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The Best Bargains in the NBA

With the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement in full swing, it's all about the contracts

When the Sacramento Kings were evaluated at $525 million recently, I wanted to stand up and applaud the 30 NBA owners like they’d just finished putting on The Book of Mormon or something.

Bravo, fellas! Bravo! You were great! BRAVO!

It seems like only yesterday when they were playing the panic card right before 2011’s travesty of an NBA lockout kicked off. Their financial infrastructure was busted. (Or so they claimed.) Just about everyone was losing money. (Or so they claimed.) Things couldn’t keep going the way they were going. (Or so they claimed.) They had to get player salaries under control, or else. (Or so they claimed.) And we bought it. All of it.

Here’s what really happened. The owners knew that rights to live sporting events had become television’s most important advertising commodity in the DVR Decade. They knew that their broadband business was exploding, that they might have as many as three other networks with 24-hour sports channels waiting for ESPN’s TV contract to expire in 2016. They knew they had a waiting list of billionaires for their available franchises, as well as many of the most marketable superstars in all of professional sports under their domain. And they knew they needed to do a better job of “fixing” their year-to-year costs, which was the quickest way to increase the value of their franchises.

So they did what any smart businessmen would do. They played poker and fibbed about their hand. They made believe things were bleaker than they actually were. They pretended to be losing gobs of money — thanks to some creative accounting, of course — and pretended a slew of narcissistic rich dudes weren’t dying to buy their teams. There’s no better investment than an NBA team, by the way. The prices never go down. You don’t have to put up THAT much money if you’re a billionaire — maybe $150 million for a majority share, if that. You get to sit courtside 41 times a year and stroll around with your chest puffed out. You fly by private jet to every owners’ meetings and every league event, measure yourself against your wealthy counterparts, maybe even feel a little validated as it’s happening. And you can sell at any time. Not that you would. It’s the ultimate ego purchase. You know, as long as you have the right team.

And that’s what the lockout was really about. The league wanted all 30 franchises to mean something. They wanted to drive up everyone’s collective value. They wanted to create a new world order in which Memphis or Minnesota could be sold just as easily as the Knicks or Clippers. Without major changes to their luxury tax system, without a shrinking salary cap, without shorter contracts, without better revenue sharing … the NBA just couldn’t survive. (Or so they claimed.) So what if the Clippers were “evaluated” to be worth half of what Donald Sterling could actually get for them? So what if the Knicks were allegedly worth $1.1 billion when everyone knows you could offer James Dolan $3 billion for the Knicks, Rangers and Madison Square Garden and he’d hang up on you? That didn’t fit their self-serving narrative. They needed us to believe that the NBA was in trouble.

The longer the lockout dragged on, the more we started to believe them. During that time, the National Basketball Players Association was being run by the one and only Billy Hunter, someone who took six months to negotiate the same deal that was sitting there in June. To say that Hunter didn’t have the players’ best interests in mind would be an understatement; it’s going to take years, and probably a few lawsuits, to determine exactly how negligent he was. But you know what? Trying to line his family members’ pockets was more shady than purely destructive; sheeeeeeeeeee-iiiiiiiiiiiiiit, that was just a bad Clay Davis impersonation. Giving the owners a 50 percent revenue share, shorter contracts AND significantly harsher luxury-tax penalties? That’s a whole other story. He squandered just about any leverage the players had.

When it finally ended, the NBA only needed to toss away 16 regular-season games to flip the salary structure their way. You know who noticed immediately? Really wealthy smart people. People bought the Sixers, Warriors and Pistons even before the lockout finished playing out, anticipating what would (and did) happen because David Stern and Adam Silver were telling them what would (and did) happen. The Grizzlies and Hornets sold soon after the lockout ended for more than anyone ever imagined. Right now we have two groups fighting to overpay for the Kings, and once that plays out, somebody will probably overpay for the Timberwolves. Buying an NBA team these days is like buying beachfront property in Turks and Caicos — it barely matters where your house is, or what shape it’s in, just that you’re on the water.

But here’s the catch …

By making tax penalties so much more potent, the league subtly changed the way basketball teams can be constructed. Already this season, we’ve seen two contenders willfully jeopardize their title chances for financial reasons. Oklahoma City traded James Harden because they couldn’t afford his next contract. Memphis traded Rudy Gay because they couldn’t afford his current contract. No matter how you felt about those two deals — personally, I hated the Harden trade, but didn’t mind the Gay deal — let’s at least agree that they had no correlation to anything that’s happened in professional basketball before.

When Oakland traded Jose Canseco to Texas for financial reasons before the 1992 trade deadline, I remember Peter Gammons calling it a historic deal, even declaring that we’d remember it as the beginning of a new world order for baseball — the day a contender chose its long-term future over its immediate present. And he was right. Within a few years, those kinds of trades just became part of baseball, for better or worse (mostly worse). That seems to be where we’re heading in the NBA, too. The cap/tax changes leave little room for error — a problem for NBA teams, since many of them specialize in the word “error” — and because of that, we think about players in terms of their contracts more than we ever did. Those dollar numbers are part of their résumé, no different than their points-per-game.

Bet on the wrong two guys and it might take years to recover, as any Orlando Magic fan will tell you. But if you don’t bet on anyone, it might take years to recover as well … as any Dallas Mavericks fan who misses Tyson Chandler will tell you. It’s all about what you’re spending, and how you’re spending it, and on whom, and for how long. Once upon a time, just drafting well, making smart signings and stockpiling good players was enough. Not anymore. And you can thank Billy Hunter for that one — during that frustrating lockout, he was about as useful as King Joffrey during the Battle of the Blackwater. Good riddance.

Anyway, I usually mention the best and worst contracts as sidebars in my annual NBA Trade Value column (running in March). This year? I’m blowing it out. Contracts are too important these days. Next week, we’re doing the worst deals. Today, we’re doing the best ones, which can be separated into five categories.

Category 1: Any lottery pick still on his rookie deal

You don’t need me to explain that it’s beneficial to have Kyrie Irving locked in at $11.4 million through 2014, with a team option for the next two years at another $17.2 million. Cleveland sucked, landed the first pick, drafted the right guy, and paid him rookie scale. We’re skipping these guys because there’s little to no ingenuity involved.

Category 2: Any other first-rounder on a rookie deal who stayed with that team

You know, killer bargains like Kenneth “Don’t Ever Call Me Ken” Faried (4 years remaining, $8.6 million); Avery “If I Don’t Make a First-Team All-Defense Someday, Just Assume Something Went Horribly Wrong” Bradley (3 years, $7.7 million); Jimmy “I’m Quietly Making Luol Deng Expendable for a Pau Gasol Trade This Summer” Butler (4 years, $7.6 million); Larry “Everything Is Better When I’m Involved, and I Mean Everything” Sanders (3 years, $9.3 million); Eric “Utah Will Regret Not Trading for Me” Bledsoe (3 years, $8 million); and even Festus “I Cost About One-Tenth What Biedrins and Bogut Cost Combined and I Might Be More Reliable” Ezeli (3 years, $3.2 million). Again, not enough ingenuity involved.

Category 3: Expiring deals

Sorry, Jarrett Jack ($5.58 million), David West ($10 million), J.J. Redick ($6.0 million), J.R. Smith ($2.8 million), Corey Brewer ($3.2 million), Matt Barnes ($1.23 million), Mike Dunleavy ($3.8 million), Paul Millsap ($8.6 million), J.J. Hickson ($4 million) and every other expiring contract — your deals are up in four months and many of you might get overpaid. Well, except for you, Nik Pekovic ($4.8 million). I’m not sure you can overpay someone who can take a punch like this.

