On Monday, we looked at the most cost-effective players in the league. It's a list dominated by youth, with a smattering of veteran free agents from the bargain bin mixed in. When you look at the other end of the cost-effectiveness spectrum, a different type dominates: the veteran scoring star.
Ignoring players who have missed the whole season -- and those are the truly least cost-effective players -- a pattern emerges. Of the 10 least cost-effective players in the NBA this season who have played at least 40 games, four are in their 30s. All but two of the top 10 averaged 20 points per game at least once in their careers before signing their current contracts. And veteran scorers sure aren't cheap.
Here's the 10 least cost-effective stars who have played at least 40 games this season. As with Monday's piece, all data is from Basketball-Reference and current as of March 10. The caveats are that non-box score defense is undercounted and that I made no adjustments for anything. "Ringz" is not a category for which I gave a boost. We just take the production (using a modified version of Hollinger's PER), multiply by the league's average dollars per unit of production and compare it to actual salaries. And we come up with ...
1. Joe Johnson, Nets, worth $8.8 million, paid $19.7 million, deficit of $10.8 million
2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers, worth $17.3 million, paid $27.8 million, deficit of $10.5 million
3. Richard Jefferson, Warriors, worth $1.5 million, paid $10.5 million, deficit of $8.6 million
4. Kris Humphries, Nets, worth $3.4 million, paid $12 million, deficit of $8.6 million
5. Dwight Howard, Lakers, worth $10.9 million, paid $19.5 million, deficit of $8.6 million
6. Andris Biedrins, Warriors, worth $949,000, paid $9 million, deficit of $8 million
7. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks, worth $12.4 million, paid $20.4 million, deficit of $8 million
8. Stephen Jackson, Spurs, worth $2.2 million, paid $10 million, deficit of $7.8 million
10. Ben Gordon, Bobcats, worth $5.1 million, paid $12.4 million, deficit of $7.2 million
Biedrins and Hump are the only two without 20-point-per-game seasons on their previous contracts. Jefferson, 'Melo, Gay and Gordon were known almost exclusively as scorers before signing their current massive contracts; Johnson (playmaking) and Kobe (defense) did other things, too, but were most notorious for their scoring. Biedrins is wildly overpaid primarily because he is ridiculously unproductive, and Hump is a special case. (Asterisk: Prokhorov.) Howard is a recent MVP candidate having (until the past few weeks) a poor season. Jackson was a reputed scorer but also one of the league's more hyped defenders when he signed his current deal.
I like to think that 10 years ago the least cost-effective list would have been littered with more unproductive big men. Now, seven out of the 10 are wings. (There are a few more big men in this range who didn't meet the games requirement.)
Age has an undeniable impact here for two reasons. As players like Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Bryant, Johnson and Jackson get older, they lose their ability to produce at high levels. Contracts don't typically account for that -- teams pay for the downside so they ensure they can also get the prime. Johnson's contract is an example: the Hawks signed J.J. looking at about two more years of the star's prime and four years of career twilight. To them, getting the first two was worth paying for the last four. That they found a sucker team to take on those four years is a bonus. (And of course, the Nets made the case to themselves that the first couple years of their J.J. experience would be worth paying for likely less production on the backend of that deal.)
Speaking of which: Amar'e Stoudemire. He didn't meet the 40-game cut-off for the above list. If you double his games played and by extension his production this season (bringing him to 58 games) ... he would be No. 3 on this list, with a deficit of $10.3 million. There are also two big men who have each played more than 30 games and would be high on the list if they met the cut-off: Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. Pau may not be a surprise. But Dirk? Yep.
The other reason age plays a factor is because of the way NBA contracts are structured. With the rookie scale and limitations on players' second contracts -- no more than 25 percent of the cap except when the Rose Rule is invoked -- veterans always have the fattest contracts. So with giant contracts, of course they'll be more likely to be less cost-effective in the aggregate. Players making less than $7 million can't even compete with this crew.
But if we change the measure from total value deficit to highest cost per unit of production, you get a different list, and one highly dependent on games and minutes played. For all players with at least 10 games played, Hedo Turkoglu is the least cost-effective player, costing $733,000 per unit of production. (League average cost is about $14,000 per unit.) With at least 20 games played, it's DeSagana Diop, who costs $255,000 per unit of production. If you make the cut-off 30, 40 or 50 games, Biedrins is your leader at a per-unit cost of $132,000, almost 10 times the league average. At the 30-game level, Jefferson, Jared Jeffries, Jason Collins and Daequan Cook follow. At the 40-game level, it's Biedrins, Jefferson, Stephen Jackson, Humphries and Mike Miller. At the 50-game level you have Biedrins, Hump, Gordon, Joe Johnson and Lamar Odom.
To put Johnson's contract in perspective, his per-unit cost is only a little more than twice league average. He produces a lot. But he's supremely expensive.
And that gets to a central issue in all of this: Sometimes, it's okay to not be cost-effective.
Remember, in Monday's piece looking at the most cost-effective players in the league, we found a dearth of stars. The "stars" of cost-effectiveness are all role players. Again, much of this is due to how contracts work: young players have more salary restrictions than older players. But it's also how the market works, and how teams are built: you go after stars you will be lots and lots of money for, then you augment with cost-effective pieces. You just need to end up with the right stars and the right role players. It proves more difficult for some GMs than others.
So in no way would you look at the list at the top of this list and ascertain that Kobe is not worth his deal. His production is worth a ton. To sign all of that production at this point, you have to pay a premium. That's the cost, and other teams would gladly pay it. Unless you can replace all of that production -- which only a couple players provide right now -- you're going to lose it if you refuse to pay. With players other than Kobe, this is where the trade market comes in. Do you spend a premium to get Kobe's elite production, or do you decide you can break up that $27 million in pieces that produce in the aggregate at Kobe's level? That is basically the basis of NBA personnel economics: Deciding how exactly to spend a somewhat fixed level of resources on production.
Again, we'll readdress this whole discipline when free agency approaches.