The top 10 underpaid NBA studs

Operating under the current collective bargaining agreement it almost seems like a fairy tale now, but once upon a time player salaries in the NBA became dangerously fragmented, driving a widening gap between the leagues’ have’s and the have not’s. Not too long ago, if you remember, star players like Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett were racking up 5 or 6 year deals with salaries totaling well north of $100 million dollars, while the prosperity gap between a handful of All-Stars and the rest of the NBA’s players was expanding at an alarming rate.

Of course, as history tells us, recognizing that his league’s financials were completely out of whack, David Stern, the forward-thinking uber-commish that he is, in collusion with the league’s owners terminated the ill-fated 1995 collective bargaining agreement and locked out the league and its players in 1998 for a record seven months, or 191 days. The shortened season and a whopping $400 million lost in player salaries as a result of the lockout caused the NBA Players’ Association and its members to blink. The result was a brand new seven-year Collective Bargaining Agreement that led to a hard limit on maximum salaries, an extended rookie wage scale, a reduction in year-over-year percentage salary increase in a multi-year contract, the implementation of the mid-level salary exemption and later the institution of a luxury tax. The net result, as Stern and the NBA owners had anticipated, has been the gradual elimination of outrageously high star salaries and a more redistributed pay scale creating a more balanced salary structure.

The history lesson is to set up the point that the new CBA has done what countless accountants couldn’t get the NBA’s owners to do, which is set up a tiered performance and tenure-based pay scale. Since star players won’t hog payrolls under the current CBA, most owners are no longer overpaying relatively marginal players like Juwan Howard, for example. Given the relative fiscal frugality in today’s NBA it’s no surprise that there are a growing number of top-talent bargains to be found on NBA rosters.

We had a change to look at the overpaid duds in a recent post, but how about the top 10 underpaid studs?

10. Ron Artest: Sure he’s crazier than Britney Spears, but it’s tough to argue against the 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals that Artest put up last year. At least the Maloofs don’t have to dig too deep into their casino profits to pay for Artest’s economical $7,800,000 for the coming season – after which swingin’ Ronnie Artest can opt out of his deal and seek equitable compensation.

9. Bruce Bowen: Hate him, or despise him, you have to admit that Bowen is a critical part of the Spurs championship team. Without Bowen around to at least bother players like Kobe and T-Mac, the Spurs defense doesn’t look as solid. So, to retain Bowen at the $4,125,000 that the team will pay him for the 2007/2008 season is a pretty sweet deal for San Antonio – and, we’re sure they’re ecstatic about the 3 additional seasons left on Bowen’s contract at around that thrifty price.

8. TayShaun Prince: Anytime you can get All-Star caliber player at a yearly salary of around $8 million, you’ve done your job as a GM. In the immortal words of rapper Big Daddy Kane, Pistons’ GM Joe Dumars sure does “get the job done.” Dumars will be paying All-Star Prince $8,675,620 next year with 3 additional seasons remaining on his contract at around that same price.

7. David West: This Hornet is only 27 years old, going into the prime of his career, and is coming off a season where he averaged 18.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. So, any idiot can see that his value should only go up over the next few seasons, right? Funny thing is that his salary is going to do the opposite. West will make $10,650,000 this coming season, but over the subsequent 4 seasons his salary will actually decrease, ending up at a relatively low $7,525,000 in the final season. It’s called a front-loaded contract boys and girls, and the Hornets were pretty smart to sign West to one wouldn’t you say?

6. Gilbert Arenas: “Agent 0” won’t be a bargain for long, because as soon as he opts out of his contract following this season his salary should balloon to the $18 - $20 million range. In the meantime, the world’s most famous Halo 3 player will lace it up for a bargain price of $11,946,667. We thought we’d get Arenas on our list now, before his pending jackpot contract takes him out of the realm of the underpaid.

5. Caron Butler: Once again an All-Star who doesn’t quite make All-Star dough – a perfect fit for our underpaid list. Butler, who was first traded for Shaquille O’Neal and then traded for Kwame Brown (try to make sense of that logic), deserves more than the $8,218,990 he will make next season. To top it off, Butler has 3 years left beyond next year, so, given his stellar game on both ends of the floor, he should remain a staple on the underpaid list for quite some time.

4. Emanuel Ginobili: It probably says something about San Antonio management that there are two Spurs on our underpaid list. Ginobili is a special player, and on a Spurs team that’s generally devoid of emotion he brings that much needed passion, hustle and fire. So to get Ginobili’s services for a paltry $9,075,000 for the upcoming season with 2 additional years left on his deal shows solid negotiating on San Antonio’s part.

3. Gerald Wallace: Last season, Wallace averaged 18.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2 steals, while shooting a scorching 50 percent from the floor. This preseason, he has been even hotter, averaging 21.7 points per game, despite the addition of high-scorer Jason Richardson to the Bobcats roster. And to top it all off, Wallace is only 25 years old and going into his prime. Let’s just say that Bobcats part owner Michael Jordan is exorcising the demons of picking Kwame Brown with the first pick, by getting a bargain basement deal of $7,500,000 for Wallace’s services.

2. David Lee: Lee averaged a double-double 10.7 points and 10.4 rebounds last year, and he’s set to make only $990,600 this coming season? Are you kidding us? That has to be, by far, the lowest dollars per rebound total in the NBA. The Knicks have a team option on Lee’s contract for the 2008/2009 and a qualifying offer for the 2009/2010 season, so he could be on underpaid lists for some time. Given all of the other bloated contracts on the roster, good karma has to find the Knicks at some point right?

1. Steve Nash: He is 33 years old, listed at 6’3” (probably closer to 6’1”) and a scant 195 pounds, and looks more like a surfer than a NBA player. Despite all that he’s a two-time NBA MVP and one of the top 5 players in the game. But, unfortunately for Nash, and fortunately for Suns ownership, the crazy Canadian makes nowhere near top-5 player money. In fact, despite his accomplishments, Nash will take home a relatively pedestrian $11,375,000 in salary for the upcoming season, with 2 additional seasons left on his svelte contract.

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