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NBA trade deadline: The 10 best contracts

Keith Smith
·8 min read
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The trade deadline is March 25. Whether or not we’re in for a busy deadline remains to be seen. With the advent of the Play-In Tournament, most of the league remains in striking distance of even a pseudo-postseason berth. Because of that, we may not have as many sellers as in previous seasons.

On the other hand, the NBA feels relatively wide-open. The Los Angeles Lakers are the defending champions, but they don’t feel as inevitable as the Golden State Warriors of recent years. The Brooklyn Nets have loaded up, but their lack of defense has teams believing they can take them down.

The one thing teams are always on the lookout for is a player on a great contract. Having a star talent on a team-friendly contract makes building the rest of the roster that much easier.

Jordan Clarkson dribbles and looks up the court during a game.
Utah Jazz guard and Sixth Man of the Year award front-runner Jordan Clarkson has one of the best contracts based on his production. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

These are the NBA’s 10 best contracts. This list isn’t necessarily those players who are the best — some aren’t even All-Stars. But what each has in common is that their production far outweighs their compensation. It’s also not overly likely any of these players will be traded, but given the chance, teams would jump. There are a few more caveats:

  • No players on max contracts. It’s impossible to pay them more, so if the player is worth more than the max, you’ve inherently got a bargain. For example, a guy like LeBron James is worth somewhere in the range of $50 million-$60 million. That the Lakers have him for $39.2 million, because that is the max the collective bargaining agreement allows, is a steal.

  • No players on rookie scale contracts. Again, this is a capped amount. As the cap has risen, rookie deals have become that much more valuable. Having a talent like Luka Doncic for a set amount is an incredible advantage. But no team got creative to get there, so they aren’t on the list.

  • No expiring contracts. Players have to have some money owed beyond this season to qualify. Otherwise, they’re not going to be much of a bargain past this year, which limits their inherent trade value.

  • This list is primarily driven from a team perspective. In reality, contract negotiations are a partnership and often driven by circumstance. On occasion, a player will outplay his deal, and then he becomes a boon to his team. The opposite happens when a player gets a max deal and fails to live up to it.

Honorable mentions

These players have all outplayed their contracts and bring considerable value, but are just outside making the best list.

  • Orlando Magic's Terrence Ross (three years, $37.5 million) and Nikola Vucevic (three years, $72 million) — both contracts decline from year to year.

  • Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks, three years, $51.3 million — no options.

  • Seth Curry, Philadelphia 76ers, three years, $24.5 million — final year caps at $8.5 million.

  • Julius Randle, New York Knicks, two years, $38.7 million — final season only $4 million guaranteed.

  • Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls, two years, $39 million.

The 10 best contracts in the NBA

10. Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

Three years, $32.1 million — no options, declines each year

Nance once looked like a questionable investment. He was a role player on a bad team. Now, Nance looks like someone who will be a key part of the next Cavs playoff team. He’s developed into a very good passer and more than a passable shooter. As he’s extended his range, Nance has rounded out his offensive game to complement his bouncy defensive ability.

Larry Nance Jr. extends his arm to pass the ball around the Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.
Larry Nance Jr. could be a key part of the next Cavaliers playoff team. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

9. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs

Four years, $64 million and four years, $70 million (starting in 2021-22)

The Spurs young guards are hard to separate, so we’re including them as a package deal. Both are key players, as Gregg Popovich has rebuilt San Antonio with multiple ball handlers playing around one big man. Both Murray and White are ball hawks on defense and good playmakers on offense. In addition, both have become better, and more willing, shooters. Having these two, among a few others, on great contracts is part of why the Spurs project to have north of $50 million in cap space to retool their roster with this coming summer.

8. Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings

Three years, $60.8 million — declines each year

This is another contract that looked a little questionable when it was signed. Instead, Barnes has delivered great value for the Kings. He’s got 49/39/83 shooting splits this year, in addition to solid rebounding, passing and defensive numbers. Barnes’ good play, along with his ability to play both the 3 and the 4, are reasons almost every contender is looking at how they can acquire him.

7. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz

Four years, $51.5 million — final year player option

Clarkson has found a home in Utah and is now the leading candidate to win Sixth Man of the Year. If you look at the stats, Clarkson’s numbers don’t look all that different from previous seasons. It’s the impact those numbers have, along with how he’s getting them, that make up the difference. Without Clarkson, the Jazz aren’t as successful. Without the Utah system, Clarkson isn’t having this kind of season. It’s perfect synergy in action.

6. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

Four years, $85 million — final year player option

VanVleet is the most self-made player on this list. He went undrafted, fought his way onto the Raptors' roster and became a key part of a title team in 2019. Then, VanVleet developed into a very good starter. There is a sense he may find yet another level when he has the playmaking duties more to himself. That’s a bargain for a Raptors team that is starting to rebuild on the fly.

Fred VanVleet dribbles with the ball in one hand during a game.
Fred VanVleet is the ultimate self-made NBA player, going from undrafted to outplaying his contract. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

5. Indiana Pacers

This one is really cheating, but Indiana has a collection of five players on good to great contracts. It’s too hard to pick just one of that group. Interestingly enough, when all are healthy, they are the Pacers' likely starting five, as well. Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and T.J. Warren all make between $12 million and $22.6 million over the next two to four seasons. That’s how Indiana has built a team that is consistently in playoff contention despite the lack of a true star. Having all those players on great contracts also gives the Pacers' front office all sorts of interesting trade possibilities over the next few years.

4. OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

Four years, $72 million — final year player option (starting in 2021-22)

Like Derrick White, Anunoby is finishing up his rookie scale contract, but his extension already looks like a bargain. After he missed a lot of the Raptors' title run due to injuries and surgery, Anunoby was a question mark. He was better than expected as Kawhi Leonard’s “replacement” last season. And he’s done even better with a bigger role this season. He’s a good defender who can capably defend 2-4, while holding his own on switches against point guards and smaller centers. If his off-the-dribble and playmaking games take a leap, Toronto has the best bargain in the league.

3. Christian Wood, Houston Rockets

Three years, $41 million — no options

Wood bounced around the league as a minimum player for the first few years of his career. When he got regular playing time for the first time in Detroit, he took advantage and his game blossomed. With his first starting role, Wood is now knocking on the door of making the All-Star team. He’s a walking 20/10 double-double with some shot-blocking ability. And he’s only 25 years old. Houston is set for the next few years at the big man position.

Christian Wood dunks over Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen.
Christian Wood has found a big-time role in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

2. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons

Three years, $60 million — no options

Grant left the Denver Nuggets for a bigger role and the opportunity to play for a Black general manager and head coach. All he’s done since is deliver great play. Grant is averaging career-best numbers nearly across the board. His shooting is down a touch, but that’s because he’s taking more contested shots, many off the bounce, than he ever has. As the Pistons improve over the next few seasons, Grant will be there to lead them.

1. Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

Four years, $105 million — no options

Brown’s deal includes some bonus money that can push him near a max deal, but a lot of that is tied to the Celtics making and winning the NBA Finals. Boston will gladly make that tradeoff, should it mean hanging another banner. Brown made his first All-Star team in 2021 in the first year of his extension. He did so on the back of 24.7 points per game on 49/38/77 shooting splits. He’s also maintained his consistently good rebounding and defense. The biggest leap in Brown’s game has come with playmaking. He’s averaging 3.9 assists per game and making passes he wouldn’t have even seen in prior years. With Brown signed long-term and Jayson Tatum starting a max extension next season, Boston is set with its wing position for years to come.

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