Anthony Davis just signed the biggest NBA contract of all time with the New Orleans Pelicans, worth $145m over five years. That’s a big leap over other big contracts in recent years, like LeBron James’s $110m deal with the Miami Heat in 2010 and Kobe Bryant’s $136m contract with the LA Lakers in 2004 – both of which were spread across more years. It’s a sign that NBA salaries will only continue to skyrocket in coming years, and more importantly, that teams are betting more than ever on superstar players to carry them to victory. It might seem commonplace now, but NBA salaries for top talent are higher now than ever before, even when inflation is taken into account.
As we explained in another post, “When Did Athletes Start Getting Rich?,” professional athletes were considered disposable commodities well into the 1960s and only broke $1m per year at the end of the 1970s. For some broad perspective, Babe Ruth, arguably the greatest American sports icon of all time, peaked at $80,000 per year or $1.1m today. It was Michael Jordan who pushed the NBA to soaring heights with his $30m contract with the Chicago Bulls for the 1996-97 season, followed by a $33m contract the following season. Worth just under $50m in today’s dollars, it remains the highest annual salary for an NBA player by a long shot.
But not all of the greats did so well. Legendary players from the 60s and 70s like Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell hardly made enough to write home about, by today’s standards, and more recent superstars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were shockingly underpaid relative to the place they hold in our memories.
Here’s a list of salaries from smallest to largest. In each case, we isolated the highest salary that each player received in one season and adjusted it to 2016 US Dollars. It doesn’t take account of sponsorship or endorsements, which also only came into effect over time, just the money they made from playing basketball.
Bill Russell – $100k ($600k today)
Despite winning eleven NBA championships with the Boston Celtics between 1956 and 1969, going to the All-Star game twelve times, and being named league MVP five times, Bill Russel hardly cracked half a million dollars at his peak.
Wilt Chamberlain – $250,000 ($1.7m today)
Arguably the first true basketball superstar, Wilt Chamberlain broke salary records for his time with a five-year contract worth $250,000/year between 1968 and 1973. Still, if someone broke his record for scoring over 100 points in a game today, they would see a lot more than $1.7m per season.
Magic Johnson – $3.1m ($5.4m today)
This one comes as an extra shock because Magic Johnson is still fresh in a lot of our minds. We remember him playing, and we remember him as a peer to a player like Michael Jordan. Surprisingly, he only made about 1/10 of Jordan’s salary.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – $3m ($5.8m today)
The man needs no introduction, but he might have needed a little extra cash during his storied run with the Lakers between 1976-89. Despite earning a lot for his time, even mid-level stars would walk away from his salary today.
Walt Frazier – $300k ($8.8m today)
Despite being one of the highest paid athletes of his time, the powerhouse guard for the Knicks between 1967 and 1980 only made a third of what Lebron James makes today.
Larry Bird – $7m ($11m today)
Bird was famous for more than sinking threes. During his career for the Celtics between 1979-92, he became was one of the first NBA players to crack the $1m mark, and he managed to go decently beyond it. Interestingly, Bird’s $11m is exactly on par with Steph Curry’s salary today, but you can bet that will change very soon. For Bird, though, that was the peak.
Hakeem Olajuwon – $16.7m ($21.8m today)
Now we’re starting to move into familiar territory, but keep this in mind: Olajuwon only reached this level in the 2000-2001 season, after after a fabled career with the Houston Rockets starting in 1984.
LeBron James – $23m (Current)
The man, the legend in the making. LeBron James frankly makes a ton of money, and we can expect him to make a lot more soon.
Kevin Garnett – $25m ($27.5m today)
The highest paid NBA player at the beginning of the 2000s, the Boston Celtics power forward can clearly hang with the best. But does he really roll off the tongue alongside a legend like Wilt Chamberlain?
Kobe Bryant – $30.5m ($31m today)
Now we’re getting into a picture of what the biggest stars make today. The recently-retired Kobe Bryant’s 30 mil basically set the new benchmark for a new NBA star.
Shooting guard LA Lakers 1996-2016
Shaquille O’Neal – $27.7m ($35.1m Today)
Of course the legendary Shaq brought home the butter. But keep in ind that this salary was for his 2004-5 season wioth the Miami Heat. Back in 1995-6, when he had already become a household name while playing for the Orlando Magic, he was making $5.7m or $8.9m today. Good money, but hardly what a young player like Anthony Davis is taking home.
Michael Jordan – $33m ($50m today)
Still the greatest, sill the richest. This is in there to show that Michael Jordan made A LOT of money in his time, and really pushed the envelope for what an NBA player could get paid. No one beats Jordan to this day, and maybe no one ever will.