Despite the way that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the world around us, there are still NBA players signing multimillion-dollar contracts in the hope that the game, like the rest of the world, will eventually be able to return to “normal”. Who is getting paid the most this season? The numbers are surprising, even to die-hard fans that keep up with contracts and typically know what to expect.
Heavy hitters are still earning the big bucks. Much in the form of endorsements. Most people are shocked to learn that many of those on the highest-paid basketball player list are also philanthropists and active business professionals. That is right—there is more to the NBA than just playing basketball. In fact, many professional sports athletes consider themselves more business-like than not, simply because it is required for the negotiations that come with their job.
Who is earning the most? Is Lebron James still a heavy hitter? Which teams are earning the most this season? All these questions and more can be answered, thanks to ESPN.com and other resources that publish salaries for NBA players and other professional league athletes.
How are Salaries Determined?
The biggest uncertainty around the NBA and other professional sports salaries is how they are determined in the first place. It’s not like players just pick a magic number out of the air and say, “I want this much money”. Some might, but their “magic number” is based on research and insight into industry standards, what other players are earning, what their value is, and more.
NBA players research salaries when they are looking to increase their pay or switch teams just like any employee would when trying to further their career. This helps them figure out what their value might be to a team, as well as how much they can garner, in addition to their endorsements, to make the contract worthwhile. There are two ways to look at these salaries. Some lists will tell you the ranks based on total earnings, while others just list salary. What is the difference?
A player’s total earnings will also include their endorsements. For example, while Lebron James is listed seventh on the list below, he’s actually the highest-ranked earner in the NBA when endorsements are added in, as he’s hitting over $92 million a year in gross earnings from all sources. If you want to understand how the rankings fall by the contracts, though, you will want to remove the endorsements from the equation.
According to ESPN.com, Stephen Curry is the highest-paid basketball player for the 2020-2021 season, bringing in just over $43 million and some change. That is impressive for even the NBA, as only the top six players even break $40 million. What is perhaps even more shocking to some is that legend Lebron James comes in at number seven on the list at just $39.2 million. Kevin Love, the big name for the Cavs, comes in at number 20 with a salary of about $31.2 million.
Here is a look at the top 10 highest NBA salaries for the 20-21 season. Note these are base salaries that do not include endorsements.
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1. Stephen Curry, $43 million
2. Russell Westbrook, $41.4 million
3. Chris Paul, $41.4 million
4. John Wall, $41.2 million
5. James Harden, $41.2 million
6. Kevin Durant, $40.1 million
7. Lebron James, $39.2 million
8. Blake Griffin, $36.8 million
9. Paul George, $35.5 million
10. Klay Thompson, $35.3 million
How does the list break down by teams? The Golden State Warriors have two on the top 10 list, as do the Houston Rockets. The rest are from separate teams, including the Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, LA Lakers, Detroit Pistons, and LA Clippers.
Considering that the average NBA salary is around $7.7 million at this point and that Larry Bird was the first to earn over $5 million on a contract, the baseline has not changed much. What was once the “highest pay” has quickly been surpassed even by average pay, and now many players are making as much as eight times what Bird garnered to break the record at the time.
The Money Machine That is the NBA
Of all the professional sports, the National Basketball Association has been the one with the highest salaries paid to players, as well as the fastest and steepest increases over time. For as much information as you can find about the highest-paid basketball player, from rankings by base salary, salary plus endorsements, and even the biggest earners of all time, there is not nearly as much information about how those salaries are determined.
Free agency changed the way that basketball players get paid, allowing original teams to match contracts to ensure that teams have the best chances of retaining top talent. There are restricted free agents that are capable of signing with any organization, but their team can still match a contract. This is not available to every player, but it’s one way to determine what type of contract is issued.
Unrestricted free agents are those who have met certain criteria, and again may be determined on a case-by-case basis. Typically, these are players that have opted out of a buyout or deal or have completed a contract. That leaves them free to play wherever they want, depending on the limitations of their existing contract (if they have one).
Part of the salary classification comes from whether the player is a free agent or restricted. It may also get more competitive if there is a player that multiple teams want, and their contract is up for offer. There is also the option for contracts based on players, teams, or the option for early termination after the fourth year of the deal. Contract options are variable and negotiable, usually determined on a case-by-case basis.
What About Skills and Experience?
In many careers, experience and skill can garner higher earnings. This is also the case in the NBA, as has been seen as many players evolve in the game over time. For example, Lebron James started out with modest earnings, but quickly catapulted himself to success and now is on a path to clearing $100 million with all of his endorsements and his salary.
The guy that got picked up in the third round and who hasn’t played in the pros yet is probably earning closer to the standard $7-$10 million. While the hype has something to do with it, the best players are more than a name– they have earned their name by proving their skill. So, will Stephen Curry continue to prove that he’s worth the number one spot in the salary brackets? The chances are good, but the season remains to be seen.
One thing is certain, though. Now that you understand more about how these players are paid and who is earning the most, you’ll be able to follow the league better than before. Some players have pay changes in their contract so their earnings may increase even between signings, too. There are tons of technical details to know if you truly want to understand the way NBA players are paid and contracted, but this should give you a good idea of the basics.