Introducing the Good, the Bad and the Ugly from the 2016-17 NBA Asset Rankings

“There’s no way I can justify my salary level, but I’m learning to live with it.”  —Ian Mahinmi. Well, Drew Carey…but actually Ian Mahinmi.

As free agency continues to trudge on, we’re seeing the fallout of the frivolous spending of the 2016 NBA offseason. Guys like Kyle Lowry and Paul Millsap, who are current All-Stars, can’t even get max contracts. Compare that to last summer, when players such as Ian Mahinmi and Miles Plumlee were receiving huge paydays, and it is clear how the cap spike will affect contracts moving forward.

The market is beginning to normalize after the jump created some really bad contracts, and those unfortunate deals will continue to cause problems for other free agents going forward. Having all these overpaid players will change the landscape, but an important question for fans and teams still remains.

Which players are actually overpaid? 

With that question in my head for a long time, I created a tool to determine if a player is worth his salary to his team—essentially, an asset. The three factors I found most important were production (based on NBA Math’s TPA), salary and age. Additionally, I gave players who lined up against better-than-average competition a boost, while guys who played against worse-than-average competition received a small setback. Looking at the results tells a story about the value of max players, the 2016 offseason and the incredible value of rookie contracts.

Strap yourselves in and prepare for the results of the asset test!

Note: It needs to be made very clear that these results are in a vacuum. A lot of players add more value to their team because of their particular skill set, and some have less value for the same reason. These rankings are based solely on stats from the 2016-17 regular season and required at least 100 minutes to qualify. Finally, I would like to thank my colleague Kevin Broom for helping me with aspects of this project along the way.

Starting at the top is a great way to provide a holistic view of how players were ranked: The league’s No. 1 asset was Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook actually had some knocks; he’s older than the average NBA player, and he made more money per minute than the league mean. But he is a superstar. He played against lineups 27 percent better than the league average when he was on the court and performed 178 percent better than the average player in those difficult minutes. His stats against even the strongest lineups were very impressive, and he’s not overpaid, so he ranks as the NBA’s No. 1 player asset.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, shouldn’t the MVP take the top spot?

The rest of the top 10 might surprise you, though:

  1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
  2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
  4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
  5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
  6. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
  7. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
  8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
  9. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
  10. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

Where is LeBron James? Down at No. 14.

Remember, these are regular-season stats. While James was the third-most productive player, he was paid a lot of money and sat out quite a few games. In addition, he’s 32, which lowers his final score and was certainly a factor in his minutes reduction. James is a better asset than his ranking would indicate, due to his historic playoff performances and his overall impact on the city and league as a whole. But in a vacuum, his regular season still had him ranked No. 14.

A similarly dominant player, Kevin Durant, finished 16th, and it was largely because he missed 20 games. Playing in more games makes you a more valuable player, and thus Durant took a slight tumble, though a top-20 asset is still an awesome player to have on any roster.

But let’s return to the top 10.

The first thing to note is very easy to see: Impactful youngsters are amazing assets. Four players on rookie-scale contracts crack the top 10, and 10 of the top 30 assets are on similar deals. Nikola Jokic made $1.3 million last season and was 68 percent better than the league average player, making him an incredible—borderline perfect—asset. Having a good player under contract for that little makes it easier for your team to compile even more assets.

While their rookie contracts make them more valuable, it should be noted that their on-court performances were still larger factors. Antetokounmpo and Gobert would still have been the No. 4 and No. 11 assets, respectively, even if they were making the $25 million they’ll be owed when when their extensions kick in.

The top 10 also features four players on maximum contracts. While those have a different connotation than they used to, the players who get them nowadays are almost always deserving. Of the top 30 assets in the league, 10 are on max deals. Another testament to the value of max (or close to max) contracts is this compelling fact: other than Chandler Parsons, every player making $20 million or more ranked as a positive asset for their team.

Of the top 30 assets, 10 are rookies and 10 are max guys. So, who’s left?

The 10 remaining players are either exceptional contributors making slightly less than the max or standouts on praiseworthy contracts: Curry, Butler, Isaiah Thomas, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, John Wall, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry and Cody Zeller.

These are the guys you should focus on when discussing the best contracts in the league. Getting a good rookie in the draft can be a product of luck. Maxing out a superstar player is often an easy decision. But this group is the sweet spot. General managers negotiated these contracts and were able to get All-Stars (and the advanced stats darling known as Cody Zeller) for less than the max—and, in Thomas’ case, less than the mid-level exception. Everyone knows how good the Golden State Warriors front office is, and this segment should be a testament to that: Three Warriors are among the top 10 assets not on a max or rookie contract.

However, for every good contract in the NBA, there is one just as bad.

Westbrook was far and away the most valuable player, so who was on the opposite end of the spectrum? By my metrics, that player is none other than Miami Heat power forward (and team legend) Udonis Haslem.

This should not say much of anything about Haslem. His contributions over his whole career with the Heat, combined with his locker-room leadership, make him well worth his contract. But the veteran, in a vacuum, was the NBA’s worst asset last year. He was 2 percent worse than the average player, was paid 55 percent more salary per minute played, played against lineups 36 percent worse than league average and was significantly older than most NBA players.

If Miami had just paid some random 36-year-old $4 million to play only 130 minutes, that would have been considered a bad dead, no matter who it was. And that’s why Haslem graded out as the worst asset, in spite of his veteran leadership.

In fact, a lot of guys at the bottom of the rankings are veterans. They have more value off the court than on, but the asset test focuses on actual production. Beyond the veterans, however, sit some noteworthy players who made a lot of money and were terrible on the floor, including the following: Jared Sullinger (No. 434), Ian Mahinmi (No. 431), Jamal Crawford (No. 429), Andrew Nicholson (No. 426), Al Jefferson (No. 423), Miles Plumlee (No. 416) and Jeff Green (No. 408).

All those guys have one thing in common: They signed their contract in the summer of 2016.

Mahinmi was actually better than average when he played, but injuries prevented him from being worth even close to $16 million. Miles Plumlee got $12.5 and has been traded twice since. The TV deal that kicked in last summer created a crazy situation that allowed a lot of sub-par players, like the ones listed above, to get huge contracts, and that created a ton of awful, awful assets around the league.

But is there anyone who isn’t an asset or a liability?

Five players—Derrick Rose, Stanley Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tyus Jones and Hollis Thompson—finished the season with a score of exactly zero, meaning they weren’t a positive or negative asset on the court. They were each negatives in terms of production, though all but Rose had the benefit of youth. Rose got a boost for playing against incredibly hard lineups in his minutes, and that elevated him to his rank as a neutral asset.

The 50th ranked asset? Aaron Gordon. The 100th? Mike Muscala. The exact median player (ranked No. 219)? Jakob Poeltl.

The results are interesting from top to bottom, and you can see them below in preparation for Part 2 of this series, in which I’ll be looking at the best and worst front offices throughout the league:

 

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.