Ranking the best bargain contracts in the NBA this season

Tyrese Haliburton, NBA (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Tyrese Haliburton, NBA (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /
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Anybody who’s ever played MyFranchise mode in NBA 2K knows that finding good players on value contracts is a thrill. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Steph Curry is worth a max deal, but it does take some work to lock up a solid starter for below-market price. But what constitutes a bargain? Which players are giving their teams the most bang for their buck?

I wanted to approach this analytically, so I devised a simple method comparing a player’s salary for this season (prorated for the number of games their team has played) to the number of win shares they’ve accrued thus far.

Per Basketball-Reference, the total salary for players this season is $4.53 billion (seemingly 90% of which is from the Warriors and Clippers). We know that every 82-game season results in exactly 1,230 win league-wide, so by dividing the total salary by the total number of wins, we learn that a win is worth $3.7 million.

Win Shares is a flawed but generally solid metric that attempts to calculate exactly how many of a team’s wins are attributable to each player. By its nature, it will favor players from teams with better records, so you won’t see too many players on this list from bad teams… but that’s a feature, not a bug. How much of a bargain can a player be if his team is looking at Wembanyama highlights all day?

By comparing win shares to a player’s salary, we can see which players contribute excess value to their team. For example, if a player is worth 2.0 Win Shares to this point, but their prorated salary is $5.0M, then we’d say their “excess value” is $2.4M (2 Win Shares * $3.7M per win = $7.4M generated). Subtract the $5.0 from their salary, and you get $2.4M in excess value.

There are two caveats based on current CBA restrictions: rookie deals and max players. Like in any salary-capped league, an NBA team is at a significant advantage if they can unearth players performing at a star level while still on their rookie deal since those salaries are capped at a low rate. Max players are also capped at a below-market value; if there was no maximum contract, guys like Curry would be making tens of millions more to approximate fair value for their on-court production.

If you look at any sort of advanced metric divided by dollars methodology, you’ll see guys like Tyrese Haliburton (All-Star performance on a rookie deal) and Luka Doncic (All-World performance on a capped max deal) near the top. I’m going to exclude rookie deals and max contract players since they couldn’t be making more, even if they would in an open marketplace.

That leaves us with a very intriguing list filled with some unexpected names.