Constructing a championship-contending roster in the NBA isn’t a one-man job. The scouting department must identify bargain-bin free-agent targets to help round out their already assembled group of players. The general manager, meanwhile, must show fiscal restraint while negotiating extensions with his incumbent players or new contracts with prospective signees.
Make a few missteps and you’re suddenly the Brooklyn Nets.
Signing productive players to dirt-cheap contracts helps free up some additional capital to spend elsewhere, which always helps when it comes time to negotiate with a franchise cornerstone. Getting such players on below-market deals—see: Draymond Green taking less than the max from Golden State this past summer—only sets a franchise up for further success years down the road.
The existence of max contracts makes superstars some of the best bargains in the NBA. If teams were free to spend as they saw fit on any player, guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry would command deals consuming half (or more) of their team’s cap space on a yearly basis. Based on their 2015-16 production, however, that trio doesn’t crack the list of the league’s five best-value contracts based on dollar amount per win share.
Though the dollars-per-win-share metric heavily favors those signed to laughably small deals, it also underscores the importance of such players. If someone earning less than $2 million a year generates even a few win shares, they’re easily surpassing the value of their contract.
The following five players, in particular, have vastly outperformed their meager contracts by becoming legitimate contributors in their teams’ respective rotations. (Note: This excludes players on their rookie contracts or undrafted free agents on their first contracts, as they’re often locked into discount deals.)
5. Jeff Withey, Utah Jazz
2015-16 salary: $947,276
Win shares: 1.5
Dollar per win share: $631,517.33
The Utah Jazz couldn’t have expected Jeff Withey to play anything more than spot minutes for them when they signed him in late August, as Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert figured to soak up a majority of their frontcourt minutes. When both Favors and Gobert went down for extended time, however—Favors with back spasms that have caused him to miss Utah’s past 10 games and Gobert with a Grade 2 MCL sprain that cost him 18 appearances—the Jazz had little choice but to turn to Withey as their fill-in starting center.
Despite coming into the 2015-16 campaign with just four starts to his name over his first two seasons, Withey shockingly held his own while filling in for the Gobert-Favors pairing. Over his eight starts in that stretch, he averaged 9.8 points on 51.8 percent shooting, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.3 steals and 1.0 assists in 26.7 minutes a night, helping Utah steal three victories over that stretch. Though his average plus/minus in those eight games was a minus-2.1, a minus-23 outing against the San Antonio Spurs badly skewed those figures.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, Withey has the third-best net rating of any Jazz rotation member (plus-5.2), trailing just Elijah Millsap (6.6) and Gobert (6.5). When the third-year big man is off the court, meanwhile, opponents are outscoring Utah by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, which is likewise the third-highest mark on the team. As Utah’s on/off splits demonstrate, only Gobert has had a more significant impact per 100 possessions than Withey. Considering his production through his first two seasons—he averaged just 3.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 9.9 minutes per game—this type of production is pure house money for the Jazz.
With Gobert now back in the starting lineup and Favors perhaps not far away, Withey will soon return to a reserve role in which Utah isn’t forced to rely upon him nearly as heavily. Still, the Jazz should feel comforted knowing they have him around as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option, especially considering they hold a team option for him in 2016-17 valued at just over $1 million.
4. David West, San Antonio Spurs
2015-16 salary: $1,499,187
Win shares: 2.5
Dollar per win share: $599,674.80
While Withey’s appearance here comes as a surprise, the same can’t be said about David West, who turned down his $12 million player option with the Indiana Pacers to sign a two-year minimum contract with San Antonio this offseason.
West was on the downswing in Indiana, averaging 11.7 points on 47.1 percent shooting, 6.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists in 28.7 minutes per game across 66 starts in 2014-15, but his track record speaks for itself. Slotting him into a complementary role behind Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge was bound to pay dividends for the Spurs, particularly after they convinced him to eschew more money from other suitors, per ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright.
