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Evaluating NBA contracts is such an upside-down process.
Deals are always looked at from the perspective of the team. The entire goal is to land impactful players and stars at below-market values. Front offices are lauded when they unearth gems on the cheap and crucified when they dole out overpays or, in some cases, even fair deals.
At the center of every bargain, though, is a player who makes less than he’s worth.
This happens for any number of reasons. Certain players are so valuable that they cannot be properly paid (LeBron James). Others throughout history have seen their contracts progress into chump change as the salary cap rises. Some go kaboom and transform into an entirely different player after already signing a long-term deal. A select few pacts look too team-friendly from the onset.
Stars are not immune to this phenomenon. We have proof. These bigwigs aren’t the only high-impact studs who have played on what were or became clearance-rack deals, but they stand out more than most.
To keep the field manageable, all rookie-scale contracts are ineligible for inclusion. Second-round picks are fair game, since they sign agreements outside the rookie scale, but a three-year minimum will be instituted to emphasize those who spent more time on below-market deals. This removes players such as Gilbert Arenas and Manu Ginobili from consideration. It also bounces late-career vets who took monster discounts (Dirk Nowitzki).
Multiple contracts will be combined wherever appropriate. For the most part, though, we’re looking at one-time deals. It doesn’t matter if these players went on to receive their due in later deals. We care only about the contracts they hilariously, egregiously outperformed.
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PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press
The Contract: Five years, $27.2 million
Twenty-five-year-old Chauncey Billups low-key signed one of the team-friendliest deals in NBA history during 2002 free agency.
Fresh off a three-game playoff detonation with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who remained committed to Terrell Brandon, the Detroit Pistons scooped him up for five years with the mid-level-exception. Suffice it to say, they won that negotiation.
Billups averaged 17.0 points and 6.3 assists over the next five years while draining more three-pointers than anyone else in the league and earning the moniker “Mr. Big Shot.” While he was never mentioned in the same breath as many other marquee names of the time, he had that star quality. He was voted the 2004 Finals MVP, made two All-Star appearances and received two All-Defense and All-NBA nods on this contract alone.
This doesn’t read like the resume of a player who never made top-100 money during his first half-decade in Detroit. And yet, just look at his salary ranks over the life of this deal:
Salary-cap infusions aren’t skewing these numbers. Billups held a relatively steady position, between 105 and 130, for five years. His contract only aged into a bargain because he drastically outperformed his pay grade.
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Rocky Widner/Getty Images
The Contract: Four years, $44 million
Stephen Curry’s 2012 extension is essentially the origin of the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty. They don’t reach the pinnacle of basketball without him, and they most certainly don’t land Kevin Durant in 2016 free agency if he’s not playing at a cut rate.
Granted, Curry’s four-year deal wasn’t viewed through this lens in real time. Far from it. A right ankle injury limited him to 26 appearances the season before, and for all the offensive pizzazz he’d shown, no one ticketed him for MVP contention.
Both of Curry’s MVP awards came under this deal. In 2015-16, when he became the first unanimous winner in NBA history and led the Warriors to a best-ever 73-9 regular-season record, he was the league’s 65th-highest-paid player—and the fifth-highest paid on his own team.
Curry’s discount kept on giving that summer, after Golden State blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. The Warriors, like everyone else, benefited from an unprecedented salary-cap spike, but their successful recruitment of Durant was only possible because they had one of the Association’s five best players locked up on what would barely become a top-85 salary for 2016-17.
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Noah Graham/Getty Images
The Contract: Three years, $2.6 million
Second-round draft picks never snag lucrative deals right off the bat. They also almost never turn into superstars and championship linchpins.
Draymond Green’s apex came after his three-year, pennies-on-the-dollar contract ended. He didn’t make his first All-Star appearance until 2016, and his Defensive Player of the Year award came in 2016-17.
Big whoop. Green was a mainstay in the Golden State Warriors’ rotation as a rookie and an even more prominent contributor in 2013-14, as a sophomore. David Lee’s hamstring injury then opened the door for him to assume a larger role in 2014-15. Green never gave it back.
The level at which he played during the Warriors’ first championship run is enough to qualify him for this list on its own. He shouldered a lot more of the playmaking responsibility, anchored the league’s best defense and just generally thrived amid Golden State’s model of contrived chaos.
Oh, and then there’s the little matter of the 2015 Finals. The Warriors had dabbled with using Green at center before, but starting him at the 5 for Game 4 tilted the series in their favor and sparked an entirely different era of small ball.