Category 4: Any seemingly benevolent extension kicking in next season

Specifically, Serge Ibaka (next 4 years: $49 million), Ty Lawson (4 years, $48 million), Jrue Holiday ($44 million) and Stephen Curry (4 years: $44 million). All four deals looked steep and/or risky in October; four months later, they range from “well-priced” to “brilliant” thanks to the way all four elevated their games. But if you’re wondering how these extensions occasionally could go wrong, click on this link. And cover your eyes if you’re a Wizards fan.

Category 5: Cap-appealing assets that range from “Nice!” to “THAT’S ROBBERY!”

My favorite category because we’re rewarding teams for either (a) snaring a free agent for less than he’s worth, (b) trading for a young asset on his rookie deal, (c) locking someone up to an improbably cheap extension, (d) convincing a veteran star to take a massive discount, (e) convincing LeBron James to play for them, or (f) stealing a valuable asset in the second round (just about the most helpful move you can make in the Super-Strict Salary Cap Era).

Before we hit our best cap-appealing guys, let’s rip through our Honorable Mentions.

Carlos Delfino (Rockets): 2 years, $6 million
He’s always been a solid NBA swingman (2013: 39 percent 3FG), only nobody wanted him last summer before Dork Elvis begrudgingly stepped in while thinking to himself, I’m just going to keep stockpiling assets, and at some point, maybe I can parlay a few of them into a franchise scorer and a top-five lottery pick, even if this sounds totally insane and my staff thinks I might be popping hard-core meds. Every August, there’s always one or two Delfinos still kicking around, which is what makes it so funny when teams spend so much money in July to lock up the same type of player.

Marcin Gortat (Suns): 2 years, $15 million
Robin Lopez (Hornets): 3 years, $15.4 million

Seems like a super-cheap price for Gortat … and then you watch him put up 11 points and eight boards in 30 minutes with a happy look on his face that seems to say, “I wish we could drink beer during NBA games, that would be awesome” as his team is getting killed by 20 … and then he doesn’t seem so underpaid. Meanwhile, Lopez turned himself into a decent NBA center and extinguished all Frank Stallone/Stephen Baldwin/Ozzie Canseco black sheep brother jokes in the process. You’d rather have Lopez at $5 million than Gortat at $7.5 million at this point, although Gortat might be the starting center on the Needs a Change of Scenery All-Stars. Stay tuned.1

Kyle Singler (Pistons): 3 years, $3.13 million
I like this guy and can’t totally explain it. Either he’s going to end up being horribly overpaid by Joe Dumars (a.k.a. Jerebko-ed), or he’s going to end up on the Spurs at some point, have a bunch of clutch moments, and make everyone say, “Dammit, they did it again!” It’s a coin flip right now.

Kyle Lowry (Raptors): 2 years, $12 million
Seems like a terrific price on paper, but it’s worth mentioning that (a) Memphis and Houston abruptly gave up on him, and (b) Toronto quietly shopped him before dealing Jose Calderon instead. Translation: He’s a pain in the ass. I thought his numbers would jump when they traded Calderon, but he just submitted his worst month of the year. Strange. Maybe he’s properly paid?

Vince Carter (Mavericks): 2 years, $6.3 million2
Reinvented himself as a valuable role player in Dallas, to the surprise and shock of just about everyone who expects him to roll around the floor like he’s been shanked during a prison riot after every hard foul. I wish Indiana or Chicago had traded for him at the deadline, just to make the Eastern Conference race a little more interesting. Did you ever think VC would remain relevant as an NBA player longer than T-Mac did? He would have been a 10-to-1 underdog as recently as 2008, right?

Lance Stephenson (Pacers): 2 years, $1.9 million
Wait a second … LANCE STEPHENSON???? I know, I can’t believe it either. Thanks to Danny Granger’s injury, Stephenson somehow evolved into a fearless defender/athlete/wild card for a suddenly dangerous Pacers team. How good are they when they play George Hill, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert and Stephenson together? Their points-per-100-possessions and plus/minus stats are relatively staggering when compared to the most-used lineups by the four other contenders.

