Dan Feldman today put together an excellent post about just how much the Pistons are paying their bench players. His conclusion, that Detroit is second only to the Pacers, tells us a decent amount about the relative futility of the two franchises over the past few seasons.
First off, I think Dan must have erroneously included Jamaal Tinsley’s salary into his calculation that Indy, with $39.7 million tied up in non-starters, leads the league in bench spending. Obviously, Jamaal is no longer on the “bench,” and while his salary remains a burden on the team’s salary cap, he shouldn’t be included here. Practically, this doesn’t change much, however. Even once we remove the $5.4 million that ShamSports says Tinsley is making this year, the Pacers have $34.1 million tied up in its bench — still good for third-highest in the NBA after Detroit and Dallas.
This is too much for a team in Indiana’s financial position.
If you look at the squads who spend the most of their bench (click through … there’s a nice little chart), it isn’t necessarily a list of bad teams. We have the Mavs, Magic and Lakers all in the top ten, for example. But we have to remember that the NBA has a soft salary cap that allows those with deep pockets to continue to dump money into salary as long as they are prepared to pay the luxury tax.
Indiana is decidedly not a team with deep pockets.
So rather than just looking at total bench salary commitments, let’s look at bench salary commitments as a percentage of total team salary. Here’s that chart. (Again, Dan’s number is slightly off for the Pacers but not so much to change the main point I will get to.)
If you start from the right side, you will notice that a lot of very good teams have the lion’s share of their payrolls allocated for their starters. San Antonio, Utah, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, Orlando and Atlanta are the top nine teams in terms of giving the bulk of their payroll to starters. Aside from Phoenix and perhaps Denver, we’re talking about seven of the best 10 teams in the league.
Another good team, Chicago (who is 14th in terms of spending payroll on starters), spends a little more on its bench, but the Bulls, like Dallas (who ranks 18th), don’t really care how much they spend given their market and current ambitions to compete with Boston, Orlando and Miami for the Eastern Conference title. The only other rather good team that proportionally spends a lot on its bench is Oklahoma City. But that has less to do with a reserve spending spree than the fact that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green are all starters who are still on their cheap rookie contracts. The Thunder simply have found inexpensive, young players to start for them — and play incredible basketball. Must be nice.
Most of the other franchises that disproportionally dole out salary for guys not good enough to start simply aren’t that good. The roster becomes a collection of good-not-great players who all make middling salaries. The winning formula in the NBA generally requires that a team has a few very-high-salaried stars that start. Aside from the Pistons in 2004 (who weren’t exactly thrifty with their starters), we have teams like the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, Timmy/Manu/Tony Spurs, Big 3 Celtics and Kobe/Pau Lakers winning titles over the past decade.
Fortunately, the Pacers have a ton of expensive middling players coming off their books at the end of the year. Whether or not they chose to trade the expiring deals of some or any of Mike Dunleavy (who makes $10.6 million), TJ Ford ($8.5 million) or Jeff Foster ($6.7 million) remains the largest off-the-court issue of the season.
We shall see.
Regardless, the team’s ratio of starter salary to bench salary will likely look a lot better next year than it does this season. And that probably means they will be better.