The NBA didn’t start tracking salaries until the 1984-1985 season. Since then, you can tell that the brand of basketball has grown into an international sensation. Forget inflation. The salaries from nearly 40 years ago are nothing compared to what it is today. What should be even more surprising is that the leading salaries may not come from the players you would expect.
When you think of the best players in the league, who do you think of? Does Michael Jordan and LeBron James come to mind right off the bat? What if we told you that the league doesn’t care if you are the best? When looking back on history, the highest-paid player wasn’t always the MVP. It was all about the team. Think about the markets, Los Angeles, New York, and the now up-and-coming Golden State Warriors.
Take a look at the highest salary by season dating back to the beginning.
1984-1985 - Magic Johnson ($2.5 Million)
The investment was certainly worth it for the Los Angeles Laker. Before the season, the Lakers had won NBA championships in 1980 and 1982. Then, the team hoisted another championship with their 1985 title. In the regular season, Johnson averaged a double-double of 18.3 points and 12.6 assists, making his mark as the greatest point guard in the league.
1985-1986 - Magic Johnson ($2.5 Million)
At the time, Johnson’s salary wasn’t like a traditional salary. In today’s world, the salary goes up in increments. Instead, his deal remained the same, but it was the highest payout among any players in the league. Johnson led the league in assists again by averaging 18.8 points and 12.6 assists per game.
1986-1987 - Magic Johnson ($2.5 Million)
This was the final year that Johnson was the highest-paid player in the 1980s, but again the investment was worth the return. Johnson not only led the Lakers to an NBA championship but he was named the Finals MVP. In the regular season, he was named the MVP. This was one of those rare occasions that the best player in the league was truly the highest-paid player.
1987-1988 - Patrick Ewing ($2.75 Million)
Ewing joined the league in 1985 and it didn’t take long for the New York Knicks to use their market influence to pay Ewing lucratively. Ewing was entering his third season with the Knicks after coming off two seasons that saw him average at least 20 points and nine rebounds. This was all it took to make Ewing the highest-paid player in the league.
1988-1989 - Patrick Ewing ($3.25 Million)
Ewing’s deal increased over time, so he remained the highest-paid player for a total of four seasons. Despite Michael Jordan’s rise, Jordan was paid one million less. Take into account that Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons won two championships in this window as well. Regardless, Ewing was paid well despite only making All-NBA Second Team.
1989 -1990 - Patrick Ewing ($3.75 Million)
The combination of Jordan, Thomas, and Johnson swept the nation, but Ewing put his name in the conversation for the best in the league. Ewing’s only All-NBA First Team selection was during this year. Ewing also had his best showing in his career in the playoffs by averaging 29.4 points in 10 games, but the Knicks were unable to get out of the second round, while Thomas and Jordan battled one more time.
1990-1991 - Patrick Ewing ($4.25 Million)
Ewing nearly doubled Jordan’s salary even though the Bulls went on to win the NBA championship. The best part is that the Knicks were swept by the Bulls in three games in the first round of the playoffs. Ewing made only an All-Star appearance and an All-NBA Second Team. That should not constitute being paid the highest salary in the league.
1991-1992 - Larry Bird ($7.1 Million)
In the final season of Bird’s career, he led the league in salary. Bird averaged 20.2 points and 9.6 rebounds, which made the contract worth it to a point. However, Bird’s contract was strategically planned to pay him his highest amount in his final season. Over his career, Bird renewed his contract three times with the Celtics. Bird ended up retiring with a career-high $24 million alone.
1992-1993 - David Robinson ($5.7 Million)
David Robinson might have been a little ahead of his time. Robinson helped the San Antonio Spurs win championships in 1999 and 2003 but was rewarded with the highest salary this season. With that said, it was a solid investment given that Robinson received All-NBA First Team honors in 1991 and 1992, as well as being named Defensive Player of the Year. It’s not like the Spurs were paying some scrub.
1993-1994 - David Robinson ($5.7 Million)
Robinson’s salary remained the same and he stayed at the top of the salary rankings. The Spurs weren’t able to capitalize with Michael Jordan retiring though. The Houston Rockets took the title, while Hakeem Olajuwon was named regular season and Finals MVP. Olajuwon should have been paid the type of salary Robinson received this season.