Hill-George-Stephenson-West-Hibbert: 877 mins, +240, 1.10 scored, 0.96 allowed.
Westbrook-Sefolosha-KD-Ibaka-Perkins: 852.4 mins, +147, 1.10 scored, 1.01 allowed.
Chalmers-Wade-LBJ-Bosh-Haslem: 445 mins, +120, 1.14 scored, 1.01 allowed.
Parker-Green-Leonard-Splitter-Duncan: 222.8 mins, +104, 1.08 scored, 0.85 allowed.
Paul-Green-Butler-Griffin-Jordan: 519.2 mins,+73, 1.13 scored, 1.06 allowed.

(So yeah … LANCE STEPHENSON!!!!)

Luc Mbah a Moute (Bucks): 3 years, $13.8 million
Love watching this dude play defense, love listening to opposing announcers mangle his name. You gotta hand it to Bucks GM John Hammond:3 He made three bad signing mistakes (the Drew Gooden/John Salmons/Corey Maggette contracts) and somehow extricated himself from two of them. He bailed on Andrew Bogut’s contract at the perfect time. (Sorry, Warriors fans, it’s true.) He nailed three first-rounders in four years (Brandon Jennings at 10, Larry Sanders at 15 and John Henson at 14) and smartly traded down in a crappy 2011 draft from 10 (Jimmer Fredette) to 19 (Tobias Harris) while dumping Salmons in the process. Looking at their roster right now, they don’t have a single overpaid player except for Monta Ellis4 (probably bolting this summer) and Gooden (an amnesty candidate). Watch what happens this summer when Hammond flips Jennings (eligible for a big extension) for assets to some desperate team that wants to stupidly overpay him — it’s the same thing New Orleans should have done with Eric Gordon (and didn’t). More on this later.

Ryan Anderson (Hornets): 4 years, $34 million
It remains unclear why Orlando believed last summer that one of the league’s best shooters didn’t fit into its rebuilding strategy for a pretty fair price. On the bright side …

Tobias Harris (Magic): 4 years, $9.25 million
I remember watching the 20-year-old Harris look good in an early-November Bucks-Celtics game and thinking, Who the hell is Tobias Harris? Wasn’t he in that goofy Sacramento/Milwaukee/Charlotte trade that somehow made all three teams worse? Turned out it was his best game of the season — Scott Skiles buried him in December and that was that. Then he ended up being Orlando’s big haul in the Redick deal, and within 24 hours, the Magic were giving him Dwight Howard’s old number. Intriguing talent.

Isaiah Thomas (Kings): 2 years, $1.65 million
Left him off only because his minutes seem to ebb and flow depending on the month. Why can’t I shake the feeling that he’s simply a good stats/bad team guy? Actually, I just described everyone on the Kings.

Jared Dudley (Suns): 3 years, $12.75 million
Every summer and every February, the Smart Teams (a.k.a. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Oklahoma City) tried to fleece the bumbling Suns for Dudley, and after about the 47th time it happened, the bumbling Suns decided, “We must really have something here, the Smart Teams keep trying to trade for him!” So in a roundabout away, they’re overrating him — even though having Dudley on a lottery team is like hiring Tommy Lee Jones to play the fifth lead in an Adam Sandler movie. Dudley is a character actor. He should be the seventh man on a contender giving them elite shooting/energy/chemistry/fist-bumping/towel-waving/prolonged hugs — that’s his destiny, and that was always his destiny. And it will happen at some point. But you should never underestimate the sway of the Smart Teams. Every time they want someone, it inadvertently bumps up that player’s value.

And now, our best 16 bargains for the 2012-13 season …

16. Joakim Noah (Bulls): 4 years, $50.5 million
Fresh off the semi-historic 20-20-10 game Thursday night! Put it this way: His 2013 cap figure ($11.05 million) is less than Nene, Bogut and Emeka Okafor; significantly less than Dwight Howard; just about the same as DeAndre Jordan and JaVale McGee; and slightly over $3 million more than Kendrick Perkins. He’s a borderline steal. As an added bonus, he’s just about clinched the 2013 Bill Laimbeer Award as my least favorite Boston opponent unless Dwyane Wade tries to maim a Celtic between now and June. Don’t rule this out.

