The NBA's Most Underpaid
By Kevin Pelton
Aug. 22, 2002
Monday’s news that now ex-Portland Trail Blazer Shawn Kemp had agreed to forfeit more than $25 million over the next two years, along with the constant news on the free agent front, has me thinking about salaries. We hear a lot about how overpaid players like Kemp, former teammate Scottie Pippen, and Denver’s Juwan Howard are. And fans are constantly worrying that their team might overpay a key free agent.
But what about the flip side of the coin? Setting aside the complaint that all athletes are overpaid, for each of these albatross contracts there has to be an opposite player who is relatively underpaid, right? So try to name them. It’s more difficult than it should be. I figured this out writing an article two weeks ago for Hoopsworld about free agent values. In it, I discussed how overpaid and underpaid players could throw off our sense of who should make what. I wrote, “The answer to players like Baker and Steve Nash (he’s the best example I can find off-hand of an underpaid veteran, pulling in less than $6 million for All-Star caliber point play) is to average the similar players.”
The fact is I had a tough time thinking of Nash. A couple of other potentially underpaid players came to mind in Seattle’s Brent Barry and Milwaukee’s Sam Cassell, but no lengthy list like I could name for overpaid players.
This is probably natural. The fact is that whether we begrudge players their salaries or not (and I don’t), it’s hard to summon up much sympathy for players making millions of dollars a year to play basketball, even if they really are underpaid relative to their peers. The media doesn’t help. While writers like SportingNews.com’s Sean Deveney produce lists of overpaid players, they don’t do the same for underpaid ones.
This site is no exception. When I searched it for the term ‘underpaid’, I found a grand total of four articles -- one of them the one I’ve previously referenced. For ‘overpaid’, there were 24 articles -- again including my own. Taking that out from both sides, we get a 23-to-3 ratio of mentions of overpaid versus underpaid. No, I don’t think that’s equal time. There was even one entire article devoted to overpaid players.
Well, let me set out to change things. If you did read that article two weeks ago, you know that I used regression analysis to predict what a player would have made as a free agent in the summer of 2001 from their 2000-01 statistics (and a few attributes). I then extrapolated to give values for this year’s free agents.
Another way to use this formula is to use the actual data to see what value general managers have implicitly applied to different stats and use it as a pure rating system -- that happens to translate very easily to monetary terms. Though this is really telling us what salary a given player would make as a free agent, that can also be considered their monetary value for the previous season.
I eliminated the attributes, because while age/experience/height may be important to what salary a player commands as a free agent, they really do not have the same effect on that player’s value to his team. My next step was to eliminate former first-round picks on rookie contracts from consideration. The fact is that these players are systematically underpaid because of the way the CBA is structured. That Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter were overpaid last season is no surprise to anyone, and doesn’t really reveal anything particularly interesting. I then cut my list of players to those who played at least 250 minutes, as the others aren’t really worth considering when talking about underpaid players (in some cases, however, they might be overpaid).
After I had collected projected salaries for the entire group of players as well as their actual salaries (as last time, these were obtained from Patricia Bender’s website), my next step was naturally to compare them. I did this in two ways. First, rather obviously, I simply subtracted projected salary from actual salary. In statistical terms, this is called the ‘residual’.
While this does a good job of telling us which players literally should have been paid the most above and beyond their salary, it’s not the only way of determining underpaid players. Another way is to see how relatively underpaid they were. Let’s say, for example, we have player A, who made $6 million last year, and player B, who made $1 million. Player A’s projected salary is $10 million, meaning he was underpaid by $4 million, and player B’s projected salary is $3 million, meaning he was underpaid by $2 million.
If we go simply by absolute difference, player A is underpaid by a larger amount. But player B was only getting 33% of what he should have, while player A was getting 60%. By that way of thinking, player B is more underpaid (if that’s an appropriate term). To show this effect, my other way of comparing projected and actual salary was to take the residual and divide it by the projection.
