Thinking About Average NBA Starter Salaries

A friendly debate with MMotherwell the other day got me thinking about the nature of what an average NBA starter's salary is. There are multiple ways of thinking about this. MMotherwell had proposed considering every salary above the the 151st salary in the league (5 starters X 30 teams) as starter's money. That was $4 million flat last season.

I was unsatisfied with this calculation. At first I considered averaging the salary of the top 5 guys on the depth chart. There are two glaring problems with this. First, depth charts change all the times. Second, sometimes guys who start the game aren't necessarily guys playing starter's minutes. I'm sure many of you fondly remember the year of Jarron Collins taking the starting tip-off, playing for two minutes, and never seeing the court again.

So I was unsatisfied again. I decided instead to interpret what a starter was somewhat more broadly. Instead of looking at starts, or position on the depth chart, I would look at average minutes per game. This got a little difficult, so I added the qualification that the player must have played at least 20 games this season (noted exception: Kevin Love). This still had some problems, however, because a few different players got traded in the middle of the season, appearing in the totals for two teams. So I added a third qualification that each player only counted on the team they ended the season with.

I then collected and averaged the salaries of the 7 players with the highest minutes per game, that played at least 20 games (noted exception: Kevin Love), and that ended the season with the team in question. I calculated average salary for the team for each player in this 7 man rotation, average salary for each division, average salary for each conference, and average salary for the NBA as a whole. The results are below.

The teams are organized in their conferences by how they finished in rankings. The players that make up the salaries that go into the average are listed by their ranking in minutes per game.

Eastern Conference - Average: $6,501,169

Atlantic Division - Average: $7,801,377

Knicks - (Anthony - Felton - Smith - Chandler - Kidd - Stoudemire - Shumpert) Average: $9,289,479

Nets - (Johnson - Williams - Lopez - Wallace - Evans - Blatche - Bogans -) Average: $9,087,561

Celtics - (Rondo - Pierce - Garnett - Bradley - Green - Bass - Terry) Average: $8,624,630

76ers - (Holiday - Turner - T. Young - Richardson - Hawes - N. Young - Wright) Average: $5,464,670

Raptors - (DeRozan - Gay - Lowry - Bargnani - Johnson - Valanciunas - Anderson) Average: $6,540,545

Central Division - Average: $5,434,516

Pacers - (George - Hill - West - Stephenson - Hibbert - Green - Hansbrough) Average: $5,952,590

Bulls - (Deng - Noah - Boozer - Hinrich - Butler - Belinelli - Robinson) Average: $6,774,901

Bucks - (Ellis - Jennings - Redick - Ilyasova - Sanders - Dunleavy - Mbah a Moute) Average: $5,543,635

Pistons - (Monroe - Calderon - Knight - Stuckey - Singler - Maxiell - Drummond) Average: $4,868,462

Cavaliers - (Varejao - Irving - Thompson - Gee - Waiters - Zeller - Ellington) Average: $4,072,992

Southeast Division - Average: $6,267,614

Heat - (James - Wade - Bosh - Chalmers - Allen - Battier - Cole) Average: $9,082,789

Hawks - (Horford - Smith - Teague - Korver - Williams - Harris - Pachulia) Average: $7,340,261

Wizards - (Wall - Beal - Webster - Hilario - Ariza - Okafor - Temple) Average: $6,588,723

Bobcats - (Walker - Henderson - McRoberts - Biyombo - Sessions - Mullens - Kidd-Gilchrist) Average: $3,354,061

Magic - (Harris - Afflalo - Nelson - Vucevic - Davis - Udrih - Harkless) Average: $4,972,234

Western Conference - Average: $6,674,855

Northwest Division - Average: $6,799,126

Thunder - (Durant - Westbrook - Ibaka - Martin - Sefolosha - Perkins - Collison) Average: $8,555,996

Nuggets - (Iguodala - Lawson - Gallinari - Faried - Miller - Chandler - Brewer) Average: $6,062,346

Jazz - (Jefferson - Mo Williams - Millsap - Hayward - Foye - Marvin Williams - Favors) Average: $7,193,453

Trail Blazers - (Lillard - Batum - Aldridge - Matthews - Hickson - Maynor - Leonard) Average: $6,051,514

