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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Nothing balances NBA financial books better than cheap talent.
That’s part of why there’s such a massive importance on acing the draft, since rookie contracts are cost-controlled for several years. But the real bargain ballers are the ones who have outgrown their rookie deals and are still outperforming their pay rates by a wide margin.
With the Association on an indefinite hiatus, we’re turning our attention to these clearance-priced contributors in an effort to uncover the league’s top 10 bargains.
To do that, we’re first excluding players on rookie-scale contracts, since those rates are predetermined. Next, we’re weighing the remaining player pool by everything from traditional and advanced statistics to more subjective measures like the eye test and how it perceives their impact on winning. Potential plays a role in the process, but so does the reliability of an established track record.
The bottom line is an organization would be glad to have any of these players on its payroll.
“Inside The Green Room” podcast host and Los Angeles Laker, Danny Green, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss the Lakers coronavirus testing and subsequent quarantine, his hopes for finishing the NBA season, his thoughts on how the playoffs should be structured, and how he’s spending this unexpected downtime.
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David J. Phillip/Associated Press
The Sacramento Kings thought they were getting an energy guy when they used a two-year, $9.8 million deal on Richaun Holmes to complete their frontcourt. The bouncy big man has scratched that itch, but he’s been so much more during his first season with the team.
The win shares metric treats the 26-year-old as the team’s most critical contributor. He’s second on the squad with 4.6 total win shares and first (by a healthy margin) among the rotation players with .198 win shares per 48 minutes. His on/off splits reach the same conclusion. His net differential of plus-5.2 points per 100 possessions is highest among the 14 players to log 200-plus minutes with the team.
He has been Sacramento’s stabilizer, a reliable source of rim-running, rim protection and solid screens. He stays within his lane, which maximizes his 28.8 minutes of work every night. That has yielded a slew of career highs, including 12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and a 65.4 field-goal percentage.
A shoulder injury sidelined him for 25 games, but he already appeared to be back on course before the season was suspended. In two games before the shutdown, he was a plus-18 in 38 minutes. He may not have a ton of tricks up his sleeve, but his glue-guy game is a steal at this price.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Joe Harris had his breakout last season, when he won the three-point contest (over the Curry brothers in Charlotte, no less) and paced the entire league in three-point percentage. This time around, Harris is validating that emergence and showing subtle signs of growth.
He’s still a net-shredder of the highest order. An uptick in volume (11.2 field-goal attempts per game, up from 9.8 last season) has cost him a pinch of efficiency, but he still sports a 47.1/41.2/74.7 shooting slash. He is pulling up off the dribble more (19.1 percent of his shots, up from 13.6), and he has added almost five percentage points to his finishing rate when defenders are within two feet (46.3, was 41.6).
He remains most dangerous as a catch-and-launch sniper, but he is increasing his offensive options. If defenders are overzealous with their closeouts—it’s hard not to be against someone with a 61.3 effective field-goal percentage on spot-up shots—Harris is proving he can exploit that with drives to the basket or side-step threes.
He isn’t much of a distributor, and while he’s solid at the defensive end, he’s not a disruptive playmaker (0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks). Considering he’ll turn 29 in September, any shortcomings he has now might be around for the long haul. But his strengths are beyond great for his $7.7 million cost, which is why it could double in free agency.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Between Davis Bertans’ ascension as an elite three-point sniper and the increasing premium placed on perimeter marksmanship, he won’t qualify for this discussion much longer. He’s set to hit the open market this summer, and executives expect him to find an average annual salary in the $15 million to $17 million range, per B/R’s Michael Scotto.
For the remainder of this campaign, though, Bertans is only costing the Washington Wizards $7 million. That’s almost loose change in the NBA economy given what he provides.
He sits seventh in total three-point makes with 200. His 42.4 percent success rate is fifth-best among the 85 players with 100-plus splashes. That’s a powerful perimeter punch for anyone, but it’s an absurdly effective weapon for a 6’10” player who alternates between the 4 and 5 spots. He creates all kinds of spacing advantages at that size, so it’s no surprise Washington’s offense has fared 7.1 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
Bertans doesn’t have the most diverse skill set beyond shooting, and if he’s breaking even on defense, he’s having a good night. But he’s an expert in maybe the most coveted area in the modern game, and that’s worth a ton more than he’s making.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Opportunity only knocks so often for professional athletes, but it could never quit Christian Wood or his intriguing blend of length, athleticism and outside shooting. After being cut by four different teams, he latched on with the Detroit Pistons this past summer for the (relatively) measly—and non-guaranteed—sum of $1,645,357.
It might be the best money the Motor City has ever spent. Armed with the first regular rotation role of his career, Wood has blossomed into a do-it-all big man. Since his post-trade-deadline promotion to the starting unit, his per-game contributions are up to 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 threes and 1.0 blocks. He’s shooting 56.2 percent overall in this stretch and 40.0 percent from distance.
It’s funny to say this about a 24-year-old journeyman who’s making the veteran’s minimum, but this recent stretch might be the launching point of a shooting star.
“There is nothing fluky about his numbers,” The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote. “Wood is a legitimate unicorn with a freakish combination of size (6’10” and 214 lbs with a 7’3″ wingspan), skill and athleticism.”
Wood’s upcoming venture into unrestricted free agency is less of a light at the end of the tunnel than a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. A jackpot prize is surely awaiting him, and he has earned a massive raise.
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
The Sacramento Kings aren’t worried about Bogdan Bogdanovic’s impending payday. If that was the case, they would’ve moved the restricted-free-agent-to-be out for assets at the trade deadline.
They know he might break the bank, but they’re prepared to carry that cost. As NBC Sports’ James Ham put it, the Kings are “likely to match any offer” the versatile swingman receives.
Surely, it will shatter his $8.5 million salary, as it should. He’s one of only 20 players averaging 14 points, three rebounds, three assists and 2.5 triples. He’s the only member of that group playing fewer than 29 minutes a night and one of only two (along with Paul George) sitting fewer than 31.
Bogdanovic probably isn’t leading an NBA franchise—though his torrid 2019 FIBA World Cup run argues otherwise—but he’s an ideal costar. He can do everything from run pick-and-rolls to fire threes off the catch, and while not an explosive athlete, his length and instincts aid him on the defensive end.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Basketball is more than a numbers game, and once you can appreciate that, then it’s easier to understand how P.J. Tucker holds such a lofty ranking here.
His stats are unassuming across the board. If anything, one might see his 7.1 points on 43.3 percent shooting and wonder if he’s a hair overpaid at $8.3 million. But that’s a laughable take given his super-sized importance to the championship-hopeful Houston Rockets.
“He’s just as important as anybody,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told The Athletic’s Sam Amick. “[But] he’s not sexy. That’s what it is.”
What Tucker lacks in sizzle, he makes up for with substance—and brute strength. His willingness to battle underneath is a major reason Houston veered so hard into the small-ball strategy. So, too, is the fact he’s an excellent floor-spacer and the Association’s leader in corner triples (80, 10 more than anyone else).
His statistical production will come and go. His on-court impact will always be massive. He’s on a short list of the league’s most versatile defenders, and as long as his three-ball is falling (37.0 percent), then he’s a two-way asset.
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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
The Pistons surely had expectations and hopes for the two-year, $15 million deal they invested in Derrick Rose last summer. Even the most optimistic segment of them fell well short of the reality.
Despite battling some nagging injuries, this Rose bore a striking resemblance to the MVP Rose of yesteryear. That sounds hyperbolic, but the numbers aren’t so sure. His per-36-minute averages included 25.1 points and 7.7 assists; they were 24.1 and 7.4, respectively, during his award-winning campaign of 2010-11. He shot 44.5 percent back then; he’s at 49.0 this year. His 23.5 player efficiency rating was better, but not by a ton (21.1).
“I told him the other day, he’s looking like his MVP season,” then-teammate Markieff Morris said in January, per Pistons.com’s Keith Langlois. “He’s quick, he’s making great decisions on the ball, he can play either off the bench or starter. He’s scoring at a high level. He’s leading this team.”