1994-1995 - Magic Johnson ($14.7 Million)
By this time, Johnson had been out of the league for years due to his HIV diagnosis. His high salary is one of the craziest salaries when looking back. In 1981, Johnson signed a 25-year, $25 million extension with the Lakers. The deal was to keep Johnson associated with the team from 1984 to 2009. Johnson would sign new deals with Los Angeles to compensate for the years he wasn't the highest-paid player. This was one of those cases as the Lakers took care of the superstar who helped the team win five championships while he played.
1995-1996 - Patrick Ewing ($18.7 Million)
With Jordan out of the picture, Ewing had his breakthrough in 1994. The Knicks qualified for the NBA Finals before falling to the Rockets in seven games. With New York in the title conversation, the team rewarded their longtime veteran with a mega-contract to put him back at the top of salaries. Meanwhile, Jordan was paid significantly less and the Bulls won 72 games.
1996-1997 - Michael Jordan ($30.1 Million)
The contract for Jordan is an insane amount of money, especially when you see that this was during the 1990s. The Bulls had to overpay to keep Jordan in Chicago. The Knicks were willing to offer Jordan around $20 million and Jordan was going to be willing to accept the offer to play with the Knicks. Instead, the Bulls offered Jordan $10 million more and he stayed. It worked out as the Bulls won their second straight championship.
1997-1998 - Michael Jordan ($33.1 Million)
In today’s world, Jordan’s salary would be worth around 54 million dollars. Even so, his salary would be worth every penny. The Bulls played through one of their toughest seasons. With distractions left and right swirling around the last dance together, the Bulls pulled through and won their sixth championship, which included his sixth Finals MVP. You can call this investment worth every penny.
1998-1999 - Patrick Ewing ($18.5 Million)
This might have been the only time in Ewing’s tenure with the Knicks where he lived up to the highest-paid player hype. With Jordan out of the way, the Knicks were back to contending. The Knicks made the NBA Finals before falling to the Spurs and former highest-paid player David Robinson. Still, Ewing had a great season and kept New York buzzing around the Knicks.
1999-2000 - Shaquille O’Neal ($17.1 Million)
Shaq was an example of the perfect investment. This season saw The Diesel win the regular season MVP and Finals MVP. It was the first of three straight championships for the Lakers. With Shaq in the lineup, the Lakers were unstoppable. Also, when you look at what today's players are getting, this is a bargain of a price for Shaq's services.
2000-2001 - Kevin Garnett ($19.6 Million)
Think back to a time when the Minnesota Timberwolves were a relevant basketball franchise. It might be hard given the longevity of mediocrity that has been displayed the last 15 years, but once upon a time, Kevin Garnett was one of the faces of the league. Garnett was one of the best defensive players in the league that helped the T-Wolves contend for the playoffs.
2001-2002 - Kevin Garnett ($22.4 Million)
Garnett averaged 21.2 points and 12.1 rebounds. Despite a first-round playoff exit, the T-Wolves won 50 games in the regular season. The season saw Garnett receive All-NBA Second Team for the second year in a row. This had a similar feeling to Patrick Ewing during the 1990s with the Knicks until the following season.
2002-2003 - Kevin Garnett ($25.2 Million)
Garnett was making more money than the likes of Shaq and Kobe Bryant, who led the Lakers to a three-peat. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves were faltering in the first round of the playoffs, which included seven straight defeats. Garnett won All-Star MVP but did make All-NBA First Team. Regardless, it still ended with a similar defeat.
2003-2004 - Kevin Garnett ($28 Million)
This was the year that Garnett proved his overall worth in the league. Garnett won the regular-season MVP award by averaging a career-high 24.2 points and a league-leading 13.9 rebounds. This was also the best overall finish that the Timberwolves had in their franchise history by making the Conference Finals. The Timberwolves lost to the Lakers, but Garnett lived up to his league-leading salary.
