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Doug McSchooler/Associated Press
Every NBA team is a business operation, and like any business, success depends on getting maximum bang for your buck.
To determine which players are costing their teams too much for 2020-21 and beyond, we won’t just pick a catch-all stat, look up salary and settle on some dollars-to-production formula. Every team’s situation is unique, and some can justify overpaying high-end players if the payoff might realistically be a deep playoff run—or even a title. Teams lower down the competitive ladder almost never have justification for cutting exorbitant checks, especially if the player collecting them isn’t a foundational piece.
A player with a huge salary who’s proved himself capable of being a significant member of a highly successful team won’t end up on our list. Premium production justifies premium payment.
That’s why Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker and even Gordon Hayward won’t show up—despite all of their hefty deals.
We’ll focus largely on 2020-21 pay rates, but the longer a deal goes, the more it compounds the problem.
Finally, and as always, we’re not knocking the players listed. If they’re overpaid, they’ve beaten the market and deserve congratulations. We should all hope to make more than we’re worth. This exercise comes strictly from the team perspective, where paying less is the goal.
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Paul Beaty/Associated Press
Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Detroit Pistons wanted nothing to do with Andre Drummond’s $28.8 million expiring salary in 2020-21, and they also seemed to have no interest in even negotiating an extension. Hence the trade to Cleveland for next to nothing.
Drummond hoards boards, stays healthy and hasn’t been a true disaster from the foul line since 2016-17. He’s not money well spent, but we’ll encounter worse deals in the top 10.
Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers
Al Horford has a guaranteed $54.5 million coming his way over the next two years with a partial guarantee on his 2022-23 salary. Intelligence and capable high-post passing are nice, but the Sixers are paying star-level cash to a 34-year-old in obvious decline. The 11.9 points Horford averaged last year were his fewest since his rookie season, and he’d never shot as poorly from the field as he did in 2019-20, when he made just 45.0 percent of his attempts.
It’s possible new head coach Doc Rivers will pull more out of the veteran big man, so we’re not quite ready to say Horford belongs among the 10 biggest overpays in the league yet.
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Paul Beaty/Associated Press
We ease into the top 10 with Otto Porter Jr.’s expiring $28.5 million salary, one that won’t even technically count against the Chicago Bulls until the 27-year-old forward picks up his player option. That seems exceedingly likely since so few teams have the room to pay him more than that on the market.
Porter Jr. is a trustworthy three-point shooter who has graded out as a quality defender in the past—when healthy. You might be able to justify the cash outlay for a fully fit Porter Jr., but the Bulls are giving that needle-mover money to a player who logged just 14 games last year and 56 the year before.
Last year, it was a foot injury. The season prior, a shoulder. And don’t forget the hip issues that dogged his early career; those don’t seem to be going anywhere.
A healthy Porter Jr. is a useful three-and-D wing who can slot into a good starting five and offer high-efficiency shooting with low usage. The Bulls are a fringe playoff contender, though. They’re not a guaranteed winner, for which Porter Jr.’s game (again, if healthy) would really make a difference.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Steven Adams may very well be carved from a block of granite, and he’s probably the NBA player most likely to treat compound fractures by rubbing dirt on them and nonchalantly returning to the court. But a conventional center whose years spent absorbing physical punishment seem to have initiated his decline phase ahead of schedule isn’t worth anywhere near $27.5 million.
That’s what Adams will earn in his age-27 season, coming off 2019-20 averages of 10.9 points and 9.3 boards per game.
Those are fine numbers, and they reflect the effort and force with which Adams operates. But as the league continues to shrink, further marginalizing bigs who can’t spread the floor or defend in space, Adams only becomes harder to imagine on the court in meaningful games.
Of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder may soon finally pull the trigger on the rebuild everyone thought was coming a year ago, which means those meaningful games may not appear on the 2020-21 schedule. That actually further devalues Adams, a veteran who won’t fit into the timeline of an OKC squad built around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a mountain of future first-round picks.
If the Thunder were to move Adams, they’d likely have to attach some of that valuable draft capital, which is basically proof that Adams isn’t a positive asset—even as an expiring deal.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Mike Conley was a consideration for the top five, but it’s just too hard to say the single year and $34.5 million (early termination option) left on his contract constitutes a larger overpay than the multiyear agreements in that section of the rankings.
Don’t misunderstand, $34.5 million is a gargantuan sum. It’ll make Conley the 11th-highest-paid player in the league next year, not ideal considering he just completed his first season with the Utah Jazz by putting up his worst numbers in a decade.
Conley looked a bit better for Utah in the bubble, but that’s a tiny sample and hard to judge accurately for a variety of reasons—not the least of which being the four-month layoff that may have benefitted the 32-year-old point guard more than most. He can’t count on that extended, rejuvenating break next season.