Rose’s three-point shooting has cooled after a sizzling season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he remains a negative on defense as he’s been for most of his career. But if you need a bucket, you can give him the ball and have confidence he’ll find one. That’s seldom said about a player earning less than $8 million.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Clippers struck gold twice with Montrezl Harrell—first by netting him in the 2017 Chris Paul trade and then by re-signing the big man to a two-year, $12 million pact the next summer. The Clippers have been counting their riches ever since as Harrell has zoomed past any and all optimistic goals for a $6 million player.
He averaged double-digit points for the first time in 2017-18. His first time grabbing even five boards per game was last season. Yet, he has ascended at such a rapid rate that in February he was named a finalist for the 2020 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team roster. That’s what happens when your scoring average spikes to 18.6, and you still maintain a 58.0 field-goal percentage.
“I do a lot of work behind closed doors,” Harrell said, per Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times. “All throughout the summer I never really take a break off, it’s just about getting better and building my game in general. It just goes to show that hard work does pay off.”
Even without a jump shot, Harrell is moving toward the unguardable ranks. What else would you label a player who ranks in the 74th percentile or better on post-ups (74th), isolations (83rd) and pick-and-roll screens (84th)? He still plays with the fervor of an energizer, only know it’s enhanced by star-level skills.
Harrell isn’t a great defender, and his scoring rates might be a tad inflated by his reserve role. But he is a really good player, and soon he could have the salary to reflect that. In a January mailbag, The Athletic’s Jovan Buha opined Harrell might sniff out a “$20 million to $25 million” annual salary in free agency.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Lou Williams has made a career out of quick-strike scoring. His three Sixth Man of the Year honors are matched only by fellow off-the-pine-flamethrower Jamal Crawford.
Teams have always had a tricky time valuing Williams. He has never earned an eight-figure salary, even though he has long been among the leaders in his craft. But teams have been cautious about overpaying bench scorers, which gifted the Clippers an $8 million player supplying 18.7 points, 5.7 assists and 1.8 threes in under 30 minutes a night.
He always seems like he can get where he wants to go. Even if the 33-year-old’s burst isn’t the same as it once was, his ability to change speeds keeps defenders off-balance and he still has enough juice to zip by them. If not, he’s fine launching off the dribble. In fact, he’s averaging just as many pull-up threes as those of the catch-and-fire variety (0.9 per game).
As a scorer and table-setter, there just aren’t many players in his weight class. He’s 16th in offensive real plus-minus, per ESPN.com, and he’s one of just 23 players averaging 18 points and five dimes. He may not offer much resistance on defense, but he’s such a potent offensive player that he still stands as our second-best bargain.
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John Amis/Associated Press
Armored trucks should already be on standby for Fred VanVleet’s imminent pay raise. Considering his salary could swell from $9.3 million into the $25 million to $30 million range, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks said on the Hoop Collective podcast (h/t RealGM), this will be the last time anyone can characterize VanVleet as a bargain.
But right now, the return on the Toronto Raptors’ two-year, $18 million investment is silly. They don’t win last year’s title without him, and they certainly don’t thrive in their first post-Kawhi Leonard campaign without VanVleet taking another big step. He has always been a feisty defender, but now he’s blossoming as a two-way star with career bests of 17.6 points, 6.6 assists and 2.7 three-pointers.
“He will be an All-Star, simple as that,” VanVleet’s backcourt mate, Kyle Lowry said, per The Athletic’s Eric Koreen. “I’m serious. He will be an All-Star at some point.”
Lowry might be biased, but maybe he’s on to something. If VanVleet improves as a close-range finisher—a challenge since he’s undersized and not explosive—and distributor, he might have an All-Star selection or two in his future. Already, it’s clear he can help a team win big. He’s the third-best player on a championship contender; clubs hardly ever fill that role for less than $20 million.
VanVleet might be the most expensive player on our list, but he’s also the best bargain given his two-way play and substantial impact on winning.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.