Commentary

NBA's most overpaid, underpaid

Crunching #NBArank numbers to figure out which ballers are worth the price tags

Updated: December 3, 2011, 9:05 PM ET
By Larry Coon | Special to ESPN.com

Russell Westbrook, Gilbert ArenasUS PresswireYou may not need the math to figure out which categories Russell Westbrook and Agent Zero fall in.

I normally couldn't care less what someone else makes. The thought rarely enters my mind in my day-to-day life. But it's different for NBA players. In addition to the understandable fascination with such obscenely high earnings, the league's system is built upon their salaries -- for example each team must adhere to a salary cap, and trades are strictly controlled according to the salaries of the traded players.

So forgive us for prying, NBA players, but there's a public interest among fans in how much you earn.

Combine player salaries with ESPN.com's #NBArank and you have a nice data mining opportunity. Who is the most overpaid and underpaid? Which teams do the best and worst with their budgets? The data tells us all of this, and more.

In compiling this information, I used 2010-11 salaries for most players, since so many are unsigned for 2011-12. For the 30 first-round picks in the 2011 NBA draft, I used the rookie salary scale for the corresponding pick in the 2010 draft -- for example I used John Wall's salary for Kyrie Irving. I used the minimum salary for all 2011 second-round picks. If any player earned less than the minimum salary (because he played a partial season in 2010-11) I also used the minimum salary. If a player played for more than one team in 2010-11, I used his highest salary with one team. Finally, for Ricky Rubio I used the scale salary for the fifth pick in the 2010 draft.

When you plot the data, you see pretty much what you'd expect to see -- the higher the #NBArank, the higher the salary (see accompanying chart). Each circle on the chart represents a specific player. The trend line through the chart is based on what's called a "regression." Think of it as the expected value at any point in the chart. The line forms what's called an exponential curve; the closer you get to the elite ranks, the faster the line shoots up. The stars don't just get paid more than the rank and file -- they get paid many times more.

A glance at the chart shows that most players are paid pretty much what you'd expect; in other words, most players are clustered around the trend line. The guys sitting out there by themselves are called "outliers." The farther a player is located above the trend line, the more overpaid he is. Conversely, the guys comfortably below the trend line are underpaid.

By looking at exactly how far each player sits above or below the line, we can tell who's the most overpaid and underpaid. Here are the results:

This measure is based on the player's raw distance above the trend line, which is why Michael Redd ($14.587 million above his expected salary) is higher on the chart than Eddy Curry ($10.684 million above). When you look at the same data from a different perspective, Curry makes nearly 13 times his expected salary -- by far the highest discrepancy in the league.

This also explains why Kobe Bryant is on this list at all. On the strict basis of the expected salary for the seventh-ranked player, Bryant would be expected to make $15.451 million. His actual salary of $24.806 million is $9.355 million higher than expected.

You could argue that guys like Bryant are the icons of the league -- they are the reason seats are filled, networks carry NBA games, and fans wears jerseys. Guys like Channing Frye and Drew Gooden, not so much. The superstars are responsible for the lion's share of the league's revenue, and should be paid accordingly. By that measure, you could legitimately say guys like Bryant are actually underpaid. But strictly on the basis of the expected salary based on a player's #NBArank, Bryant is overpaid.

Here we look at players below the trend line. The effect of the NBA's salary cap structure is obvious: All but Gasol are first-round draft picks playing on their rookie contracts. These players are held to a scale salary for their first years in the league, making them underpaid relative to their performance. All are due significant raises once their rookie deals run out. Noah's extension kicks in this season, when he will jump to $12 million, assuming the new CBA doesn't significantly alter the salary structure.

Gasol was a second-round pick who is now a restricted free agent. It is expected he will sign a new contract starting at or near the maximum salary.

So this is the system we have (er, had before the CBA expired) -- a system which caps maximum salaries, and forces all signings to take place within the bounds of a salary cap and certain well-defined exceptions. This system tends to underpay young stars, and overpay veterans who taste true unrestricted free agency.

Looking at the teams, here are the best and worst in terms of average #NBArank. I considered only the top 12 players on each team, so the number of players on each roster doesn't skew the results:

Since these results consider 12 players on each roster, each team's average is heavily influenced by the players at the end of the bench. Therefore a top-heavy team like the Heat fall into the middle of the pack. Since a team's starters play the lion's share of the minutes, it's more relevant to look at just the top five players on each team:

Now the results more closely match the teams' success. So which teams are getting the best players for their money? I used the #NBArank for the top five players on each roster, along with the total payroll for each team.

The teams on this list aren't here simply because they spent the most (although three of the five highest payrolls are represented here). Rather, these are the teams that got the most for their money. In other words, spending money in the NBA doesn't guarantee success. GMs have to make wise choices.

Conversely, here are the teams that got the least for their buck.

Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ. Follow him on Twitter.

Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ.