By Bryan Toporek
Even with a skyrocketing salary cap, it’s difficult to build a balanced, competitive roster in today’s NBA. Overpay too many role players and you limit your franchise’s financial flexibility moving forward, as the Los Angeles Lakers can attest after signing Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng to albatross contracts this past offseason. Lock yourself into a low-ceiling core, as the Charlotte Hornets appear to have done, and you’re booking a one-way ticket to the treadmill of mediocrity.
Teams don’t have to be light-years ahead of their competitors to avoid such pitfalls, although having four All-Stars certainly helps convince free-agent role players to sign for a discount. Instead, optimal roster construction comes down to fiscal restraint and a whole lot of luck.
Since max contracts limit the amount superstars can receive in any given year, they’re often some of the biggest bargains in the NBA. If LeBron James, Kevin Durant or James Harden had no restriction on their respective salaries, they’d earn double or triple what they’re receiving now. Players still on first-round rookie-scale contracts can likewise become mammoth steals, as up-and-comers such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Myles Turner have already vastly exceeded their monetary value in 2016-17.
For teams that lack a Big Three or a gaggle of former lottery picks, the front office must work its magic in free agency, exercising caution when weighing whether to offer hefty money to a middle-of-the-road player. Rather than allocate $70-plus million to Deng, Evan Turner or Joakim Noah, teams would often be better suited targeting lower-rung free agents for a fraction of the price.
So, which NBA players have the best-value deals this season? By dividing a player’s 2016-17 salary by the number of win shares he’s produced, we can deduce how much each win share has cost. Players on their first contracts unsurprisingly dominate the top of those rankings—both those on their rookie-scale deals and second-round picks or undrafted free agents signed to team-friendly deals—but since they often have little control over their salaries, they’re being excluded from consideration here.
Instead, let’s take a look at which players on their second contracts (or beyond) are providing the best bang for their buck this season.
Honorable Mention: Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
2016-17 salary: $2,150,000
Win shares: 4.6
Dollars per win share: $467,391.30
Third-year swingman Joe Ingles recently earned a nod from ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe in his sixth annual “Luke Walton All-Stars” column, and for good reason. The former undrafted free agent isn’t putting up huge numbers—he’s averaging only 6.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 triples and 1.1 steals in 23.1 minutes through Monday’s action—but he currently ranks fourth on the Utah Jazz in win shares, trailing only Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward and George Hill.
An uptick in three-point efficiency is largely responsible for Ingles’ spike in value, as he’s knocking down 44.2 percent of his attempts from downtown this season. Though he isn’t a high-volume bomber from deep like Stephen Curry or James Harden, he trails only Washington forward Otto Porter Jr. and Cleveland guard Kyle Korver in terms of three-point shooting percentage, providing a much-needed scoring punch off the bench with Rodney Hood and Alec Burks shuffling in and out of Utah’s lineup.
“He’s more aggressive,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder told Aaron Falk of the Salt Lake Tribune about Ingles in mid-January. “He’s shooting the ball more quickly, but more on time. There isn’t a hesitation. I think that’s improved his confidence. He knows he’s shooting it. Don’t think about it.”
Ingles has emerged as one of the league’s most reliable catch-and-shoot threats, knocking down 45.3 percent of such three-point attempts this season. The Australian sharpshooter has banged home 35 of the 83 corner treys he’s attempted, including a sizzling 19-of-38 from the right corner.
Ingles will turn 30 prior to the 2017-18 campaign, so it’s not as though he’s teeming with untapped upside. Still, with Utah having to pony up for both Gordon Hayward and George Hill this summer, a shooting-needy team would be wise to throw a difficult-to-match offer sheet at Ingles, putting the Jazz to the test. Since Ingles is due for a sizable raise, Utah’s salary-cap limitations could enable a suitor to sign him for a relative bargain.
5. Ian Clark, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 salary: $1,015,696
Win shares: 2.3
Dollars per win share: $441,606.96
After Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors last offseason, general manager Bob Myers had little choice but to round out the team’s bench with bargain-basement players. Zaza Pachulia, who signed a one-year deal for the $2.98 million biannual exception, is averaging roughly $710,000 per win share, but journeyman 2-guard Ian Clark has offered the most bang for the buck of any Golden State player (including Stephen Curry) on a dollar-per-win-share basis.
Like with Ingles, Clark’s per-game averages of 6.7 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.8 triples in 14.0 minutes don’t scream high-value, but Kevin Durant’s recent absence has underscored his value to Golden State. The fourth-year guard has taken on a larger role in the Warriors’ rotation since Durant went down with an MCL sprain and bone bruise in late February, highlighted by his career-high 36-point eruption against the San Antonio Spurs in a game during which both teams rested most of their starters.
Though his monster outing against the Spurs will likely be his high-water mark of the season, Clark has already poured in 10 or more points on 15 separate occasions this season, and he has four games with 20-plus points. That microwave scoring is critical for a Warriors team that overhauled its bench upon Durant’s arrival, losing key reserves such as Leandro Barbosa and Marreese Speights in free agency last offseason.
“He’s kind of taken Barbosa’s role from last year,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told reporters about Clark in mid-December. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s an excellent shooter, but he’s really improved his in-between game. Makes a lot of floaters, puts the ball on the floor and he’s a very smart player. We’re thrilled with Ian.”
Assuming Durant returns to full strength in the coming weeks, the Warriors shouldn’t have to rely heavily on Clark during the playoffs. Few eventual champions make it through the postseason without an unexpected scoring explosion or two off the bench, though. If Clark can unfurl a 15-plus-point outing out of the blue, he could help swing a series the Warriors’ way, making him well worth the paltry $1 million salary they’re paying him this year.
4. Glenn Robinson III, Indiana Pacers
2016-17 salary: $1,050,500
Win shares: 2.6
Dollars per win share: $404,038.46
Glenn Robinson III burst onto the national scene during this year’s Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend, but the Indiana Pacers swingman has quietly helped his team remain in the thick of the playoff race all season.
When Monta Ellis went down with a groin injury in mid-December, Pacers head coach Nate McMillan called upon Robinson to replace him in the starting lineup. After putting up three points on 1-of-2 shooting, six rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal in 33 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 12, McMillan heaped praise upon the Michigan product.
“Defensively is where we really want him to help us, and I thought he did that with his length,” McMillan told reporters. “Offensively, we want him to allow the game to come to him and I thought he did that, spreading the floor and taking good shots.”
Robinson didn’t make the most of his opportunity to replace Ellis—he shot just 37.4 percent from the floor and 28.2 percent from three-point range during his 19 games in the starting lineup—but he’s been far more effective since returning to the bench. Over his past 25 outings, Robinson is shooting an unsustainably high 56.0 percent overall and 48.9 percent from deep, chipping in 6.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 0.9 triples, 0.8 steals and 0.6 assists in just 18.3 minutes. His sizzling play of late included a game-winning trey against the Atlanta Hawks on March 5.
After that game, Pacers star Paul George expressed elation about Robinson’s game-winner.
“Glenn has worked real hard,” George told reporters. “He’s been through a lot this season, from starting lineup to sixth-man role to third string. He’s kind of been all over the place, but I think the greatest thing is he’s kept his confidence. It’s what young guys go through and I’m happy that he has been a professional at his early career. He’s been huge for us these past couple of games.”
As George goes, so go the Pacers, but Robinson’s solid play off the bench could help swing a game during the upcoming playoffs. If he can help give George a reprieve defensively or knock down a few triples in any given outing, Indiana will look even more brilliant for signing Robinson to a three-year, $3.2 million contract prior to the 2015-16 season. Don’t be surprised if he’s back on the best-value list next season.
3. Marreese Speights, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 salary: $1,403,611
Win shares: 3.8
Dollars per win share: $369,371.32
After shining in a reserve role with the Golden State Warriors over the past three seasons, Marreese Speights is doing the same with the Los Angeles Clippers this year. Among players averaging 20 minutes or fewer, the former Florida Gator has the league’s seventh-highest scoring average (9.0 points), and he trails only Blake Griffin among all Clippers players in terms of points per 36 minutes (20.6).
The biggest revelation with Speights this season has been his newfound three-point range. After Mo Speezy knocked down only 43 triples across his first eight seasons combined, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers gave him the green light from deep this year. He’s responded by drilling 92 of his 244 three-point attempts (37.7 percent), serving as a much-needed catch-and-shoot release valve when a fellow teammate drives into the paint and draws the attention of multiple defenders.
Speights’ value to the Clippers isn’t limited to his on-court contributions. Having played for the Warriors during their back-to-back Finals appearances, he and fellow NBA champion Paul Pierce bring much-needed perspective to a Clippers locker room that otherwise lacks the experience of deep playoff runs. Whereas the 39-year-old Pierce is a shell of his former Hall of Fame self, Speights can still make positive splashes both on and off the court, teaching his teammates what it takes to become a legitimate contender.
“That’s the scouting report when you play against the Clippers,” Speights told reporters after a blowout 115-98 loss at the hands of the Warriors in early December. “It’s always been, especially with the Warriors, you play against the Clippers, you hit them a couple of times and their spirit is going to be down.”
