The NBA’s Most Underpaid Players

Bill Streicher – USA TODAY Sports

Professional athletes are monetarily rewarded for their performance in their respective sports. On many occasions, their compensation ends up being far off from what their performance actually warrants. A popular example of an overpaid player is Timofey Mozgov, who signed a four-year, $64 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016. Mozgov ended up playing 54 games for the Lakers before being traded as a salary dump to the Brooklyn Nets. He averaged just 7.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game during his short stint in Los Angeles.

What about the other side of the spectrum, though? Which players are performing far greater than expected based on their performance this season? That’s the question we’re going to answer.

I’m choosing to quantify player performance with Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM), a metric that estimates a player’s value using luck-adjusted plus-minus data among other things. You can read about it in detail from the creator himself, Jacob Goldstein, in this article.

Shown below is a scatter plot depicting the relationship between player salary and PIPM among players with a positive PIPM (because you have to be good to be underpaid, of course).

In general, players with greater value earn more money.

Using this basic linear regression, each player’s expected salary can be calculated based on their value. If their expected salary is greater than their actual salary (a negative residual), they are considered underpaid by this methodology.

Without further ado, here are the 10 most underpaid players of the 2019-20 NBA regular season.

10. Bam Adebayo, Heat

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 2.91
Actual Salary: $3,454,080
Expected Salary: $16,520,501
Difference: -$13,066,421

At 22-years-old, Adebayo is already one of the most versatile big men in the NBA. He’s averaging around 16 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists per game along with a steal and a block. His 2.23 D-PIPM is the 17th highest in the league among players with at least 1,000 minutes played. If you bump the qualifier up to 2,000 minutes, his D-PIPM is actually the second-highest behind just Rudy Gobert. A small sample size certainly isn’t the reason for his success.

9. Mitchell Robinson, Knicks

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 2.01
Actual Salary: $1,559,712
Expected Salary: $14,695,689
Difference: -$13,135,977

Ever since being selected in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks, the Robinson has quickly become one of the league’s best shot-blockers. The 22-year-old big man is averaging 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes over the past two seasons and his D-PIPM of 1.76 is by far the highest on the Knicks — the next closest player is Frank Ntilikina’s 0.30. While Robinson isn’t particularly versatile on the offensive end, he does thrive in his limited role on that side of the ball, as his 74.2% effective field goal percentage is the league’s highest by a wide margin.

8. George Hill, Bucks

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 1.78
Actual Salary: $1,000,000
Expected Salary: $14,171,056
Difference: -$13,171,056

George Hill is both the oldest and the least-paid player on this list. But he’s excelling in his role for the championship favorite Milwaukee Bucks. Hill is leading the league with an uber efficient 48% 3P% on 2.9 attempts per game. His 1.81 O-PIPM is the third-highest on the Bucks and the team scores 3.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, impressive feats considering he plays with offensive stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and he hasn’t even started a game this season (which would boost his on/off splits due to playing with the other starters more).

7. De’Anthony Melton, Grizzlies

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 1.98
Actual Salary: $1,416,852
Expected Salary: $14,627,259
Difference: -$13,210,407

Melton was selected with the 46th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and has already been traded twice since then. He’s spent the 2020 season with the Memphis Grizzlies, and has become a surprisingly valuable asset on both sides of the ball. The team scores 5.7 more points per 100 possessions with Melton on the floor, and holds their opponents to 4.8 less points per 100 possessions when Melton is playing. In total, his PIPM is the second-highest on the Grizzlies, a young team that is surprisingly set to sneak into the playoffs if they maintain their spot in the eighth seed.

6. Royce O’Neale, Jazz

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 2.08
Actual Salary: $1,618,520
Expected Salary: $14,855,360
Difference: -$13,236,840

Royce O’Neale is exactly what NBA teams want from their role players: somebody who can shoot threes and play good defense. He’s not heavily relied upon to score, but his 39% 3P% keeps defenses honest. On the other side of the ball, O’Neale’s 1.78 D-PIPM is the second-highest on the Jazz behind reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. After going undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft, he was forced to play professionally in Europe for some time, but it seems that O’Neale has finally established his place in the NBA.

5. Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 2.77
Actual Salary: $2,905,800
Expected Salary: $16,429,261
Difference: -$13,523,461

DiVincenzo won two NCAA titles with Villanova during his collegiate career, including in 2018 when he put up a career-high 31 points in the championship game and was subseqeuntly named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. The Bucks proceeded to pick him up with the 17th overall pick, a selection that has certainly paid off thus far. In his sophomore season, DiVincenzo has continued to develop his jumper as he’s now hitting outside shots at a 34.4% rate, up from 26.5% in his rookie season. Furthermore, he’s proven to be one of the best young perimeter defensive players in the NBA, with an impressive D-PIPM of 1.98. There’s a reason he’s playing 23 minutes per game on a team that could win 70 games.

4. Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 4.87
Actual Salary: $7,683,360
Expected Salary: $21,219,392
Difference: -$13,536,032

Doncic’s contract is worth far more money than anyone else on this list, but he’s also performing far better than anyone else on this list. As the third-overall selection from the 2018 NBA Draft, Doncic is earning good money from his rookie contract. But he’s also putting up an unprecedented 29/9/9 stat line as a 20-year-old for a potential 50-win team. He’s already a legitimate superstar — his current contract is an absolute bargain.

3. Pascal Siakam, Raptors

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 3.18
Actual Salary: $2,351,839
Expected Salary: $17,364,477
Difference: -$15,012,638

In the 2018-19 season, the NBA world was introduced to Pascal Siakam, a former late first round pick, who averaged 17 PPG en route to winning the league’s Most Improved Player award. the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Siakam shot 14-17 from the field for 32 points in a Game 1 win while primarily guarded by former Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green. Siakam’s final shot of the season was this clutch floater to give the Raptors a three-point lead with 26 seconds to go in their series-clinching win. This season, with Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers, Siakam has proceeded to take his game to a new level as the star of the Toronto Raptors. He’s averaging 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game and the Raptors are on pace for a 58 win season and the two-seed in the Eastern Conference.

2. Christian Wood, Pistons

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 2.98
Actual Salary: $1,645,357
Expected Salary: $16,908,274
Difference: -$15,262,917

Christian Wood went undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft and began to bounce between the G League and short unsuccessful stints with NBA teams for the following few years. It finally seems as if Wood has solidified his place in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. After Andre Drummond was traded away to the Cavaliers and before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wood averaged 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while hitting 40% of his three-point attempts. A big with his versatility on the offensive end is extremely valuable in today’s game and the Pistons will surely be willing to pay good money to retain him.

1. Duncan Robinson, Heat

Player Impact Plus-Minus: 3.21
Actual Salary: $1,416,852
Expected Salary: $17,432,907
Difference: -$16,016,055

The most underpaid player of the 2019-20 NBA season. Robinson signed with the Heat as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and he has quickly blossomed into one of the best perimeter shooters in the league. He’s shooting 8.4 three-point attempts per game and connecting at a blistering 44.8% clip, the fourth-best in the league. He’s certainly going to be getting paid well after his contract expires.

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