Who knows whether they come back from a 2-1 deficit to win that title. Even before Green officially became a star, he was something of a championship barometer—all while making peanuts. Luckily for him, his career earnings are turning out all right. He signed a five-year, $82 million deal in free agency that summer and then hammered out a four-year, $100 million extension this past offseason.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
The Contract: Three years, $4.1 million
Nikola Jokic’s rise up the NBA ranks was met with a unique, far-flung level of resistance. Just as it took too long for the Denver Nuggets to recognize the future ran through him, it was quite a while before he became a consensus superstar.
Was it because he was drafted in the second round? Didn’t play in a glamour market? Wasn’t built like an Adonis?
Eventually, though, Jokic achieved consensus recognition. It wasn’t the cleanest arrival. His place among the biggest names is subject to debate even now. The conversation has just changed. It’s “Is he a top-seven player?” rather than “Is he a star?”
But the Nuggets were so certain in his value they declined a fourth year of ultra-cheap team control to re-sign him as a restricted free agent in 2018. He was comfortably a top-20 player by the time he wrapped up his first contract. Letting him reach unrestricted free agency the following summer was deemed too much of a risk.
This stark ascent is atypical even for those on this list. Stephen Curry, an all-time bargain himself, was on his second contract when he popped. Draymond Green has, probably, two top-20 seasons under his belt, none of which came before his first deal ended. Jokic reached stardom before his price point had the chance to follow suit.
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Rocky Widner/Getty Images
The Contract: Eight years, $25 million
Michael Jordan is not a player who could ever be properly paid. Even at the height of his earnings—$33.1 million in 1997-98—he was on a below-market deal. His value, both on and off the court, transcended every imaginable pay scale.
Still, the eight-year, $25 million pact he signed in 1988 became particularly off-the-wall the cheap. Sure, it was more standard when he first put pen to paper. Only David Robinson made more than him by the 1992-93 season. But that didn’t hold.
By 1995-96, the final year of Jordan’s deal, he owned the league’s 32nd-highest salary. That is unequivocally bonkers—and definitely doesn’t get talked about enough.
This would probably be a larger footnote had Jordan not left the NBA to try his hand at baseball. It didn’t matter what the Chicago Bulls were paying him in 1993-94 and 1994-95. He played in just 17 regular-season games over those two years. That they paid him at all was more so a nod to the mega discount he became.
On top of that, they ripped up his previous deal to give him the eight-year pact in the first place. Though they were willing to extend him in the middle of this one, they refused to tear it up in similar fashion. Jordan elected to play out the entirety of his agreement before enjoying a massive—and long overdue—windfall during the next two seasons.
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Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
The Contract: Five years, $18 million
Scottie Pippen’s second contract with the Chicago Bulls is the billboard for all-time bargains following ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary. It also remains a little complicated.
He signed what was billed as a five-year, $18 million extension just after he wrapped up his fourth season. But he still had two more years left on his rookie deal at the time. Part of that $18 million was spread out over the next two years and tacked on to his 1990-91 salary, even though he didn’t broker the extension until June.
Like Michael Jordan’s eight-year agreement, Pippen’s contract didn’t look so immediately lopsided relative to the rest of the market. He was the league’s eighth-highest paid player in 1992-93. That top-10 standing lasted all of a second.
By 1993-94, when he finished third on the MVP ballot, he ranked 26th in individual salary. Things only worsened from there as the NBA evolved into a moneymaking monolith. When his contract ended in 1997-98, there were 121 players earning more than him, including five on his own team.
Pippen’s agents, Jimmy Sexton and Kyle Rote, apparently told him not to take the deal, according to The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears. Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf also said he warned Pippen against signing the agreement. He signed it anyway, in large part because he valued the financial security it provided for him and his family.
“I felt like I couldn’t afford to gamble myself getting injured and not being able to provide,” Pippen, one of 12 children, said during The Last Dance. “I needed to make sure that people in my corner were taken care of.”
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Focus On Sport/Getty Images
The Contracts (multiple): Seven years, $7.1 million
John Starks’ salary never quite aligned with his on-court value. That was unavoidable on some level given his career arc. He wasn’t drafted, didn’t stick with the Golden State Warriors and spent a year playing abroad before signing a deal with the New York Knicks in 1990.
