They tend to be career role players or aging former stars – picked up on the cheap and plugged into a system that makes use of their talents. They don’t score a ton, but, as the advanced metrics show, they help win a lot of games.
The two most underpaid players in the league this season are a pair of key pickups in Los Angeles, one apiece by the Clippers and Lakers. Journeyman forward Matt Barnes, originally drafted by the Clippers out of UCLA in the second round back in 2003, rejoined the club this season after stints with seven - yes, seven - other NBA teams. The Clips got him for the veteran minimum wage of $854,389 (with the league kicking in a supplement of some $400,000), and utilized him as a key backup during their 56-26 season. Barnes played in 80 games, his most in three years, averaging 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in 25 minutes per game off the bench.
Barnes came to the Clippers after playing out his previous contract with the Lakers, who filled the void by picking up Antawn Jamison, a former 20-points-per game scorer who, at 36, helped to solidify the team’s banged-up front court by averaging nine points and five rebounds in 22 minutes a game. Jamison pulled in the same veteran minimum pay that Barnes did - $854,389 – a true bench bargain.
To determine the most underpaid players in the league, we used the same methodology as we did a couple of weeks ago for our list of the NBA's Most Overpaid Players: the wins-produced metrics from TheNBAGeek.com, a website run by Patrick Minton featuring an efficiency model devised by University of Southern Utah economics professor David Berri. Berri’s analysis stresses efficiency – not just points, rebounds and assists but how they stack up in the context of the game (ex: a faster-paced game with more shot attempts produces more chances for rebounds, so the telling stats aren’t raw totals as much as the percentage of the total chances).
By Berri’s reckoning, the 5.4 wins produced by Jamison made the difference in the Lakers pulling out a playoff spot. He rates third on the team by that metric, behind Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Barnes was even better, producing 7.1 wins for the Clippers, a mark that trailed only Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
We excluded from consideration young players still on their rookie scale contracts, and backups who averaged fewer than 20 minutes a game, (mathematically, the model assumes performance in limited minutes would extend to larger minutes, which in the real world can’t be assumed. So we drew the line at starters and key subs that play at least 20 minutes).
Right behind Barnes and Jamison: Brooklyn’s Reggie Evans, a rebounding machine this year (11.1 a game) for $1.6 million, and Washington’s Martell Webster, who signed as a free agent for $1.75 million following a mediocre season in Minnesota in which he averaged 6.9 points in 47 games as a starter and backup. Webster started 62 games for the Wizards this year, the most since 2008, while averaging career highs of 29 minutes and 11.4 points per game.
And like Jamison, two other former stars turned role players make the cut: the Knicks’ Jason Kidd ($3.1 million; 9.8 wins) whose days of big stats are behind him but who remains one of the NBA’s most efficient players (his team plays much better when he’s on the floor), and Miami’s Ray Allen ($3.1 million; 6.1 wins), the veteran three-point shooter who added a big lift behind the Big Three by averaging 11 points on only eight shots a game this season.