15. Danny Green (Spurs): 3 years, $11.3 million
I can’t remember a more polarizing trade in NBA nerd circles than Memphis dealing Rudy Gay for 50 cents on the dollar, nor can I remember personally having a weirder reaction to a deal — I came away from it thinking, the Grizzlies absolutely had to deal Gay, and Toronto absolutely had to grab him. Which makes no sense whatsoever. By dumping Gay’s deal for Tayshaun Prince (40 percent of Gay’s price) and young rebounder Ed Davis, Memphis was essentially saying, We’re building around Gasol, Z-Bo, Conley and a bunch of cheaper perimeter guys. I like that strategy, and here’s why: You can always find cheap perimeter guys who can defend and shoot 3s. Heck, look at this page so far. Notice the preponderance of cheap perimeter assets? They’re always kicking around.

And if you have the kind of system that rewards specific types of players — say, a long-armed defender who makes corner 3s, or a run-and-gun streak shooter — that’s even better. The Spurs realized after their Richard Jefferson catastrophe that they should never pay anyone eight figures other than Parker, Duncan and Ginobili — essentially, they decided to wager on their drafting (Kawhi Leonard) and waiver wire savvy (Green) for that position, hitting the jackpot twice.5 Maybe Memphis believed they could find more Danny Greens, and that the difference between what Gay was giving them (40 percent shooting, 30 percent from 3) wasn’t dramatically different than a past-his-prime Prince, or the two dozen role players and journeymen shooting 36 percent or better from 3 on this list or this one. Should it mean something that the Smart Teams plus Memphis (five of the premier advanced-metrics teams) all came to the same conclusion about overpaying perimeter guys who aren’t All-Stars? I say yes.

14. Rajon Rondo (Celtics): 3 years, $36 million
Would have finished much higher on this list before the torn ACL, obviously. Hey, am I the only Celtics fan who’s secretly holding out hope that Rondo will return for the 2013 playoffs because (a) he only has a partially torn ACL, (b) he might be an alien, and (c) if he IS an alien, an alien should be able to regenerate that ACL faster than a human would?

13. Omer Asik (Rockets): 3 years, $25.1 million
Let’s face it: Chicago blew it by not matching Houston’s poison-pill offer for Asik ($5 million this season, $5 million next season, $14.9 million in Year 3), then inking Taj Gibson to a four-year, $38 million extension (kicking in next season). Why not keep Asik and take care of Gibson next summer? Who was paying Gibson more than $38 million when his specific style fits Chicago better than any other team? This season he’s playing 22.2 minutes, giving them his usual stellar defense and averaging 7.7 points and 5.4 boards. Um … another team was breaking the bank for Gibson during an era when everyone is TERRIFIED of the luxury tax? Didn’t the Bulls out-think themselves?

Why not …

• Shell out $7.1 million in 2012-13 for Asik ($5 million) and Gibson ($2.1 million) instead of $4.9 million for Gibson and two lukewarm bodies (Nazr Mohammed and Vlad Radmanovic), then deal with Gibson’s extension after the season?

• Keep their options open with Asik and Gibson while seeing how Derrick Rose’s post-ACL progress is coming?

• Either bite the tax bullet and keep Asik AND Gibson (and amnesty Carlos Boozer after the season), or shop Asik before this season’s trade deadline for future assets? Like Houston wouldn’t have traded for him? Or the Lakers wouldn’t have been intrigued by an “Asik/Deng/Charlotte’s future no. 1 for Dwight Howard” offer?

The bigger point: If you’re a big-market contender, you can’t lose an asset for absolutely nothing. Just sell the team at that point. Why even own it? You’re gonna sweat out the luxury tax every year when you’re in Chicago, the third-biggest TV market in America and a city that could absolutely support two professional basketball teams? And yes, Asik is an asset. We didn’t need to see him thrive in Houston to realize that Omer Asik was good at basketball. Throw in his age (26) and I think Chicago blew this one. Try not to bring this up to Reggie Rose.