But enough about the method . . . let’s find out who was underpaid. I’ll provide commentary on the top 10 in each group and then simply list the next 15 for the 25 most underpaid players by each measure.
1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio (-$18,947,345 residual)
Yeah, I’m sure you don’t think of Duncan as underpaid either. But as one of the first truly great stars to come of age under the current CBA, Duncan is only naturally overpaid -- or do you think he deserved less than Vin Baker? The formula placed Duncan as the league’s highest-paid player by a wide margin at nearly $30 million value.
2. Steve Nash, Dallas (-$13,076,385)
My instincts in that last article were fairly good. Nash ranks amongst the league’s top 10 in value by the formula while getting paid only slightly more than the median exception. Barring something unforeseen, he’ll opt out of his contract in the summer of 2004 and make up for lost money with another big deal handed out by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
3. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers (-$8,920,264)
If Duncan is one of the first great stars extended under the CBA, Bryant is the first. It was no great mystery why Bryant was one of the five players to vote against the CBA near the end of the lockout. Sports Illustrated reported at the time that Bryant stood to lose about $15 million because of the new maximum salary (to be thorough on this count, Jackie MacMullan wrote shortly thereafter that Bryant could have previously gotten a deal of $100 million over seven years, while the largest allowable under the new CBA for a player of his experience is $86.6 million over seven years; he actually signed a six-year deal for $70.9 million). Now Bryant is paying and the Lakers are benefiting.
4. Sam Cassell, Milwaukee (-$8,849,039)
Here’s some statistical justification for Cassell’s seemingly-constant griping about his contract. Clearly, he is not paid like the top-tier point guard that he is. But you don’t see Nash complaining, now do you?
5. Jerry Stackhouse, Detroit (-$8,798,094)
I never had thought of Stackhouse as an underpaid player, but his sub-$6 million salary is clearly not in line with his status as a perennial All-Star at this point of his career. After all, he was the second highest-paid Piston last year after Clifford Robinson.
6. Tracy McGrady, Orlando (-$7,927,714)
File this one under the Duncan/Bryant category. Thinking about where the Magic might have been last season without McGrady, I think he was probably worth whatever he wanted.
7. Stephon Marbury, Phoenix (-$7,340,067)
Now this was one guy I did not expect to be on a list of underpaid players. Marbury is making the max for a player of his experience ($11.25 million) and that hardly seems unfair based on his seeming status in the same strata of players as Cassell and Nash. But the formula put him in the league’s top ten players. I never said I agreed with all of these.
8. Jeff McInnis, L.A. Clippers (-$7,239,731)
McInnis is the first example on this list of a player signed to a contract paying him next to nothing (in this case the minimum of $590,850) while playing a large role for his team. Say what you want about McInnis (and there has been a lot negative said about him lately), but he’s definitely worth a lot more than that.
9. Michael Jordan, Washington (-$6,869,551)
It was safe to say when Jordan signed himself for the minimum that he would be one of the league’s biggest bargains despite his advanced age. And though injuries kept Jordan from having the season he hoped to have, he was still worth far more than the million he made. I think MJ will survive.
10. Gary Payton, Seattle (-$6,177,509)
Payton’s deal was not signed under the new CBA, but it is old enough that what once seemed like a princely sum of money now doesn’t seem quite as special. Half of the 10 players on this list are point guards; should that tell us anything about NBA salary trends?
11. Brent Barry, Seattle (-$6,135,241)
12. Jason Kidd, New Jersey (-$6,037,104)
13. Brad Miller, Indiana (-$5,941,811)
14. Cuttino Mobley, Houston (-$5,932,115)
15. Chauncey Billups, Minnesota (-$5,548,451)
16. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Atlanta (-$5,419,388)
17. John Stockton, Utah (-$5,306,773)
18. Troy Hudson, Orlando (-$5,304,933)
19. Danny Fortson, Golden State (-$5,175,340)
20. Kurt Thomas, New York (-$5,139,423)
21. Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana (-$4,967,546)
22. Rod Strickland, Miami (-$4,854,015)
23. Antoine Walker, Boston (-$4,645,577)
24. Michael Redd, Milwaukee (-$4,142,603)
25. Darrell Armstrong, Orlando (-$4,080,824)
And now, on to the most underpaid relative to their salaries.
