There are a lot of really horrendous contracts in the NBA, and new ones pop up with each passing year. Remember last summer, when Darko Milicic(notes) got $20 million and Joe Johnson(notes) became a multi-billionaire? I may have that last figure a bit wrong, but the point is that lots of players make way too much money. This is part of why owners want new terms for the next collective bargaining agreement, since it is obviously the players' fault that the owners always give them way too much money.
Here's the problem, though: Once you've noticed that lots of players are overpaid, how do you decide who are the most overpaid? Let's find out from Tom Van Riper at Forbes.com:
Sports economist David Berri, author of the book Stumbling on Wins, has crunched the numbers to determine the collection of stats typically found on winning teams. What he found: Taking a player's major stats -- points, rebounds, turnovers, steals, assists and blocked shots, along with field goal and free throw percentage -- and weighing them against the average number of possessions a team gets per game (the more possessions, the more chances to score, etc.) -- goes a long way toward determining a player's contribution to the outcome of the game. So negatives like turnovers and missed shots are equally counted against points and rebounds on the win-building scale.
Is the economic-style analysis perfect? Probably not, but it certainly goes a long way toward including a player's total game in determining his value on the floor toward winning. Berri calls it "Wins Produced," which we measured for each NBA player for 2009-10. On the pay side: adding up team payrolls shows that a typical NBA club spent $1.7 million for each win in 2009-10. So figuring players' contributions vs. their pay comes down to comparing the value of the wins they produced to the value of their contracts. To distinguish between players that just didn't produce from those that were hurt, we included only those that played in at least 75 percent of their team's games last season.
Here are the top five (or bottom five, I suppose) for last season, in order: Rashard Lewis(notes), Jermaine O'Neal(notes), Elton Brand(notes), Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) and Brad Miller(notes).
But there's an enormous caveat here.
[Related: NBA plans to slash salaries]
As anyone who follows advanced metrics knows, Berri's stats are massively controversial. They work on the assumption that possessions are the most valuable commodity in basketball, so rebounds and steals are extremely productive plays while missed shots harm a player drastically. Therefore, a shooter like Lewis will rate rather low in these metrics even though he's a massively important part of the Magic's plans.
That's not to say he's properly paid -- his roughly $19.6 million salary for this season is obviously too much for a player with his limited skillset. At the same time, though, whether or not he's the most overpaid is up for debate, especially when a player like O'Neal is much less productive on a game-to-game basis.
On top of that, rating a player like Ilgauskas as overpaid last season neglects the fact that his expiring contract was the key factor in the Cavaliers being able to trade for Antawn Jamison(notes) before the trade deadline. While that deal didn't lead the Cavs to the championship they expected, it was still considered a heist at the time and the best of the NBA's many deadline deals. So, in effect, his large contract actually turned out to be an important part of Cleveland's push for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
I'm not a fan of Berri's stats, but there's a larger point here that goes beyond one particular metric. Judging who is overpaid or underpaid is largely dependent on the context of the situation. For a team one player away from serious contention, a large contract for a middling player can often be the difference between an early playoff exit and a deep run. But for a serious contender, a player who might appear overpaid can actually be an essential piece of the puzzle. These issues are usually more complicated than they appear from the straight numbers.