12. Konstantine Demetrios Koufos (Nuggets): 3 years, $9 million
I don’t totally trust per-36-minute stats because they reward bench guys who can play their asses off for two eight-minute stretches over someone who knows he has to pace himself for 36 to 40 minutes, night after night, for somewhere between six and eight straight months (depending on playoffs). Having said that, Denver bumped Koufos’s numbers to 23 minutes a night, with his per-36-minute numbers holding nicely: 12.7 points, 10.3 boards, 2.2 blocks, 60% FG. He’s one of those old-school big guys who know where to go and what to do, rarely if ever trying anything outside his expertise. He’s also the MVP of the “Should I Check My Hair Before I Go Out for Warm-ups? Nahhhhhhh … ” Team.

11. Nikola Vucevic (Magic): 4 years, $10.6 million
It was funny to hear Doug Collins mention how much he missed the 22-year-old rebounding stud during Tuesday night’s bitch session when (a) Collins held so much sway over Philly’s front office that their top two GM candidates backed out last summer because they didn’t want to battle him (so for him to pretend that he had nothing to do with the Andrew Bynum trade was disingenuous at best), and (b) he absolutely BURIED Vucevic during the 2012 playoffs for reasons that remain unclear. (See Zach Lowe’s Philly shredding for all the gory details.) And yes, Orlando somehow winning the Dwight Howard three-way trade might have supplanted “USA 4, USSR 3″ as the biggest sports upset of all time.

10. Ray Allen (Heat): 2 years, $6.3 million
9. Shane Battier (Heat): 2 years, $6.4 million

Battier has become a goofy litmus test for Miami’s success/failure; when he’s nailing 3s, they’re just about unstoppable. (Check out his numbers in wins versus losses, and check out his numbers during February’s 12-game win streak. He’s like their good-luck charm.) As for Allen, he might murder them defensively, but his clutch shooting makes up for it. NBA.com’s tremendous new stats page tells us that, in crunch-time situations (close games, five minutes or less), Allen is 20th in points (70), first in 3s (13) and first in field goal percentage of any top-25 scorer (52.5 percent). In other words, he’s having a typical Ray Allen season. TRAITOR! TRAITOR! TRAITOR! I apologize, I couldn’t stop my fingers there for a couple of seconds.

The bigger point: These Allen/Battier contracts should absolutely be considered part of LeBron’s 2013 MVP candidacy. He’s so good that he convinced two killer role players to play with him for SEVERE discounts. Take that, Kevin Durant.

8. Greivis Vasquez (Hornets): 3 years, $6.5 million
Remember that crazy Salary Cap Fantasy League I wrote about 15 months ago? I ended up joining it this year as my buddy Chen’s co-owner. We made our first trade one week into the season, a trade that I pushed hard for … that’s right, Greivis Vasquez straight-up for Klay Thompson.

(Gulp.)

The thinking behind it: Thompson started out slow (so we were buying low), and Vasquez was a flash in the pan who would lose minutes when Eric Gordon came back (so we were selling high). Whoops.6 I’d add a “The lesson, as always: Maybe I shouldn’t be a GM” joke here, but we already learned that during the 2011 draft when I made fun of Cleveland for taking Kyrie Irving over Derrick Williams.

7. Chandler Parsons (Rockets): 3 years, $2.78 million
When Dork Elvis dealt a former lottery pick (Morris Twin X) to Phoenix for a future second-round pick, on the surface it seemed like a salary/minutes dump. But was it? The Rockets were betting on their history of finding second-round gems (Carl Landry, Chase Budinger and Parsons), as well as the upside that comes with locking down a potential rotation guy at an absurdly cheap price.