Entrenching himself as a rotation piece didn’t earn Starks much leverage by the following offseason, when he entered free agency once again. Teams are conditioned to be inherently skeptical of one-year breakouts. They could be flashes in the pan. Starks didn’t have the sample-size juice to command more in 1991—or even when he received his 1992 extension.
His 1993-94 price point, in hindsight, is the most outrageous of them all. He grabbed an All-Star bid while earning $1.1 million, making him the NBA’s…189th-highest-paid player.
Starks was never the most consistent or anything close to a superstar. But, like, damn. He still worked his butt off defensively and could shift the tenor of an entire game (or series) when he was feeling it on offense.
New York would later beef up his pay grade with a three-year, $13.1 million extension that eventually devolved into a net-negative asset. But even that wasn’t a smack-you-in-the-face total. Starks peaked with the No. 34 salary in 1997-98. The rest of his career, for the most part, was spent wallowing well outside the league’s top-100 take-homes.
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
The Contract: Four years, $27 million
Feel free to throw in Isaiah Thomas’ first contract after getting drafted 60th overall in 2011. The Sacramento Kings picked him up for three years and $2.1 million, a criminally low number.
But it was on his second contract that Thomas broke through the star barrier. He ended up with the Phoenix Suns to start 2014-15 via a sign-and-trade and was sent to the Boston Celtics that February. The rest is, quite literally, history.
Over the first three seasons of Thomas’ contract, he was one of just three players who cleared 22 points and five assists per game while shooting 37 percent or better from downtown. The other two: Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.
Thomas’ piece de resistance was his 2016-17 campaign, during which he averaged 28.9 points (third-most in the league) and 5.9 assists while converting 52.8 percent of his twos and 37.9 percent of his threes. His performance earned him a top-five spot on the MVP ballot. Not bad for the Association’s 153rd-highest-paid player, eh?
Others might refrain from calling Thomas an all-time bargain when hip injuries—and a trade to Cleveland—derailed his 2017-18 season and marked the beginning of an ongoing downturn. But that sudden spiral isn’t a good enough excuse to exclude him. He spent most of a bench player’s contract as one of the NBA’s most potent offensive weapons. That deal—and really, his entire career—is nothing if not a heinous bargain.
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Kent Smith/Getty Images
The Contract: Four years, $48 million
Kemba Walker’s 2014 extension turned more than the occasional head. It felt, at the time, more like a flat-out overpay than a calculated gamble.
Whereas Stephen Curry hinted at stardom before his deal—a similarly priced four-year, $44 million pact signed in 2012—Walker profiled as a more combustible investment. His clutch gene and handles could carry a team only so far when paired with an erratic jumper and finite range.
That stigma started to fade in 2015-16, when his extension took effect. Walker hit his threes at a 37.1 percent clip and proved to be a more viable off-the-dribble hub. His improvement stuck. That version of Walker became the new normal—and an offensive system unto himself.
Through those four seasons under this contract, Walker averaged 23.0 points and 5.5 assists while swishing 37.7 percent of his triples, most of which he created from scratch. Curry and Kyrie Irving were the only other players to match these benchmark over the same span.
Somehow, someway, the Charlotte Hornets stumbled into not just a top-20 player but also a cheap top-20 player. The 2016 salary-cap spike helped. So too did the flat $12-million-per-year rate at which Walker was paid. That doesn’t make this any less of an underpay.
Put it this way: Walker earned three All-Star selections and one All-NBA bid on a contract that, by the end, wasn’t even paying him a top-110 salary.
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The Contract: Six years, $33.9 million
Ben Wallace’s six-year deal with the Detroit Pistons doesn’t get the bargain-bin treatment it deserves. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. People don’t seem to care as much about non-scorers—he never averaged 10 points per game—and he did go on to sign one of the less flatting contracts in recent history, a four-year $60 million agreement with the Chicago Bulls during 2006 free agency.
Make no mistake, though, Wallace’s $33.9 million commitment amounted to a steal even in the early 2000s. He became just the second player to win four Defensive Player of the Year awards (Dikembe Mutombo is the other) and made four All-Star appearances, all of which came under this contract. He paired these accolades with five All-Defense and All-NBA selections apiece, because why not?
With respect to Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, Wallace was also the closest that 2003-04 championship Pistons squad came to having a household name, as both the face and basis for their relentless defense. Yet he was never truly paid like it. He only ranked inside the top 75 of salary twice and never came close to sniffing the top 50.
See for yourself:
Long-term contracts are indentured to the march of time. So many bargains are gradual. Wallace, though, was underpaid almost immediately after he signed his.