1. McInnis, L.A. Clippers (-92.5%)
2. Gilbert Arenas, Golden State (-90.2%)
Playing for the absolute league minimum as a second-round pick, Arenas managed to take over the Warriors’ starting point guard job by season’s end and did a very good job. He’ll be extremely underpaid next year (perhaps taking the similar McInnis’ spot on the top list) before making up for lost pay as a restricted free agent next summer.
3. Hudson, Orlando (-90.0%)
It’s not easy to pity anyone who gets paid any amount to play basketball, but if there is someone to pity, it might be Hudson. He’s played his entire career at the minimum, and last season he was far more valuable, emerging as a key energizer off the bench for the Magic. But instead of cashing in as a free agent, Hudson has found almost no market, and will probably be underpaid again next season.
4. Redd, Milwaukee (-89.9%)
Redd came out of nowhere to step up as Milwaukee’s sixth man and one of the league’s top reserves last season. Redd was always a top scorer at Ohio State, but I certainly did not expect him to shoot as well from three-point range as he did last season. Redd is a free agent this year, but probably won’t increase his salary that dramatically because he is restricted.
5. Trenton Hassell, Chicago (-89.7%)
Like Arenas, Hassell came out of nowhere to start 47 games and play over 2000 minutes as a second-round selection. That means he’s already provided more to the Bulls than many second-round picks, and he did it at the absolute minimum.
6. Lee Nailon, New Orleans (-89.4%)
Nailon only made the second-year minimum of $465,850, and he and his agent had to work just to get that. It was quite obvious Nailon was worth quite a lot more last season as he transitioned to the small forward position and capably replaced Jamal Mashburn, who missed half the season with injury. Also a restricted free agent, Nailon should come cheap for the Hornets again next season.
7. Jarron Collins, Utah (-88.8%)
By now, this is becoming a familiar story. Second-round draft pick makes good and becomes starter. While Collins’ performance as a starter was unremarkable and he might have sat with a team deeper in the middle, 1400 minutes for a player making the minimum is always a good deal.
8. Jordan, Washington (-87.3%)
9. Jacque Vaughn, Atlanta (-83.0%)
Vaughn is rare on this list in that he was an unrestricted free agent last summer and still ended up underpaid. And next season, Vaughn will again make next-to-nothing replacing Hudson with the Orlando Magic. Some guys don’t have much luck.
10. Strickland, Miami (-82.9%)
Strickland also falls into his own unique category; he’s the only player in the top 10 who revitalized his career last season. A year ago, Strickland looked like his career was nearly over, but he solidified Miami’s point guard position -- at least for one year. Hmm . . . five more point guards. . . .
11. Eduardo Najera, Dallas (-82.6%)
12. Jake Voskuhl, Phoenix (-80.8%)
13. Zendon Hamilton, Denver (-79.4%)
14. Oscar Torres, Houston (-79.4%)
15. Erick Strickland, Boston (-78.6%)
16. Art Long, Seattle (-78.1%)
17. Rodney Buford, Memphis (-77.8%)
18. Predrag Drobnjak, Seattle (-77.5%)
19. Kevin Ollie, Indiana (-76.9%)
20. Eddie House, Miami (-76.9%)
21. Gary Trent, Minnesota (-76.6%)
22. Jerome James, Seattle (-76.3%)
23. Monty Williams, Orlando (-75.1%)
24. Kenny Satterfield, Denver (-75.0%)
25. Hanno Mottola, Atlanta (-74.5%)
When he's not writing about the Sonics for Hoopsworld.com and SonicsCentral.com, Kevin Pelton usually has Excel open to check out NBA statistics. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.