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Do Salary and Playing Time Correlate in the NBA?

A reader is having quandaries about the Trail Blazers' small forward rotation and wondering if salary provides an easy answer. We explore.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Today's Blazer's Edge Mailbag question explores the link between money and playing time...a new angle in this venue. If you have a question (original or otherwise) about the Portland Trail Blazers, send it along to

Davy Jones' Locker,

With all the speculation about whom should start, and how many minutes each player should get, I was thinking about another conundrum Stotts and the coaching staff might be facing. The impact of $$ in decision-making.

Now, clearly, no one expects that because someone is earning more money than someone else they should, by default, get more playing time. But, I have to admit (much like the pressure to play high draft picks), I feel a certain inclination that Turner or Crabbe should be given the benefit of the doubt in terms of playing time over Mo Harkless, simply because of their contracts!

So, onto the questions: How big of an impact, if any, do you think the size of the contract signed should influence the coaching staff in terms of assigning minutes to players? And should Olshey accept these signees are all 'sunk costs' now and allow Stotts to work anyway he'd like?


This differs from team to team based on a number of criteria, including...

--Franchise Philosophy

--Stage of Growth

--The Personnel Involved

--Temperature of the Hot Seat Underneath Coach and GM

--Personalities in the Front Office

--Current Winning Percentage

Given the variables--adding in that few, if any, front office members and coaches will discuss such things openly--blanket statements are near-impossible.

In general it can be assumed that the amount of money a player makes reflects his talent and value to the franchise. It makes sense that higher-paid players will get more minutes than those with lesser salaries. This has little to do with the money itself. Cash and minutes tend to follow superior play in tandem.

Exceptions abound, however. Rookie-scale contracts are an obvious example. CJ McCollum would have played big minutes for Portland this year whether or not he signed a contract extension over the summer. With or without the extension he'll make $3.2 million while Allen Crabbe pulls in $18.5 million. Their roles are not inverting because of the disparity.

Some players get stuck in positions where sub-optimal salaries are the only option. Others walk into that situation voluntarily. (Hello, David West!) Shaving a few million off the bottom line will not keep such players off the floor if they're otherwise capable of playing.

Salary and playing time corresponding in many cases does not mean that salary and playing time correlate in all cases; nor does it imply causation. If a $2 million per year player kicks the socks off a $15 million per year player, almost every franchise will play the cheaper guy and look to trade the more expensive one. Putting an inferior product on the floor and winning fewer games will not make the money come back. The contracts are guaranteed either way.

Salary can affect expectations in a couple of specific situations. When a player has just been signed and the contract is high, playing time is a quid pro quo. Dwight Howard just inked a deal for $23 million with the Atlanta Hawks. One would assume he's going to get the starting nod over Tiago Splitter. If he doesn't, Mike Budenholzer will need to deliver a pretty good explanation. If the team faltered at all with Dwight on the bench, the coach would take massive heat for it. Presumably some of that heat would come from the General Manager. Large salary differences can also break talent ties in favor of the more costly player, though frankly few coaching staffs perceive players as identical. Their evaluations are more granular.

Either way, the Trail Blazers aren't in position to worry about any of this.

If Terry Stotts took away major playing time from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum he'd probably get fired (and rightfully so). This has less to do with their $20 million salaries and everything to do with:

A. 20 points per game

B. They're clearly the most talented players on the roster.

C. They're hugely popular locally and nationally. And...

D. They're the apple of the GM's eye.

If McCollum started shooting 5% from the field, though, the coach would replace him eventually and everybody would be on board with it no matter what his contract reads.

In the examples you mention--Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe vs. Maurice Harkless--the salary difference isn't great enough to cause anybody to lean one way or the other. Nor do I believe the front office and coaching staff have any agenda except to win the most games possible. If Stotts played Turner over Harkless when Moe was clearly performing better, Neil Olshey would probably inquire why. If Stotts replied with, "You paid him $7 million more per year," Olshey would likely give him a vicious noogie followed by a devastating swirlie, then tell him to play the guys who were helping the team most regardless of salary.

Consider also that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will soon be making $50 million combined. They want to succeed, for the team's sake and for the sake of their own continued prosperity. Letting a $7 million salary gap at small forward sway you into a poor decision that wastes the talent of the $50 million guards doesn't make sense financially or otherwise.

For the majority of teams during the majority of times, the only numbers that count once the ball goes in the air are uniform numbers and points on the scoreboard. If a guy is open in the corner, the point guard doesn't check his bank balance before passing him the rock. Every significant player on the Trail Blazers roster is either making big money or is in line to make big money soon. With that taken care of, everybody can leave the details to their accountant and get back to the purpose of the game: playing excellently and winning. I'd be surprised to see any agenda besides that take over the team.

Keep sending those questions to!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge