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Value in the NBA: Who Are the Real MVPs?

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In the second installment of our offseason exploration of the concept of "value", we answer these questions: Which players were the best values in the NBA in 2015-16? Which were the worst values?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Be sure to check out our Giannis-centric bonus post later this afternoon!

(If you're not up to speed, check out the series introduction here.)

Mitchell: Last time, we talked all about which teams have gotten the best value overall. This time, we turn up the magnification and zoom in on the individual players that make up those teams, and try to see which NBA players are truly the most valuable. To frame the conversation, let's revisit one of the key points from our team-centric post:

...at its core, value is comparing what you get to what you spent; if you spend less to get something, you got better value than someone else who spent more for the same thing. For this exercise, win shares (WS) are what we're buying, actual wins are what win shares convert to, and salary ($) is what we're spending.

So let's get to it: who was the best bang for your buck in the NBA last year? Which players provided the most value (in terms of WS) for their salary?

We need to take a few extra steps to ask that question. Because of the wide ranges of both WS and salary figures for players, we need to make sure there's a common factor applied to everybody. Fortunately, we already determined that in 2016, 1.0 player WS = $1.93m salary, so the groundwork is already set.

To determine a player's value, we're going to first set the benchmark at the league average WS value, which is fixed at $1.93m. This is our official baseline; anyone above this mark is a net-positive, and anyone below is a net-negative. Then, we take their 2015-16 salary and divide it by their season WS total, which gives us each player's Individual WS Value, or how much they effectively were paid for each 1.0 WS produced. A low dollar figure in this area is a good thing, because the team effectively paid less than average for that player's production, and the player provided a surplus in salary terms.

Finally, we calculate the difference between a player's Individual WS Value and the aforementioned league average WS value. This gives us the player's WS Value Differential, which is the dollar amount "extra" that they produced against what was "expected", based on their salary. Good-value players will have a very high differential, whereas poor-value players will be lower, including going negative. With all that said, here are the top-35 players (ranked by total WS, sorted by WS Value Differential) from 2016:

Player 2015-16 Salary WS Individual WS Value WS Value Differential
Hassan Whiteside $981,348 10.3 $95,277 $1,833,939
Giannis Antetokounmpo $1,953,960 7.1 $275,206 $1,654,010
Andre Drummond $3,272,091 7.4 $442,174 $1,487,042
Damian Lillard $4,236,287 9.2 $460,466 $1,468,750
Stephen Curry $11,370,786 17.9 $635,239 $1,293,977
Karl-Anthony Towns $5,703,600 8.3 $687,181 $1,242,035
Isaiah Thomas $6,912,869 9.7 $712,667 $1,216,549
Jae Crowder $6,000,000 7.3 $821,918 $1,107,298
Marvin Williams $7,000,000 7.8 $897,436 $1,031,780
DeMar DeRozan $9,500,000 9.9 $959,596 $969,620
Anthony Davis $7,070,730 7.2 $982,046 $947,170
Kyle Lowry $12,000,000 11.6 $1,034,483 $894,733
Pau Gasol $7,448,760 7.1 $1,049,121 $880,095
James Harden $15,756,438 13.3 $1,184,695 $744,521
Russell Westbrook $16,744,218 14.0 $1,196,016 $733,200
Kawhi Leonard $16,500,000 13.7 $1,204,380 $724,836
Kemba Walker $12,000,000 9.9 $1,212,121 $717,095
Al Horford $12,000,000 9.4 $1,276,596 $652,620
Draymond Green $14,300,000 11.1 $1,288,288 $640,928
Kevin Durant $20,158,622 14.5 $1,390,250 $538,966
Marcin Gortat $11,217,391 7.3 $1,536,629 $392,587
Tristan Thompson $14,260,870 8.7 $1,639,180 $290,036
Jimmy Butler $15,260,000 9.1 $1,676,923 $252,293
Derrick Favors $11,933,333 7.1 $1,680,751 $248,465
LeBron James $22,971,000 13.6 $1,689,044 $240,172
Chris Paul $21,468,696 12.7 $1,690,449 $238,767
DeAndre Jordan $19,500,000 11.5 $1,695,652 $233,564
Gordon Hayward $15,409,570 8.9 $1,731,412 $197,804
Paul George $17,120,106 9.2 $1,860,881 $68,335
Paul Millsap $19,000,000 10.1 $1,881,188 $48,028
LaMarcus Aldridge $19,500,000 10.1 $1,930,693 -$1,477
Klay Thompson $15,500,000 8.0 $1,937,500 -$8,284
Enes Kanter $16,400,000 8.1 $2,024,691 -$95,475
Greg Monroe $16,400,000 7.5 $2,186,667 -$257,451
Kevin Love $19,500,000 8.5 $2,294,118 -$364,902

When it comes to pure production, there are some familiar faces on this list, including stars like Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Kevin Durant. Interestingly enough, the superstars of the league don't populate the very top of the WS Value Differential rankings, showing that there is a sort of diminished return to be expected from a max contract. It appears that at a certain price point, it's less likely for a player to return equal value (as we've defined it through the lens of win shares).

We can see that the tops of the WS Value Differential chart belongs to the players who vastly overproduced relative to their salary. Some of the highlights include Hassan Whiteside, Damian Lillard, Karl Anthony-Towns...and our very own Giannis Antetokounmpo. These are players who may not have been in the top 10% in terms of overall production, but the fact that they contributed to so many wins while making far less than their superstar counterparts illustrates just how valuable they are to their teams.

Thoughts (from Eric):

  • There is some sort of strange symbolism reflecting the changes in the game with three slow-footed, offense-first bigs that struggle on defense rounding out the bottom of this list, right?
  • The Steph Curry contract remains the greatest deal in basketball by such a large margin. It's just unfair to be able to pay the league's first ever unanimous MVP that little.
  • There are a lot of guys on the top of this list that are about to get paid considerably more next season. Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard, Marvin Williams, Demar DeRozan, Anthony Davis, and Pau Gasol will only appear on next year's list if they get perform better next season. Scary stuff for a number of the teams that signed them to their respective contracts.
  • How lucky are the Milwaukee Bucks? Barring injury (or any other catastrophic events), it seems pretty safe to assume that Giannis Antetokounmpo will appear near the top of this list again next season with even just a modest improvement in Win Shares. That's pretty cool.
  • Karl-Anthony Towns was disgustingly effective for a rookie. (Remember: rookies are bad at basketball.)

Mitchell: Shifting focus now, let's take a different look at the population of the league, and see which players that are more on the margins provide value. This time we'll look at the entire NBA (regardless of WS production) and rank them by Individual WS Value (where lower numbers are better), then sorting again by WS Value Differential:

Player 2015-16 Salary WS Individual WS Value WS Value Differential
Hassan Whiteside $981,348 10.3 $95,277 $1,833,939
Tim Frazier $144,157 1.2 $120,131 $1,809,085
Rudy Gobert $1,175,880 6.4 $183,731 $1,745,485
Nikola Jokic $1,300,000 6.7 $194,030 $1,735,186
Joe Johnson (MIA) $414,481 2.0 $207,241 $1,721,976
Josh Richardson $525,093 2.5 $210,037 $1,719,179
Allen Crabbe $947,276 4.3 $220,297 $1,708,919
Rodney Hood $1,348,440 6.0 $224,740 $1,704,476
Mason Plumlee $1,415,520 6.1 $232,052 $1,697,164
Gorgui Dieng $1,474,440 5.9 $249,905 $1,679,311
Langston Galloway $845,059 3.3 $256,078 $1,673,138
Jonathon Simmons $525,093 2.0 $262,547 $1,666,670
Dwight Powell $845,059 3.1 $272,600 $1,656,616
Giannis Antetokounmpo $1,953,960 7.1 $275,206 $1,654,010
T.J. McConnell $525,093 1.9 $276,365 $1,652,851
David West $1,499,000 5.4 $277,593 $1,651,623
Clint Capela $1,242,720 4.4 $282,436 $1,646,780
Michael Beasley $306,527 1.0 $306,527 $1,622,689
Cole Aldrich $1,100,600 3.5 $314,457 $1,614,759
JaMychal Green $845,059 2.6 $325,023 $1,604,193
Kyle Anderson $1,142,879 3.5 $326,537 $1,602,679
Jason Thompson $328,955 1.0 $328,955 $1,600,261
Steven Adams $2,279,040 6.5 $350,622 $1,578,594
Jordan Clarkson $845,059 2.4 $352,108 $1,577,108
Boban Marjanovic $1,200,000 3.4 $352,941 $1,576,275
Andre Roberson $1,210,800 3.4 $356,118 $1,573,098
Jon Leuer $1,035,000 2.7 $383,333 $1,545,883
Tarik Black $845,059 2.2 $384,118 $1,545,098
Quincy Acy $981,348 2.5 $392,539 $1,536,677
Dewayne Dedmon $947,278 2.4 $394,699 $1,534,517
Evan Fournier $2,288,205 5.7 $401,439 $1,527,777
Jerami Grant $845,059 2.1 $402,409 $1,526,807
Salah Mejri $525,093 1.3 $403,918 $1,525,298
Norman Powell $650,000 1.6 $406,250 $1,522,966
Garrett Temple $1,100,602 2.7 $407,630 $1,521,586

Once again, Hassan Whiteside is the league-leader in this sort, because he was insanely productive while making near the league minimum. Not bad for a guy drafted and cut by Sacramento, then spending time in the D League and in Lebanon before returning to the NBA. Our guy Giannis appears on this list too, as well as other standout young players like Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, Evan Fournier, and Steven Adams.

Again, these findings aren't going to shake the foundations of our understanding of the NBA. It's perfectly reasonable (if not obvious) that productive players are good to have, and paying them less than what their production is worth is better (as it frees up salary to pay to other players). But looking past that, this second sort shows a list of players who are either cheap, solid veterans (who are good to have) or productive up-and-comers who might be coming due for a big payday.

Thoughts (from Eric):

  • Would you feel good or bad about your team if they paid A LOT of money on one of the guys on this list? I literally could not keep myself from going up and down the list, reading names, and asking myself that question over and over again.
  • It's fascinating to look at this list and see players that I think are very good and probably on the young side, but also guys that are just paid very little.
  • Finding a player that performs well on a really cheap contract is such a boost to a roster. It continues to make selling second round picks in back-to-back seasons very painful. You don't even need to be good at drafting in the second round because it's obviously difficult. You just need to hit on one of every five or so second rounders.
  • When veteran players take a discount to try to get a ring (cough...David West...cough) and actually perform well, it is really unfair.

Mitchell: This project, though, is not all about who was the most valuable. We still want to talk about the list of players I'm the most excited about: the LVPs!

If one side of the spectrum shows players who massively outperformed their contracts, that means that there's a whole other side where players were paid to not meet the role average, but fall short of it. Very, very...very short. If you're in any way considered a "hater", this list is for you!

Without further ado, here are the 35 NBA players who provided the worst value in 2015-16, based on their salary and actual WS production:

Player 2015-16 Salary WS Individual WS Value WS Value Differential
Kobe Bryant $25,000,000 0.2 $5,000,000 -$21,929,216
Roy Hibbert $15,500,000 0.0 $0 -$17,429,216
Derrick Rose $20,093,063 0.4 $8,037,225 -$13,985,054
JaVale McGee $12,000,000 0.0 $0 -$13,929,216
Wilson Chandler $10,500,000 0.0 $0 -$12,429,216
Gerald Wallace $10,105,855 0.0 $0 -$12,035,071
Anderson Varejao $9,638,554 0.0 $0 -$11,567,770
Joakim Noah $13,400,000 1.1 $12,181,818 -$10,252,602
Joe Johnson (BRK) $24,894,863 0.7 $17,426,404 -$9,397,675
Ty Lawson $12,404,495 0.4 $4,961,798 -$9,371,913
DeMarre Carroll $13,500,000 1.2 $11,250,000 -$9,320,784
Lou Williams $7,000,000 0.0 $0 -$8,929,216
Emmanuel Mudiay $3,102,240 -2.1 -$6,514,704 -$8,443,920
Jodie Meeks $6,270,000 0.1 $627,000 -$7,572,216
Martell Webster $5,613,500 0.0 $0 -$7,542,716
Deron Williams $5,500,000 0.0 $0 -$7,429,216
Josh Smith $5,400,000 0.0 $0 -$7,329,216
D'Angelo Russell $5,103,120 0.0 $0 -$7,032,336
Joel Embiid $4,626,960 0.0 $0 -$6,556,176
Kris Humphries $4,600,000 0.0 $0 -$6,529,216
Chris Kaman $5,000,000 0.1 $500,000 -$6,429,216
Tyreke Evans $11,227,000 1.4 $8,019,286 -$6,090,070
Kevin Garnett $8,500,000 1.1 $7,727,273 -$5,798,057
Dante Exum $3,777,720 0.0 $0 -$5,706,936
Steve Novak $3,750,000 0.0 $0 -$5,679,216
Anthony Bennett $3,650,000 0.0 $0 -$5,579,216
Lance Stephenson $9,000,000 1.2 $7,500,000 -$5,570,784
Eric Gordon $15,514,031 2.1 $7,387,634 -$5,458,418
Markieff Morris $8,000,000 1.1 $7,272,727 -$5,343,511
Quincy Pondexter $3,382,023 0.0 $0 -$5,311,239
Ersan Ilyasova $7,900,000 1.1 $7,181,818 -$5,252,602
Drew Gooden $3,300,000 0.0 $0 -$5,229,216
Brandon Knight $12,000,000 1.7 $7,058,824 -$5,129,608
Marco Belinelli $6,333,333 0.5 $3,166,667 -$5,095,883
Brandon Bass $3,000,000 0.0 $0 -$4,929,216

Man, oh man. This list is FULL of fun names, isn't it? Kobe Bryant's gargantuan dumpster fire of a contract leads the way. Two of the Knicks' big offseason acquisitions, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, are up there. Roy Hibbert, who was a DPOY candidate not too long ago, is way up there. As you go down the list, you see disappointment after disappointment, some due to injury, others due to flat-out not good-ness.

Interestingly enough, there are two popular former Milwaukee Bucks who make this list: Brandon Knight and Ersan Ilyasova. Those who contended that they weren't worth their respective contracts might feel validated, especially since the only current(?) Buck on the list is Steve Novak, who played only 4 games in Milwaukee.

This list is a constant reminder of what a bad contract can do to your team, and why value is so important. After all, salary spent on someone who doesn't produce is lost; you can't spend that money on someone better while the first dude is under contract. And if you want to get out from under that deal, you have to take the L on a trade, or take the L and waive him, or find a creative solution that is less bad than the alternatives.

Thoughts (from Eric):

  • Injuries, man. Injuries. This list is littered with guys that missed a number of games because of injury and thus became significantly less valuable. The basketball gods need to cut it out with the injuries.
  • Kobe and the LOLakers.
  • I loved seeing "Joe Johnson, Brooklyn" on this list and "Joe Johnson, Miami" on the previous list.
  • If I had to guess, the Wolves were completely okay with seeing Garnett show up on this list. Obviously, they would have loved for him to performed a little bit better on the court, but I'm sure they are just fine with some of the more intangible things he provided to the Wolves young core.
  • I am surprised and offended that Mitchell did not refer to (or even mention) Drew Gooden when he brought up popular former Milwaukee Bucks.