Published on October 15, 2019 by Courtney Williams  

In the NBA, it’s normal to see a general manager spend a significant portion of a team’s salary cap on a couple of players, each of whom is one of the best at his position. The GMs justify their spending by arguing that the star players will significantly improve their team’s chances of making it to the playoffs and winning a championship, but how often do these players actually provide a good return on investment through their performance on the court? In other words, how often do we see the players with the greatest salaries advance to the playoffs?

Playoff Appearances by Highest-Paid Players

For each of the last 20 seasons, I found the 5 highest-paid point guards (PG), shooting guards (SG), small forwards (SF), power forwards (PF), and centers (C), and then I determined whether or not their respective teams made it to the playoffs and won the championship. My findings have been compiled in the tables below.

Table A: Player ROI for the 1999-2000 through 2008-09 Seasons

Table A: Player ROI for the 1999-2000 through 2008-2009 Seasons

Table B: Player ROI for the 2009-10 through 2018-19 Seasons

Table B: Player ROI for the 2009-2010 through 2018-2019 Seasons

Between the 1999-2000 and 2008-09 seasons, the highest-paid small forwards and centers were arguably most worthy of their enormous salaries because they had the greatest number of playoff appearances and championship victories. Specifically, 35 of the highest-paid small forwards and 34 of the highest-paid centers played in the postseason, and 6 of the small forwards and centers went on to win NBA titles. This is somewhat unsurprising given how dependent teams used to be on their small forwards and centers, who could score from in and around the paint in spite of the formidable defenses they faced. But the game has evolved over the last decade, and the importance of the different positions has changed. With the NBA undergoing a 3-point revolution and today’s scheme of professional basketball being much more spread out, power forwards, point guards, and small forwards have become the most valuable players. This truth is demonstrated in Table B, which reveals that 37 of the highest-paid power forwards, 36 of the highest-paid point guards, and 33 of the highest-paid small forwards made it to the playoffs. Furthermore, 5 of the power forwards, 3 of the point guards, and 4 of the small forwards won the league championship. This means that general managers looking to win an NBA title in today’s day and age should invest their money in power forwards, point guards, and small forwards rather than shooting guards and centers, who make a similar number of playoff appearances but win championships less often.

Spending on Player Positions

The chart below shows how much money was spent on the salaries of the 5 highest-paid players in each position over the last 20 years.

NBA Combined Salaries Chart

The salaries of players in all positions have been steadily increasing due to the NBA’s ever-growing salary cap. However, general managers’ valuation of players in different positions has seemingly changed over time. Whereas the highest-paid centers and power forwards used to earn significantly more money than the highest-paid players in other positions, the league’s top point guards, small forwards, and power forwards now have the greatest combined earnings. The money that is devoted to these players’ salaries is well spent because, as we saw in Table B, point guards, small forwards, and power forwards are the types of players who most often lead their teams to the playoffs and NBA titles.

Implications for 2019 Free Agency

During the NBA’s free agency period, teams can make trades and negotiate deals in order to acquire players who recently became eligible to be signed. The best free agents normally sign contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, and the general managers are willing to pay them these grand salaries because they believe that the players will help their teams win games and ultimately advance to the playoffs. That being said, we’ve learned that power forwards, point guards, and small forwards tend to offer the greatest ROI when it comes to playoff appearances and championship victories, so teams looking to acquire a top player would be wise to invest in someone who plays one of these three positions.


About the Author

Courtney Williams graduated summa cum laude from Berry College (GA) in 2017. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and she wants to use her knowledge of statistics, probability, and more advanced mathematics to help sports organizations make good business- and player-related decisions. Specifically, she has an interest in using data analysis to find patterns and trends present in collegiate and professional basketball.