With serious health issues in the recent past—Conley played only 12 games due to Achilles and heel injuries in 2017-18—and the dud of a debut season with the Jazz, pessimism about his future seems warranted.
Note, too, that Donovan Mitchell’s ascent means Utah is less in need of the ball-handling and game management of a conventional point guard. The Jazz’s best player is capably handling an increasing number of those duties.
This is almost as painful as a one-year deal can get. Almost.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
This. This is as bad as one-year deals get.
Nicolas Batum’s contract is one of the very last remnants of the “spend like there’s no tomorrow” summer of 2016. And though the Charlotte Hornets *only* owe him the last year and $27.1 million of the five-year, $120 million deal they agreed to on that fateful July day four years ago, that’s still a gross misuse of resources.
Batum performed just fine in the first year of his contract, averaging 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists. He was also a quality wing defender with great length at 6’8″. That was as good as things got, and Batum’s decline hit bottom last season when he averaged just 3.6 points per game in 22 contests.
A fractured finger was the main reason he missed so much time, and that injury shouldn’t affect him going forward. But it’s not like he was all that great the year prior, when he averaged 9.3 points and essentially disappeared whenever he was on the floor. His 13.2 percent usage rate in 2018-19 was the third-lowest in the league among players who logged at least 2,300 minutes.
At the risk of oversimplifying, teams shouldn’t pay over $25 million per season for a guy who just fades into the background.
Batum’s contract ranks higher than any other with just one year remaining because he’s been so unproductive, but also because the Hornets can’t get off it. A winning team could part with a first-rounder to clear a bad deal like this one, but the Hornets need their picks. So it’s just a waiting game for them—one that’s fortunately almost over.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
If the Detroit Pistons had assurances that Blake Griffin would return to the All-Star form he flashed as recently as 2018-19, the two years and $75.8 million they still owe him would be tolerable at worst and, possibly, an asset at best.
They have no such assurances, though—not with Griffin coming off yet another surgery that limited him to only 18 games in 2019-20.
On the bright side, Griffin has made the difficult transition from rafter-scraping athlete to ground-bound playmaker. His three-point shot is now reliable, and he’s among the best frontcourt passers in the league. But it’s hard to be confident he’ll stay healthy and effective for the remainder of his deal, considering he was almost always good for at least a few weeks on the shelf before his latest operation.
The Pistons can’t count on the kind of volume or efficiency you’d expect from a guy making superstar money, and potential acquiring teams can’t either. Because there are only two seasons left (player option for 2021-22), and because Griffin was highly effective in his last healthy season, this contract isn’t as suffocating as the next few.
But Detroit simply isn’t going to get a good return on its biggest investment.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
The Cleveland Cavaliers executed what felt at the time like an emotional decision, signing Kevin Love to a four-year, $120.4 million extension shortly after LeBron James left them a second time in 2018.
Love is a gifted offensive player who shelved the top-option game he established with the Minnesota Timberwolves for a secondary role behind James in Cleveland. You could argue the Wolves version of Love was worth that $120 million. But that guy was 25 and may have enjoyed some statistical inflation due to a lack of talent around him.
It’s much harder to justify making that kind of investment in a player on the wrong side of 30 with a fairly significant injury history—especially if you’re not poised to be a playoff team even in the unlikely scenario late-stage Love performs like his younger self.
Though his annual salary declines in the final year of the contract, and though Love is still a helpful offensive player whose various skills work well in any number of different schemes, we’re still dealing with a negative asset. Cleveland is in the early stages of its rebuild, and Love is very much out of place in that situation; he’d be far better utilized on a winner, for which his best attributes—floor spacing and passing savvy—could augment high-end teammates’ performances.
The Cavs would have to surrender picks or young players to entice another team to take on his deal, but those are exactly the commodities they should retain.
Love’s contract is a prime example of how a single overpay can have far-reaching effects. He’s overpaid generally, but the problem is worse due to his specific situation.
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Matt York/Associated Press
It’s hard to argue the Golden State Warriors wanted Andrew Wiggins, so much as they needed to offload D’Angelo Russell for the type of wing that better addressed their needs.
Wiggins is that type of wing—a rangy, athletic talent who has scored at high volume and has the physical tools to be a good defender. In theory, he’s exactly the kind of supporting player Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green need.
In practice, he hasn’t lived up to his No. 1 pick potential and is, unfortunately, compensated like he has.
Wiggins’ first year in the league was 2014-15. Since then, 141 players have attempted at least 3,000 field goals. Wiggins ranks 126th among that group in true shooting percentage.
Though there are only three seasons left on the five-year, $147.7 million extension he signed with the Timberwolves in 2017, the Warriors’ status as likely taxpayers means he’ll cost them significantly more than the $94.7 million they owe him.