West’s per-game production doesn’t scream “impact player”—he’s averaging just 6.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks—but playing just 16.5 minutes a night severely crimps his counting stats. His per-36-minute line of 13.8 points, 8.6 boards, 3.7 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals isn’t all that different from his final year in Indiana, where he averaged 14.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks.
In other words, don’t let the Spurs’ depth trick you into thinking West isn’t having a significant impact on their best-ever start. He’s one of just three non-rookies earning less than $2 million this year to have accrued at least two win shares, and the other two players rank first and second here. As suspected, West has emerged as one of the offseason’s biggest steals, proving once more that San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford is a warlock.
3. Jon Leuer, PF, Phoenix Suns
2015-16 salary: $1,035,000
Win shares: 1.9
Dollar per win share: $544,736.84
When you infuriate your incumbent starting power forward by trading his twin brother, causing him to mentally check out on your organization, it’s imperative to have a few capable backups at your disposal. The Phoenix Suns wisely covered their bases on that front this offseason, trading Andrew Harrison to the Memphis Grizzlies on draft night for Jon Leuer and signing Mirza Teletovic to a one-year, $5.5 million deal a week after shipping Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons.
That trade with Detroit sent Marcus’ twin brother Markieff into a tailspin, resulting in him telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was “not going to be” in Phoenix this season. (That earned him a $10,000 fine.) While head coach Jeff Hornacek attempted to smooth things over with ‘Kieff by starting him in 16 of Phoenix’s first 18 games this season—Morris missed two games in mid-November with a left knee sprain—the relationship proceeded to quickly deteriorate at the start of December, leaving a massive hole in the Suns’ starting lineup.
Leuer, who came into the 2015-16 campaign with just 18 starts over his first four NBA seasons, has taken advantage of the opportunity the Morris mess created. The fifth-year Wisconsin product has started 21 of his 38 games to date, averaging 11.0 points on 51.6 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 triples, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks in 25.5 minutes a night in that role. He’s tied with Brandon Knight for the third-most win shares on the team, trailing just Eric Bledsoe (out for the year with a torn meniscus) and second-year forward T.J. Warren.
Though the Suns are quickly devolving into a tire fire sans Bledsoe, Leuer has been doing his part to keep them mildly competitive. He has the third-best net rating on the team at minus-1.5 (which speaks volumes about this year’s Suns), along with the fourth-highest off-court net rating of any regular rotation player, trailing just Bledsoe, Bryce Cotton and Ronnie Price. Leuer might not be Phoenix’s long-term answer at point guard, but he’s a none-too-shabby stopgap while the team figures out its Morris conundrum.
2. Matthew Dellavedova, Cleveland Cavaliers
2015-16 salary: $1,147,276
Win shares: 2.7
Dollar per win share: $424,917.04
The legend of Matthew Delladevova began in the 2015 NBA Finals, when he took over for an injured Kyrie Irving and helped frustrate Curry into some uncharacteristic shooting struggles in Game 2 and most of Game 3. Though Curry eventually broke free of Delly’s shackles—or, more accurately, regressed to his shooting mean—the Australian floor general had already carved out his slice of Cleveland sports infamy with his Finals performance.
After some protracted offseason negotiations, Dellavedova accepted Cleveland’s one-year qualifying offer, ensuring himself a sizable early-season role while Irving continued to recover from his knee fracture. Though Mo Williams began the season as the Cavaliers’ starting point guard, Delly still managed to earn nearly 30 minutes of floor time a night in Irving’s absence, averaging 8.5 points, 5.5 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.3 triples and 0.7 steals over his first 23 games. In that time, he managed to supplant Williams as the starting floor general, with the latter beginning to rack up DNPs left and right since Irving’s return.
Delly’s player efficiency rating of 13.1 is below-average, but he currently owns the fourth-most win shares of any Cleveland player, trailing just LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. He’s likewise fourth on the team in terms of net rating (plus-12.2), behind only Irving, Iman Shumpert and James, and is one of only three Cavaliers with a negative off-court net rating (minus-0.6), joining James (minus-8.4) and Love (minus-0.2).
Though the 2015 Finals turned Dellavedova into a Cleveland cult hero, he’s become an even more valuable part of the Cavaliers rotation this season, transforming from a fringe contributor into a reliable backup floor general. With the Cavaliers trapped in salary cap hell thanks to James, Love, Irving and Thompson, they’re going to have a difficult time retaining Dellavedova this summer so long as he doesn’t tail off significantly in the second half of the season.
1. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
2015-16 salary: $981,348
Dollar per win share: $233,654.29
Hassan Whiteside’s place atop this list was preordained, as he’s by far the NBA’s most productive player earning less than $1 million in 2015-16. When the Miami Heat signed him to a two-year, $1.75 million contract in November 2014, they were taking a flyer on a big man with 111 minutes of regular-season experience under his belt at the time. Team president Pat Riley couldn’t have expected what came next even in his wildest dreams.
Whiteside burst onto the national consciousness with a 14-point, 13-rebound, 12-block triple-double against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 25, 2015, but that performance wasn’t an outlier. He had begun to find his footing in Miami’s rotation even prior to his annihilation of Chicago, stringing together three double-doubles (including a 23-point, 16-rebound night against the Clippers) in his previous seven games.
This year, the Marshall University product has only continued to build upon his breakout 2014-15 campaign, averaging 12.1 points, 11.1 rebounds and a league-leading 3.8 blocks in just 28.9 minutes over his first 36 games. Though the big man’s box-score stats may exaggerate his dominance—the Heat are actually 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench than on the court this season—it’s also unfair to denigrate him without noting the positive impacts he makes. Opponents are shooting 9.3 percentage points below their average when matched up against him less than six feet from the basket, as his massive 7’7″ wingspan often serves as an effective deterrent around the basket.
Because the Heat signed Whiteside to a two-year deal, they only have Early Bird rights on him, not full Bird rights. That means if they don’t sign him using their cap space, they can only ink him to a deal worth 104.5 percent of the average salary of the previous season, which should come in right around $6 million. Considering the rapidly rising salary cap, Whiteside is a rock-solid lock to receive far more than that in free agency, complicating matters for Miami’s front office considerably.
Honorable Mention: Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
2015-16 salary: $11,370,786
Win shares: 8.3
Dollar per win share: $1,369,974.22
It wouldn’t be right to leave Curry off this list entirely, as he’s easily the NBA’s biggest bargain among top-tier superstars. When he signed his four-year, $44 million extension in 2012, he was fresh off a season in which he missed 40 of a possible 66 games and averaged career lows in points (14.7), assists (5.3), rebounds (3.4) and minutes (28.2). Considering the concerns with his then-balky ankles, it was entirely reasonable for Curry to lock in some long-term security.
Three years later, however, that contract is the biggest bargain in the NBA. Heading into Sunday’s action, Curry led all players with 8.3 win shares accrued over just 35 games. Among all players earning at least $10 million this season, Curry was the only one with a dollar-per-win-share amount below $2 million. (Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry isn’t far off.)
Of the 341 players who have appeared in at least 10 contests this season and have averaged 10 or more minutes a night, the Davidson product leads the way with a net rating of 23.5. (Two of his teammates, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, are next with net ratings of 21.8 and 19.9, respectively.) With 166 made three-pointers through 36 games, Curry is well on his way toward smashing the all-time record for three-pointers made in a given season, one he’s already set twice in the past three years. He’s also threatening to become just the eighth qualified member of the vaunted 50-40-90 club if his current shooting slash line of .506/.445/.902 holds steady.
When the best player on the NBA’s best team is signed to anything less than a max deal, it’s automatically in the conversation of the league’s best-value contract, even if it doesn’t quite fit the mold in this particular instance.