What's the best team you can buy under the NBA salary cap?

ByPatrick Dorsey ESPN logo
Friday, July 17, 2015

The NBA's big-money free-agency period is effectively over ... and boy, did teams hand out big money.

Proven stars got paid ($110 million for Kevin Love, a $145 million future extension for Anthony Davis). Valuable near-All-Stars got paid (at least $90 million for Kawhi Leonard, an estimated $88 million for DeAndre Jordan that you might have heard about). And some rather surprising players got paid ($80 million for Reggie Jackson, $70 million for Enes Kanter). Even Aron Baynes could get a reported $20 million.

Now, it's not as if teams simultaneously went crazy; with the cap due to make major rises for 2016-17 and 2017-18, most of these contracts will eventually look pretty reasonable.

But when compared to some of the other deals out there, these are definite eye-openers (just ask John Wall). This got us to thinking: What's the best team money can buy right now?

So we built one, using these rules:

1) Must stay under the 2015-16 salary cap ($70 million)

2) Must have 13 players on the roster

3) This is a big one: No rookie contracts allowed

To choose players, we used a mix of Real Plus-Minus (RPM) and squad composition (so we wouldn't just fill the team with, say, undervalued wings). Salaries are based on a mix of confirmed numbers and reported figures.

Here is our team:


Tim Duncan, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs

2014-15 RPM: 5.20, 13th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $5,250,000

Why Duncan: At that salary, you simply cannot beat the ageless big man's combination of production, experience and success both individual and team. Now, he's 39, so someday he will have to regress. But we've been expecting that for years, so ...

Other center bargains: Zaza Pachulia, Dallas Mavericks ($5,200,000); Timofey Mozgov, Cleveland Cavaliers ($4,950,000).

Pau Gasol, PF/C, Chicago Bulls

2014-15 RPM: 2.30, 65th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $7,448,760

Why Gasol: The Phoenix Suns' Markieff Morris is younger and quite fairly priced ($8,000,000), but Gasol's bounce-back year in 2014-15 and his rebounding/shooting ability make us think he'd be great in a tandem with Duncan (for a year, at least).

Other power forward bargains: Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder ($12,250,000); Tiago Splitter, Atlanta Hawks ($9,756,250); Morris.

Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs

2014-15 RPM: 7.57, 5th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $16,407,500 (reported)

Why Leonard: Why go with someone so highly priced? Because the former NBA Finals MVP might still be underpaid; that RPM suggests he's an elite player, and the other bargains at his position are role players. Now, we could have gone with James Harden (himself a massive bargain at $15,756,438) at shooting guard and slid the next player to the 3, but we'd rather have Leonard's prodigious defense in this lineup ... especially since we've got so much offense at point guard.

Other small forward bargains: Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta Hawks ($4,000,000); Matt Barnes, Memphis Grizzlies ($3,542,500).

Kyle Korver, SG/SF, Atlanta Hawks

2014-15 RPM: 5.42, 11th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $5,746,479

Why Korver: He might be a limited player, but as a tremendously effective 3-and-more-D-than-you-think wing at less than $6 million per year, we're more than willing to accept those limitations.

Other shooting guard bargains: Harden; Jared Dudley, Washington Wizards ($4,375,000).

Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

2014-15 RPM: 9.34, 1st in NBA

2015-16 salary: $11,370,786

Why Curry: Do we even have to explain ourselves here?

Other point guard bargains: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans ($10,595,507); Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks ($8,000,000); Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics ($6,912,869).


Tony Allen, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies

2014-15 RPM: 4.81, 15th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $5,158,539

Why Allen: Even at age 33, he's still one of the best -- if not the best -- wing defenders in the NBA. Like Korver, we're willing to deal with his limitations for a skill that elite.

Nikola Mirotic, PF, Chicago Bulls

2014-15 RPM: 3.50, 32nd in NBA

2015-16 salary: $5,543,725

Why Mirotic: Floor-spacing big men are in right now, and few rated better than Mirotic ... who's just 24 and coming off his first year in the league.

Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat

2014-15 RPM: 0.68, 122nd in NBA

2015-16 salary: $981,348

Why Whiteside: That RPM number isn't inspiring, but his shockingly high 26.26 Player Efficiency Rating and almost-zero salary makes Whiteside hard to turn down.

Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs

2014-15 RPM: 3.28, 43rd in NBA

2015-16 salary: $2,854,940 (reported)

Why Ginobili: Ginobili might not have always passed the eye test last year, but RPM really likes him, his salary is pretty low, and he carries years of experience and success, like Duncan, into what amounts to a 10th-man role.

Anthony Morrow, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder

2014-15 RPM: 2.76, 51st in NBA

2015-16 salary: $3,344,000

Why Morrow: Anyone still want to argue that 3-point shooting doesn't win championships? Morrow shot 43.4 percent last season and is at 42.9 for his career. We'd buy that for a dollar.

Jeremy Lin, PG, Charlotte Hornets

2014-15 RPM: 1.66, 87th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $2,139,000

Why Lin: While Lin never lived up to that incredible start with the New York Knicks, he's a very nice backup point guard at a quite reasonable salary.

James Johnson, PF, Toronto Raptors

2014-15 RPM: 1.99, 75th in NBA

2015-16 salary: $2,500,000

Why Johnson: A bit of a risk as his 2013-14 RPM was quite poor, but the defense-first Johnson had a nice season for Toronto and wouldn't be a bad 12th man at all.

Robert Covington, SF, Philadelphia 76ers

2014-15 RPM: 2.10, 71st in NBA

2015-16 salary: $1,000,000

Why Covington: You never want to overspend on the end of your bench. Covington is a strong enough shooter (37.4 percent from 3), and well worth the million.

Total Salary: $69,745,077


It's a bit risky going with such an old front line, especially since the frontcourt depth isn't extensive. But a chance to pair the reigning NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year (and 2014 Finals MVP) is too tempting to pass up. We smell rings ... but we're also willing to admit that there are many great teams one could build for less than $70 million.