Wiggins’ chances at stardom seem to have passed, and he’s definitely not in a position now to reclaim them. The Warriors belong to Curry, Thompson and Green. Even if he excels in a supporting role, upending the narratives about his lack of competitive will and inability to contribute efficiently, he’ll be overpaid.
Third or fourth options, even great ones, aren’t worth over $30 million per season.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
It wasn’t so long ago that Russell Westbrook’s contract qualified as a genuine bargain.
He led the league in box plus/minus and won MVP in 2016-17 while collecting $26.5 million in salary. Russ was the third-highest-paid player in the NBA that year. He was also, by some measures, the best. That’s value.
Westbrook was again the third-highest-paid player in the league during the 2019-20 season, but he was nowhere near the top in terms of production. Sure, those 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists look like superstar numbers, but Westbrook’s inability to threaten defenses from distance was a major reason the Houston Rockets had to remake the roster, abandoning centers so only one player, their point guard, could be ignored by perimeter defenders.
Otherworldly athleticism defined Westbrook’s best years, but you could see it waning a little this past season. As that continues—which it will; Russ will play his age-32 season in 2020-21—the downward trend line in his production should accelerate.
Westbrook has never been a consistent defender, and his passing feel abandoned him in the playoffs, where the Rockets exited in the second round. Houston owes Westbrook, its second-best player and one headed for a potentially steep decline, $132.6 million over the next three seasons.
That’s tough, and it’s tougher because the tools the Rockets might have used to offload such a salary, first-round picks, are in short supply. Houston gave up two future firsts and swap rights on two more to get Russ in the first place.
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Kim Klement/Associated Press
Tobias Harris is durable, a valued teammate and has a skill set that includes reliable three-point shooting and great size for a perimeter player. Tobias Harris was also the third (and sometimes fourth) option on a team with one playoff series win in the last two years.
Character and scoring ability are worth something, but whatever that “something” is, it isn’t $180 million over five years. The Philadelphia 76ers are shelling out max money for production that other players could replicate at a fraction of the cost.
T.J. Warren was a more efficient scorer than Harris last season, besting him in points per game (19.8 to 19.6) and true shooting percentage (61.0 percent to 55.6 percent). Harris has advantages in other areas, not the least of which being an assist rate more than double Warren’s. But Warren is a year younger and posted a superior box plus/minus and player efficiency rating.
Maybe Harris’ more dynamic playmaking and better rebound rates give him a slight value advantage over Warren. But they don’t justify paying him a hair under three times Warren’s salary next year and the one after. Oh, and then Philly will still be on the hook for another two years at a total of $76.9 million—fully guaranteed.
Granted, Warren is underpaid for his production. We’re comparing similar players at the extreme ends of the over- and underpaid spectrum.
If that seems unfair to Harris, consider Bojan Bogdanovic, also a free agent in 2019, and also a score-first forward. Bogdanovic posted a higher true shooting percentage than Harris with a nearly identical usage rate in 2018-19, but he got less than half of the guaranteed money ($73.1 million) from the Utah Jazz that Harris received from the Sixers. Bogdanovic proceeded to thoroughly outproduce Harris this past season.
Philadelphia didn’t have the means to replace Harris by signing an outside free agent, and its willingness to go deep into the tax to retain talent is, on some level, laudable. But Harris is now one of only seven forwards in the league whose contract extends as far as the 2023-24 season, and he’s projected to be the second-highest-paid player at his position for that season.
That’s just too long of a commitment, at too great of an expense, for too fungible a player.
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Duane Burleson/Associated Press
The Washington Wizards got absolutely nothing for the $38.2 million they gave John Wall in 2019-20, as the five-time All-Star missed the entire season while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
That injury contributed to a stretch of time off for Wall that could reach two full years. The layoff and the generally transformative (in a not so great way) impact of Wall’s particular injury cast doubt on his effectiveness going forward.
Wall, perhaps as much as any player in the league, depends on his speed. Yes, he’s still going to hit shooters in the weak-side corner; his vision should remain undimmed. Maybe the long stretch of rehabilitation and work will yield a version of Wall with the first reliable perimeter jumper of his career. There are ways for his play (and his deal) to be something less than catastrophic.
But everything gets harder for Wall if he doesn’t have the end-to-end burst and short-area explosion that defined his game through his 20s. If the only worry attending Wall were the natural aging curve and the athletic regression it brings, there’d still be cause for concern. Throw in an extended hiatus and a notoriously athleticism-sapping injury, and things look bleak.
Wall will make $41.3 million in 2020-21, $44.3 million in 2021-22 and has a player option for $47.4 million in 2022-23, his age-32 season.
That’s entirely too much for a Wizards team that never advanced past the second round with a younger, healthier Wall.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.
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