Our 17 best second-rounders since 2006: Paul Millsap, Steve Novak, Carl Landry, Glen Davis, Marc Gasol, Ramon Sessions, Nikola Pekovic, DeAndre Jordan, Omer Asik, Goran Dragic, Marcus Thornton, Chase Budinger, Danny Green, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Singler, Chandler Parsons and Isaiah Thomas. Including Novak (whom they waived eventually), the Rockets somehow landed four of them. Thanks to Phoenix, they’ll be picking in the mid-30s this June looking for a fifth winner. Why wouldn’t the Suns have just kept the pick and tried to play those same second-round odds? Because they had to reunite the Morris Twins! Look, everyone, we have twins! These guys look exactly alike!!!! COME SEE THE TWINS!!!!!!!

6. Marc Gasol (Grizzlies): 3 years, $44.6 million
He’s the best all-around center in basketball, as well as a charter member of the “Man, That Guy Looks Like He’d Be Fun to Play Hoops With” All-Stars, so anything less than the max automatically vaults him into our top six.

The bigger question: Where does he rank on the list of siblings who improbably flipped the script and became more successful than their famous brother or sister (or as I dubbed this in 2005, The Shue Phenomenon)? And is this a momentary blip (like with Charlie Murphy, Andrew Shue or Kevin Dillon)? Will Pau someday regain dominant sibling status like Elisabeth Shue did? Or is this the new reality — like how Serena Williams eventually became the dominant Williams sister, or Jason Bateman assumed control of the Bateman family, or that one Klitschko brother became the dominant Klitschko brother over the other Klitschko brother even as we continued to be unable to tell them apart?

5. Al Horford (Hawks): 4 years, $48 million
He signed a five-year, $60 million extension in November of 2010, so we’re only in Year 2 of what almost immediately became a doozy of a bargain for the Hawks. He’s the league’s 41st highest-paid player right now, earning significantly less than peers like Pau Gasol, Zach Randolph and Chris Bosh. Carlos Boozer and Al Jefferson make 25 percent more per year than Horford does. Heck, Kris Humphries makes as much per year as Horford does.

Quick tangent: I understand why players gravitate toward grabbing guaranteed money over just rolling things over and betting on themselves in the open market. I do. Just understand that it’s the best possible way for a team to pay discount prices for an All-Star … as long as you’re betting on the right guy (Rondo, Horford, Noah, Ibaka, Holiday or Curry) and not the wrong guy (like $50 million for Andrea Bargnani).

Flipping that around: You might remember Roy Hibbert, Nic Batum and Eric Gordon passing up extensions and betting on themselves as restricted free agents. What happened last summer? Hibbert and Gordon landed max deals; Batum landed $46.5 million over four years. Expect the same good fortune for Brandon Jennings this summer — back in October, he only wanted the same numbers that Holiday and Curry were getting, Milwaukee balked, and now he’s headed into the open market as a possible max guy during a piss-poor summer for marquee free agents. Should Jennings make more than Ibaka or Lawson?

(Hold on, I have to find my cap locks key. Give me one second here.)

NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! NO, A THOUSAND TIMES NO NO NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You can’t give the max or even anything close to the max to a shoot-first point guard who makes 40 percent of his shots, especially if it’s someone who undeniably hurts his teams in crunch time. Of the 25 players who took the most “clutch” shots so far this season (close games, three minutes or less), Jennings has the second-worst field goal percentage (27.3 percent) and is tied for the fourth-most turnovers (nine). During the 2011-12 season, he took the fifth-most clutch shots (63) and made the lowest percentage of anyone in the top 25 (20.6 percent). During the 2010-11 season, he had the lowest “clutch” field goal percentage (25 percent) of anyone in the top 20 not named “DeMarcus Cousins” (a rookie that year). Really, he should be making Mike Conley/Goran Dragic/Jeremy Lin money (something like $8 million a year), but as they say in auctions, it only takes two dummies to drive up someone’s price. No offense to Brandon Jennings, but I can’t wait to make fun of the team that gives him $58 million over four years. And it WILL happen. (End tangent.)