Timberwolves - (Love - Kirilenko - Pekovic - Ridnour - Rubio - Cunnhingham - Williams) Average: $6,132,323

Pacific Division - Average: $7,008,676

Clippers - (Paul - Griffin - Crawford - Barnes - Jordan - Butler - Bledsoe) Average: $7,303,065

Warriors - (Curry - Lee - Thompson - Jack - Barnes - Bogut - Landry) Average: $6,303,277

Lakers - (Bryant - Howard - Gasol - World Peace - Nash - Blake - Clark) Average: $12,540,638

Kings - (Evans - Cousins - Salmons - Thompson - Thomas - Thornton - Patterson) Average: $4,692,797

Suns - (Dragic - Gortat - Dudley - Scola - Tucker - Brown - K Morris) Average: $4,203,604

Southwest Division - Average: $6,216,763

Spurs - (Parker - Leonard - Duncan - Green - Splitter - Ginobili - Diaw) Average: $7,142,841

Grizzlies - (Gasol - Conley - Randolph - Prince - Allen - Bayless - Pondexter) Average: $7,456,501

Rockets - (Harden - Parsons - Lin - Asik - Delfino - Beverley - Smith) Average: $3,931,178

Mavericks - (Mayo - Nowitzki - Marion - Collison - Cater - Brand - Kaman) Average: $7,011,905

New Orleans - (Vasquez - Anderson - Gordon - Davis - Aminu - Lopez - Rivers) Average: $5,541,389

NBA - Average: $6,588,012

So what does this tell us. A few things.

1.) If you look, higher payrolls for the 7 man rotation are weakly correlated with success: higher with regular season success (i.e. making the playoffs) but lower with post season success (Lakers and Nets all eliminated in the first round despite being top 10 in this average salary measure). This isn't really all that surprising. What is somewhat more surprising is that there is a stronger trend if you look within divisions for higher average 7 man rotation salaries to correlate with finishing position in the division. The Rockets are a really weird outlier here because they had contract money they picked up that would have raised their average, but that didn't play in more than 20 games. This may indicate that teams should pay attention to what the average 7 man rotation salary is within their division if they want to compete; almost a keeping up with the Jones' mentality.

2.) Despite the West generally being considered the deeper Conference, has a lower average 7 man rotation salary if one excludes the Lakers. However, it also has a much lower standard deviation, meaning that teams in the West seem to keep much closer to that average salary line than teams in the East (again, with the exception of the Lakers). This would probably be even more true if the the Rockets weren't such an outlier because of the qualifying criteria being laid out as they are.

3.) Teams that rely more on rookie wage scale contracts seem to have done less well in this season's playoffs. The teams in the Finals feature one rookie wage scale contract a piece (Cole and Leonard) in their starting 7 rotation. The Grizzlies had 1, while the Pacers had 3. This is only somewhat surprising, as we know younger players tend to fair less well in the Playoffs.

This also tells us a few things about the Suns and our efforts to move certain key contracts.

1.) Jared Dudley and Luis Scola both have contracts that next season will fall far below the average 7 man rotation salary ($2.25 million for Dudley, $2 million for Scola). Given that both these players are arguably part of a solid 7 man rotation (though you could argue that Scola would be the 7th man in such a rotation), they both seem to possess valuable contracts that should draw at least some interest. Dudley in particular may be the most valuable trade commodity on the team.

2.) Gortat's contract, while not far from the average, is above the average for a member of the 7 man rotation. Considering many of us believe Gortat is average through and through, this may indicate Gortat's value is slightly lower than previously expected. This could be particularly true given the large number of centers that are projected to be taken in this year's Draft, which could lower the market value for Gortat even further by flooding it.

3.) The Suns had one of the lowest 7 man rotation average salaries, and yet we weren't terribly close to the lowest in terms of payroll (about $10 million higher than the Cavs). Nor did we feature an abundance of rookie wage scale contracts (we had Morris and Tucker's weird contract situation). We had almost as much money sitting outside of our 7 man rotation as we had sitting in it. Compared to other teams, this is something that only the Bobcats really compete with us in. Not a happy distinction.

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