Which NBA player offers the most salary cap value?

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The headlines in an NBA offseason are typically dominated by big trades, 1st round draft picks and max contract signings. With the 2019-20 NBA cap at $109.14 million, and super max deals now having an average annual value of over $40 million per year, teams are limited to 1 or 2 max players (if they’re even that lucky). General Managers have to be savvy in order to construct the best roster given a capped cumulative salary. This article won’t rank the best players in the NBA, rather it will look at which players offer the most salary cap value on their team. In other words, in the 2019-20 season, which players offered GM’s the most bang for their buck.

I compiled regular season data from Basketball Reference of all NBA players in the 19-20 season who played at least 40 games. For the analysis, I used two key numbers- salary and win shares. Win shares is an estimate of the number of wins created by a player. It accounts for both the offensive and defensive side of the floor, and while no one statistic is perfect for ranking players, this one is as good as it gets. Here’s a plot of win shares vs. salary for this season.

A strong positive correlation would mean that as a player’s salary goes up, their win shares should also increase. When looking at the plot, there is somewhat of a positive correlation, but really there is just a large concentration of dots on the left side, which represent the lower priced contracts. Looking at this next histogram, NBA salaries skew way left.

13% of players have a salary over $25.03 million, whereas 31% have a salary under $2.59 million. The NBA may be a star driven league, but the bottom 31% makes around 1/10th as the top 13%. The median salary is $4.85 million. The best teams are able to find 2nd round picks, undrafted free agents, or overlooked veterans for cheap.

In order to determine which players offer the most economic value, I divided win shares by salary and multiplied it by 10 million. This new stat, which I call salary value, had a median of 4.38. The first and third quartiles are 2.18 and 9.03 respectively. This plot shows the data for salary value vs salary.

These are the top 5 players in terms of salary value-

RankPlayerTeamSalaryWSSalary Value
1Mitchell RobinsonKnicks $1,559,712.006.843.60
2Duncan RobinsonHeat $1,416,852.005.337.41
3Terence DavisRaptors $   898,310.003.134.51
4Jarrett AllenNets $2,376,840.008.234.50
5Christian WoodPistons $1,645,357.005.131.00

When I first had the idea for this topic, I thought the leaders in salary value would be superstars on rookie deals, such as Luka Doncic, Trae Young or Jason Tatum. Luka’s salary this past season was $7.7 million- a discounted price for an All-NBA 1st team player. However, Mitchell Robinson’s contract from being drafted in the second round was $1.6 million, almost 5 times less than Luka’s. Obviously this is not saying that Robinson is a better player than Luka, but Robinson offers more production per dollar spent on his contract. Robinson was in the 92nd percentile for win shares and 9th percentile for salary. Here’s where the top 5 players in salary value were picked in the draft:

Mitchell Robinson- Round 2 pick 36

Duncan Robinson – Undrafted

Terence Davis – Undrafted

Jarrett Allen- Round 1 pick 22

Christian Wood- Undrafted

Other notable players on rookie contracts who ranked highly were OG Anunoby at 8, Bam Adebayo at 9, Devonte Graham at 13 and Pascal Siakam at 17. Players on non-rookie contracts who ranked well were Brad Wanamaker at 10 and Nerlens Noel at 11.

It was not surprising to see 4 Raptors in the top 20 and 2 Heat players in the top 10, as those front offices are known for finding great value and developing young talent. Duncan Robinson is currently starting and playing big minutes in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Rookie contract amounts are based on where the player is drafted, meaning there is no negotiation with the team. If your team hits on their draft picks, those players can provide tremendous salary cap value.  The Mavs are paying $7.7 for an all-NBA first team player when the average salary for the other 4 first team players was $32.1 million.      

The flip side is, if you draft a first-round player that needs time to develop, even with the fixed salary, you may be overpaying for their production. That’s not necessarily a bad thing- a player might not be worth their contract in the first year, but we often see players make a big jump in year 2 or 3. For example, Hawks rookie Cam Reddish ranked as the 4th worst player for Salary Value. He had a rough beginning of the season but turned it around in the second half, and likely won’t find himself at the bottom of this list next year. Here’s the bottom 5.

RankPlayerTeamSalaryWSSalary Value
301Jordan PooleWarriors $1,964,760.00-1.2-6.11
300Ky BowmanWarriors $   350,189.00-0.1-2.86
299Darius GarlandCavaliers $6,400,920.00-1.3-2.03
298Cam ReddishHawks $4,245,720.00-0.4-0.94
297Vince CarterHawks $2,564,753.00-0.2-0.78

It can be hard to accumulate win shares on a team that doesn’t win many games and the Hawks, Cavaliers and Warriors had 3 out of the 4 worst records. That same notion also makes in even more impressive that Mitchell Robinson and Christian Wood ranked so well, given they played on lottery teams. Here are a few other notable players who ranked poorly- De’Angelo Russell at 284, Andrew Wiggins at 283, Mike Conley at 281 and Russell Westbrook at 272.

All of this isn’t to say elite NBA talent isn’t worth it. Signing a superstar often comes at a price. With the $109.14 million cap, teams can be sign one or two of these star players if they can maximize the value of their roster by hitting on draft picks and signing inexpensive veterans. All of this is easier said than done, and teams often get impatient, overpay for a player, and sacrifice their future financial flexibility.

Whether you liked or disliked this article, please share your thoughts with me! And if there are any topics you’d like to see me dive into please let me know.

5 thoughts on “Which NBA player offers the most salary cap value?

  1. Super impressive, Scott! Happy to see BBN representing well in the production per $ (Bam and Noel). As someone who wouldn’t describe themselves as an analytical, I appreciate your easy-to-understand explanations! Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this! Would like to see more of this type of info on other sports – and maybe going into position by position values to create lineups of best value, worst value, most average, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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