4. Kevin Garnett (Celtics), 3 years, $36 million
3. Tim Duncan (Spurs): 3 years, $30.4 million

You know what’s amazing about these guys other than the stuff you already knew was amazing? It’s Year 18 for Garnett and Year 16 for Duncan, although Duncan is older by 3.5 weeks (they’re both 36). Including playoffs, they’ve logged over 100,000 minutes combined already. They played 40 minutes a night at their peaks; now they play 30 minutes a night. But check out their per-36-minute numbers for this season and their careers as a whole.

Duncan, 2013: 20.3 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 3.2 APG, 4.2 SBPG,7 49% FG, 81% FT, 23.8 PER
Duncan, career: 20.6 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 3.1 APG, 3.1 SBPG , 51% FG, 69% FT, 24.7 PER
Garnett, 2013: 17.9 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.5 SBPG, 50% FG, 78% FT, 19.4 PER
Garnett, career: 19.0 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.8 SBPG, 50% FG, 79% FT, 23.2 PER

Isn’t that crazy? They’re playing 25 percent less, but with little to no difference in per-minute efficiency and no real signs of decline. Even better, they took hometown discounts so their teams could build around them a little more easily. You know, like what Kobe did with the Lakers — only the exact opposite.

(Sorry, I had to.)

2. Tony Parker (Spurs): 3 years, $37.5 million
I’m a humongous Parker fan. I love watching him do his thing. I love the camaraderie between Duncan, Popovich, Parker and Ginobili — they’ve been together so long that it’s almost like watching one of those great married couples that make you say, “Wow, those two really like each other,” only in this case, it’s “those four.” I don’t believe the Spurs are even remotely boring, and anyone who says that doesn’t actually like basketball. I believe the Spurs have been the best NBA team through four months, and that Parker has been their most valuable player — like Chris Paul with the Clippers, Parker is a Formula One driver operating a machine that was specifically built for him. (Other people could drive it, but nobody drives it like him.) And I believe Parker should be making $18-20 million a year like the other franchise guys, so locking him down for $12.5 million for this season and the next two … I mean … that’s highway robbery. But he’s not the MVP, and anyone who argues that is just being silly.

1. LeBron James (Heat): 2 years, $36.6 million
Here’s your MVP. Actually, this is always your MVP, as long as he’s playing 39 minutes a night, slapping up 27-8-8s, shooting 55 percent, playing four positions and defending the other team’s best guy. Just stop. Stop bringing up anyone else. He’s the greatest player in 20 years.

For the purposes of this column: If the NBA operated with an open market like baseball does, and teams could spend whatever they wanted without any real fear of the luxury tax, then LeBron would earn more than four times what he’s making right now. You heard me … $75 million per season. That’s not a misprint. The Lakers, Knicks and Nets would pay him that without blinking. Think of what you’re getting: He drives up your courtside prices, your suite prices, your cable ratings (Miami’s jumped 34 percent last season) and your sponsorship packages; he makes you the league’s most relevant franchise; he guarantees you 10-12 playoff home games every year; and oh yeah, you might win a few championships, too.

And actually, that $75 million number might be low. Once a year, Forbes magazine breaks down the team value of every NBA franchise. This year’s report was especially fascinating — Forbes reported that the average value of the 30 teams had risen to $509 million, a 30 percent increase from last year, saying that “the increase is due to higher revenue from television, new and renovated arenas, and the NBA’s new collective-bargaining agreement, which reduced player costs from 57% of revenues to roughly 50%.” Translation: The owners didn’t just beat the players in that last lockout; they trounced them like it was one of those Cowboys-Bills Super Bowls.

Anyway, in 2009, Forbes valued the Cavaliers at $476 million and the Heat at $364 million. Four years later, they valued the Cavaliers at $434 million … and the Heat at $625 million. Gee, I wonder what changed.

(LeBron James, you deserve a raise. A massive one. Just know that you won’t get it.)

Filed Under: NBA, Series, Sports, The Sports Guy

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

Archive @ BillSimmons

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