the NBA’s highest-paid player for the sixth straight year. It is a record haul for an active basketball player. Nike is his biggest backer, and the company is naming a new research lab at its Beaverton, Oregon, corporate campus after James. Last month, the 17th iteration of his Nike signature shoe, the LeBron XVII, hit stores.
The four-time NBA MVP added a pair of endorsement deals in 2019 with Rimowa luggage and Walmart, which joined Coca-Cola, Beats By Dre, Blaze Pizza and NBA 2K in his sponsorship stable.
He also has a budding digital media company, Uninterrupted, and a production firm, SpringHill Entertainment, which will release a sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan vehicle Space Jam in conjunction with Warner Bros. in 2021. All of the off-court work is worth an estimated $55 million for James this season.
The Los Angeles Lakers star’s comments about the NBA’s geopolitical mess in China also reveal the precarious position everyone in the league is in as political unrest in Hong Kong shows no signs of abating.
As the league’s 74th regular season tipped off Tuesday night, the NBA was still reeling from the crisis set off by a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.
Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to free speech, but some players didn’t, including James, who called Morey “misinformed or not really educated” on the situation. “We love China,” said Rockets point guard James Harden.
It was a rare misstep for two of the league’s more media-savvy stars, both of whom have close ties to China. Adidas, which has Harden as the face of its basketball business, generated more revenue in China last year than in North America, and the Rockets are China’s most popular team after drafting native son Yao Ming in 2002.
Nike’s China revenue topped $6 billion during the last fiscal year, and the country is a growth leader for the brand. James has represented Nike on 15 off-season trips to China. The sports giant pays James more than $30 million annually to pitch its products around the globe.
And the threat of losing its growth trajectory in China could have far-reaching consequences for team valuations.
But back at home, the financials of NBA franchises remain solid, which is good for player salaries. The league’s salary cap is soaring, fueled largely by the nine-year, $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT signed in 2014.
NBA players are entitled to 51% of the league’s “basketball-related income” as laid out in the collective bargaining agreement. The rich TV deal and budding international business means 46 players will earn a playing salary of at least $25 million this season, according to Spotrac. The $25 million club had zero members five years ago. And unlike in the NFL, every dollar is guaranteed upon signing.
On-court salaries in the NBA are capped based on a player’s number of years in the league and accolades earned in cases in which an award like MVP entitles them to a bigger percentage of a team’s salary cap.
So the pecking order for the elite stars is ultimately determined by their off-court income, with the shoe deal the biggest component of those earnings. There are ten active NBA players who will make at least $10 million from their shoe contracts this year, by Forbes’ count.
Stephen Curry comes in at No. 2 on the earnings list this year and is expected to generate $85 million this season, including $45 million off the court. Under Armour represents nearly half of his off-court income.
Curry’s $40.2 million salary from the Golden State Warriors is the highest in the history of the NBA; he’s in the third season of the five-year, $201 million contract he signed in 2017. Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, has a development deal with Sony Pictures.
Unanimous’ first movie, Breakthrough, was released in April, with Curry playing a role in marketing the Christian-oriented film, which grossed $50 million on a $14 million budget.
Durant has the NBA’s second-biggest annual shoe contract after James’ at an estimated $26 million this season. His total earnings from his playing salary and endorsements is $73 million. Nike sells more KD shoes in China than in North America, according to Durant’s business partner Rich Kleiman.
Like James and Curry, Durant has his own production company, which is co-producing a new basketball-themed drama, Swagger, that is inspired by Durant’s youth basketball experience and will air on the Apple TV+ streaming service.
The NBA’s ten highest-paid players are expected to earn a cumulative $600 million this year, including $250 million from endorsements, appearances, merchandise and media.
Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million supermax extension in July with the Portland Trail Blazers that kicks in for the 2021-2022 season. The final year is worth $54.25 million for the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year and four-time All-Star. Lillard’s Adidas shoe deal is worth roughly $10 million annually.
The “Greek Freak” is eligible for a five-year, $248 million contract extension next summer with the Milwaukee Bucks. It would be the richest deal in the history of the sport. In June, Nike unveiled the first signature shoe, Zoom Freak 1, for the 2019 NBA MVP.
Only Curry will earn more on the court this season than Paul, who was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in July. Paul was an early investor and ambassador for Beyond Meat, whose stock price has quadrupled since its initial public offering in May.
Thompson’s coach, Steve Kerr, says the sharpshooter is likely to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL during the NBA Finals in June. But he’ll still collect his full $32.7 million salary—almost double last year’s—under the first season of the five-year, $190 million pact he signed in July. Thompson is the basketball face of Chinese shoe brand Anta.
Irving joins his third team in four years this season. His four-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets is worth $136 million and includes an additional $4.3 million in potential incentives. A viral Pepsi ad campaign featuring Irving as the elderly Uncle Drew eventually led to a 2018 feature film; Irving has partial ownership of the character. Irving is another Beyond Meat investor.
The 2018 NBA MVP purchased a minority stake in the Houston Dynamo of MLS this summer for $15 million. Harden also holds equity stakes in BodyArmor, Stance socks and Art of Sport. His salary with the Rockets jumps $8 million this season with the start of a contract extension he signed in 2017.
Westbrook’s five-year, $207 million contract is the largest deal in the NBA right now. The eight-time All Star extended his deal with Nike’s Jordan brand in 2017 for another ten years and in 2018 received his first signature shoe, the Why Not Zer0. Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons.
Durant is likely to miss the entire season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in June during the NBA Finals. He’ll still pocket his full first-year salary from the Brooklyn Nets under the four-year, $164 million deal he signed in July. He’s invested in more than 30 startups, including Postmates and investing app Acorns.
The two-time MVP used some of his hoops money in June to buy a $31 million home in Atherton, California, with his wife, Ayesha. He also made a seven-figure donation this summer to Howard University to help launch a golf program at the school and recently signed an endorsement partnership with Callaway Golf. Curry became the only player to win the NBA MVP unanimously when he won his second of back-to-back awards in 2016.
James signed an endorsement in 2019 with Walmart that is rooted in community work. He worked with the retail giant on its Fight Hunger. Spark Change. initiative, as well as the company’s back-to-school campaign. James is part of an investment group that owns 19 Blaze Pizza franchises across Illinois and Florida.
-Forbes; Kurt Badenhausen
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