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will do the heavy lifting for the Clippers in the playoffs, but Speights could be a sneaky X-factor for L.A. Regardless of how the Clips fare in the playoffs, Mo Speezy has already earned his $1.4 million salary for 2016-17 and then some.
2. Willie Reed, Miami Heat
2016-17 salary: $1,015,696
Win shares: 2.8
Dollars per win share: $362,748.57
After signing Hassan Whiteside to a four-year, $98.4 million maximum contract last summer, the Miami Heat had no need to bring in a high-priced backup for him as well. Rather than splurge on the likes of Timofey Mozgov, Joakim Noah or Bismack Biyombo, Miami went bargain hunting and signed Willie Reed to a two-year, $2.1 million deal with a second-year player option.
Though the Heat didn’t call heavily upon Reed in the first few months of the season, he made his imprint on the squad in early January when Whiteside sat out a few games with a bruised retina. In just his second start with Miami, the former Saint Louis product erupted for 22 points on 11-of-16 shooting, 18 rebounds and two blocks in 32 minutes against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 3, earning praise from head coach Erik Spoelstra afterward.
“Every single day all he does is work with [assistant coach] Juwan [Howard] to try to get better, work at his craft, to earn his minutes, to earn his opportunities,” Spoelstra told reporters about Reed. “And what he’s always had is the effort and the motor. But him working at other things now makes him more skilled on both ends of the court. So, when he puts in that much time you’re very happy for him when he’s able to produce like that.”
Reed is averaging just 14.4 minutes per game on the year, which caps his statistical output, but his per-36-minute averages of 12.9 points on 55.3 percent shooting, 11.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks underscore the type of value he’s had for Miami in limited playing time. The Heat allow nearly four more points per 100 possessions with him off the court (105.2) compared to when he’s on (101.6), which is part of the reason why they’re ranked sixth league-wide in defensive efficiency. Having Reed man the middle when Whiteside needs a breather gives Miami a full 48 minutes of legitimate rim protection.
The Heat have climbed back into playoff contention after getting off to a dismal 11-30 start, and Reed, who ranks sixth on the team in win shares (2.8), is a big reason why. If Miami can overcome its early-season struggles and earn one of the final few playoff spots in the East, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics or Washington Wizards can’t be looking forward to a seven-game series worth of driving to the rim against Reed and Whiteside.
1. David Lee, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 salary: $1,551,659
Win shares: 5.2
Dollars per win share: $298,395.96
If this were the 1690s, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich would be hung for witchcraft. That’s the only explanation for how 33-year-old big man David Lee is putting up a career-high .199 win shares per 48 minutes and has his best-ever mark in defensive box plus/minus (2.3) during his first year in San Antonio.
With Lee on the floor this season, the Spurs outscore their opponents by 11.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fractions of a point ahead of the Warriors’ league-leading plus-11.6 net rating. Both their offense and their defense is more effective with him than without him, although that’s in part due to San Antonio’s reserves touting the league’s highest net rating (plus-10.0) by far.
With Pau Gasol having missed a month due to a freak hand injury and LaMarcus Aldridge recently sitting out a few games after a minor heart scare, Lee has filled in the gaps when San Antonio’s starting bigs are limited or out. During the 15 games Gasol missed from mid-January through mid-February, Lee put up 10.1 points on 61.7 percent shooting, 7.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists in just 22.9 minutes, and he chipped in 13.0 points on 78.6 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists during two spot starts in Aldridge’s place in mid-March.
“I don’t want to compliment David Lee too much,” Popovich told reporters after Lee hung 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and a block on the Atlanta Hawks on March 13. “I don’t want him to get a big head. I want to keep him angry and mean and wondering whether he might play or not.”
Lee says Pop deserves plenty of credit for his surge in productivity this season.
“He tells me when he wants me to be aggressive, and when he wants me to make plays for other guys,” Lee told reporters in early February. “As a veteran I love that. I’m able to take what he says and do my best to get it done.”
Among players averaging no more than 20 minutes per game this season, Lee leads the way with 5.2 win shares. (His teammate, Dewayne Dedmon, ranks second with 4.5.) The Spurs seemed poised to take a step back after Tim Duncan retired at the end of last year, but Lee’s efficiency as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option has helped them maintain their typical 60-win pace regardless.
Lee, who has played in 28 playoff games since 2012-13, should continue playing critical minutes off the bench for San Antonio once the postseason commences. If he’s able to hold his own defensively and continue knocking down 60-plus percent of his shot attempts, he could help the Spurs stave off an earlier-than-expected elimination in the first or second rounds, making him well worth the $1.55 million salary he’s receiving this season.