Wanna Make Money in the NBA? Be a Center

By Erik Johnsson

Over the past few seasons, the NBA has seen a rapid shift from the “ground-and-pound” style of the 90s and 2000s to the small ball, “pace-and-space” style of today. Now more than ever, it feels like guards and small forwards are responsible for the success of their teams. Long gone are the days where you could just give the ball to your big man and watch him work in the paint; without elite backcourt talent, a team has no business competing in today’s NBA.

As such, we might expect that guards and small forwards are reaping the benefits of a changing league in the size of their contracts, while the big men watch their salaries decline. When we think about the highest paid players in the league, this indeed appears to be true: only one of the ten highest salaries for the upcoming season belongs to a power forward, and the highest paid center ranks only 13th on the list.

Highest Salaries for the 2018-2019 NBA Season

Though, if we look a little deeper, we find that centers still have a place on GMs’ payrolls; in fact, they have more of a place than most guards do. In the 2017-2018 season, the average center got more than $7.7 million, while the average non-center made only $6 million. As it turns out, when we divide players into their respective positions, each of the top ten salaries listed above would be a major outlier compared to the rest of the NBA. On the whole, centers easily made more money than any other position this past season. This is evident in the boxplot below.

While this trend is surprising, given our general perception of a guard-dominated league, it is certainly nothing new. For nearly all of the last 26 years, centers and power forwards have made the most money in the NBA, and that is no more true today than it was 26 years ago.

* Via Basketball-Reference.com (only years after 1992 are shown; salary data before then is incomplete)

As you can see, centers have long sat atop the NBA in the size of their contracts. There has been no year in which point guards made more money than centers did, and only twice did shooting guards or small forwards have higher salaries than centers did. Though, it could be the case that teams fill out the end of their benches with more guards than centers, thus dragging down their average salaries. Plus, given how much player earnings have changed over time, though, this graph doesn’t really help us visualize how significant the difference in pay really is. So, if we only include the ten most productive players on every team in our analysis, and if we Z-Score every player’s salary per year, we can get a better sense of how different these salaries are, and how that difference has changed over time. On the below chart, each line represents the Z-Score of a position’s average salary over the last 26 years. As you can see, big men are still leading the salary market, albeit not as comfortably as the above plot would suggest. Notice how centers mostly remain above 0 (the standardized average salary of all NBA players), while guards and small forwards hover at, or below it.

So, what gives? How are big men seemingly becoming more obsolete, losing out on the league’s biggest contracts, and still getting paid more on average than anyone else in the NBA?

One potential reason is that big men are not as replaceable as their less gargantuan teammates are. Naturally, it is much harder to find a skilled and athletic 7 footer than it is to find a 6 footer, so perhaps GMs are more willing to splurge on a promising big guy when they get the chance to. After all, you don’t need to look far to find GMs overpaying for centers: Joakim Noah, Timofey Mozgov, Ian Mahinmi, and Bismack Biyombo all made over $15 million last season, and none of them were even regulars in their starting lineups.

Plus, centers seem to stick around in the NBA longer than other players do. For most of the last ten years, and especially in 2018, centers have been among the most experienced in the NBA:

In the 2017-2018 season, the average center had played in the NBA for just over 5.3 years, while the rest of the NBA had played an average of about 4.4 years in the league. While one year might not seem like a lot of time in the grand scheme of a player’s career, a 2-sample t-test tells us that this difference is statistically significant at the 95% level with a p-value of only 0.046, which further supports the idea that centers are harder to replace than other positions are.

Another potential reason that centers are making so much money is that, perhaps, they’re not as obsolete as we think they are. Maybe they still have an impact on the game that smaller players are unable to replicate, or better yet, maybe they’re still the most valuable players on the floor. To test this, we can use offensive win shares (OWS) and defensive win shares (DWS) as simple metrics for how much each player is contributing to his team’s success. When we observe these stats over time, we see another surprising trend.

Note: As done earlier, to combat selection bias, each of the below plots includes only the top ten players per team in win shares. This adjusts for the fact that guards are more likely to occupy more spots at the end of the bench than bigs do.

Based solely on Offensive and Defensive Win Shares, centers are contributing heavily on both sides of the ball, and more than ever on offense. Though, it could be that centers are just getting more minutes than other players are, and are thus getting credited with more wins. However, when we adjust for the amount of time each player was on the floor by using Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, rather than Win Shares alone, the trend is no different. In fact, the difference between centers and non-centers is even more striking. This past season, they had 43% more win shares per 48 minutes than the next best position did, and with a p-value of less than .001 between centers and non-centers, the big men have easily separated themselves from the pack.

Despite the fact that the NBA is undoubtedly getting faster, more reliant on the 3-ball, and more switch-happy on defense, centers have managed to increase their overall production far beyond that of any other position. In the 2017-2018 season, centers led the league in defensive win shares, as well as win shares per 48 minutes, and they are getting paid because of it. While there is room for further investigation about how the win shares statistic might value one position over another, all of the above suggests that centers are not wilting at the hands of a changing league. Rather, more likely, they are adapting, and they are thriving. GMs recognize the inherent impact that big men can still have on a long-range, fast-paced league, and they are putting a premium on big men who can keep up. Maybe centers aren’t becoming dinosaurs after all.

This opens the door to new questions about how the league is evolving, and how big men have changed their games to fit in. With a draft class loaded with such high-profile big men like Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, and Mo Bamba, it will be quite interesting to see what types of roles these players take on. While it remains to be seen how their respective games will translate to the NBA, one thing’s for certain: centers are here to stay, and you can bet that they’ll be the highest paid position in the game for the foreseeable future.

Editors Note: If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to reach out to Erik at ejohnsson@college.harvard.edu

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