Watching the Chandler numbers jumping around, and some people freaking out because they don't want to pay him that much, and others freaking out because they want to pay him more so we get him, I've been thinking about how to fairly evaluate how much a player is worth.
The cap is about $58m. Most teams end up spending a little over the cap. But lets break this down.
A "max" salary varies, based on experience, but I'm going to take the middle level and say that a max salary starts at about $17.5m.
Now, for starters, I'm going to suggest that the truly elite players (Howard, LeBron, KD, etc) are actually *underpaid*. Why do I say this? Simple - there's a max salary. You see teams happy to go far over the max - eg Kobe's contract will pay him $30m. KG's pays him $21m. But clearly basic economics suggests that the presence of a cap means that some players getting the cap will be underpaid.
Second, the very worst players in the league are probably overpaid. Same principle - there's a salary floor. The worst players in the league are not much better than the best players not in the league, who would happily do the job for less.
Third, I'd like to posit that there's not a smooth, linear continuum of player value. Even aside from the previous two points, if the best player in the league is worth the max, and the worst player is worth the min, the middle player in the league is NOT worth halfway between the min and the max. In fact, I'd suggest that there are, roughly, a couple of tiers:
eg "Elite Players" - LeBron, Howard, KD, etc. Clearly worth the max. Call them group one.
eg "Replacement-level players" clearly worth the min. Call them group six.
I'm going to posit three other categories of players. Obviously, these categories are a little rough.
Group two: "Really really good guys who aren't truly elite." Chandler and Nene are in this category, for example. Probably Amare, too. Manu Ginobili, probably. Bynum.
Group three: "Quality starters" - guys who are better than the opposing starter more often than not. Boozer. I'd put Curry in this group, although we're all hoping he'll grow into group two. Deng, probably. Lamarcus ALdridge. Danny Granger.
Group four: "Spot starters/quality backups." Guys like Dorell go here.
Group five: Back of rotation guys - Amundson, etc.
Now, I don't want to quibble about a lot of specific evaluations of guys, just talking in abstract building a team.
It seems to me that to be in title contention, you need 1 group one guy, 1-2 group 2 guys, 2-3 group 3 guys, 2-3 group four guys, 2-3 group five guys, and you fill out your roster with the replacement level players.
Now you can always add a player at the minimum, so we can actually exclude the group six guys from salary cap consideration.
Now, the cap is $58m, but nobody actually spends that little to win a title. The actual cost of a title team is much closer to $70m. So let's use that number, which is still just below the tax.
You pay your elite guy 18m.
You have two group 2 guys averaging $13m. (That seems to be the going rate for guys like Chandler, Nene, etc).
That leaves $26m.
Two group three guys at $7m, average, each.
That leaves $12m.
Round out your rotation with two group four guys at $4m each, leaving $4m. You add two group five guys at $2m each, and then add players at the minimum to fill up your roster.
Ideally, say, this is a team that looks like KD (group 1), Chandler and Amare (group 2), Curry and Igoudala (group 3), with Dorell and Rony Turiaf (group four) coming off the bench Amundson as your emergency backup big man. Maybe Iggy's a group two, so what about Deng or someone like that?
That's a title team, isn't it? Heck, I'd say that's a running-away-with-the-title team, most years. Couple of question marks (backup point guard, for example) and they'd want to go over the tax to solidify their depth, but that's a really really good team, no?
Why am I going through all these contortions? Simple:
If you agree that Chandler is a group two guy (and I think he clearly is) then something in the $14-15m range is totally reasonable for him - especially when you consider that he's a group two guy at the most important position on the floor.
The big problem with overpaying is paying someone over their "slot." So for example Monta (a group four guy) is getting paid like a group two guy. And Lee (a group three guy) is getting paid like a group two guy. Biedrins (a group five guy) is being paid like a group three guy.
Going beyond that, however, I'd say that the fact that my hypothetical team is likely to be some dominant means that, in practice, you can overpay a couple of players and still be in contention.
In other words, the problem isn't particularly any one contract (and it's not Chandler at $15m). The problem is consistently paying players a group or two above their actual quality. You see this all over the place - Carmelo, Boozer, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, etc.
But if stars are underpaid because of the max salary, I have a real hard time looking at Chandler at $15m and thinking that contract is a problematic overpay.