2004-2005 - Shaquille O’Neal ($27.7 Million)
After the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, the team traded Shaq to the Miami Heat, where the highest-paid player started alongside Dwyane Wade. Shaq landed on the All-NBA First Team for his regular-season play and nearly led the team to the NBA Finals. Instead, the Pistons took down the Heat in the Conference Finals in a seven-game series. The trade is still regarded as one of the highest-profile moves in NBA history.
2005-2006 - Shaquille O’Neal ($20 Million)
While Shaq made All-NBA First Team for the second straight year in Miami, which included a string of seven straight years, it was Dwyane Wade that shined the most. The duo of Wade and Shaq led the Heat to their first NBA championship. With that said, it was Wade that won Finals MVP in the end. Still, Shaq was a main piece of the Heat.
2006-2007 - Kevin Garnett ($21 Million)
After a brief hiatus from the top of the list, Garnett made a return to the top of the list. Even though Garnett was the highest-paid player, the results for the team did not transpire. This season was the final year that Garnett averaged double-digit rebounds. His 22.4 points and 12.8 rebounds weren’t enough to lead the team to the playoffs. Eventually, this was the last straw after missing for the third straight year.
2007-2008 - Kevin Garnett (23.7 Million)
The Boston Celtic,s made the biggest splash of the offseason by acquiring Garnett via trade. The Celtics graciously accepted his large salary and made a deal to acquire Ray Allen. The two, combined with Paul Pierce, made a run to the NBA Finals, where the team won a championship. Garnett won Defensive Player of the Year and has a real argument that he should have won Finals MVP over Pierce.
2008-2009 Kevin Garnett ($24.7 Million)
Garnett produced once again as the Celtics ran it back to the NBA Finals. The Celtics lost to the Lakers, while Garnett produced one of his worst seasons since his rookie season. Garnett averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in 57 games. Garnett missed out on All-NBA as well. This was one of the lower end of returns when it came to the investment, but at least the team nearly went back-to-back.
2009-2010 - Kobe Bryant ($23.0 Million)
After winning his first championship without Shaq in 2009, Bryant took over Garnett after two years of living in his shadow. In 2008, Bryant was the regular season MVP. Then, in 2009, he won Finals MVP. This year, Bryant shined at the top of salary as well as in the world of NBA. Bryant led the Lakers to a second straight championship and his second straight Finals MVP to secure the investment the Lakers made on him.
2010-2011 - Kobe Bryant ($24.8 Million)
The Lakers were chasing down a three-peat but were upset by the Dallas Mavericks in the second round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, LeBron James took less money to join the Miami Heat to form a big three with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Mind you, you have made it this far and not seen LeBron’s name once.
2011-2012 - Kobe Bryant (25.2 Million)
Despite seeing Bryant on this list four more years, this would be the last time that Bryant would make the playoffs. The young core of OKC’s Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden would make the NBA Finals. LeBron would win his first NBA championship. The attention was beginning to shift from the Lakers to other members of the world, but Bryant remained getting paid top dollar.
2012-2013 - Kobe Bryant ($30.4 Million)
The Lakers tried to experiment with Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, and Bryant this season. It was a disaster as Howard lasted one season, while Nash was old and worn down. Bryant tried to lead the team to the No. 8 seed and was playing 48 minutes a night. In April, he became the first player in NBA history to record 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and three steals in a game. However, Bryant later tore his ACL and never played in the playoffs.
2013-2014 - Kobe Bryant ($30.4 Million)
After the season began, Bryant accepted a two-year extension worth $48.5 million. Bryant remained the highest-paid player despite taking a discounted deal. Bryant played only six games this season, making this one of the worst overall returns on a contract in NBA history. Meanwhile, LeBron James returned to the Cavaliers on a max contract and was rumored to be interested in the Lakers, but the team couldn’t afford him.
2014-2015 - Kobe Bryant ($23.5 Million)
Bryant played just 35 games this season as the Lakers continued to struggle. By the time this season ended, Bryant had received a combined $53 million and the Lakers won a combined 48 games. The Lakers were the No. 14 seed in both years.
2015-2016 - Kobe Bryant ($25 Million)
Bryant’s final season saw him as the highest-paid player and the Lakers missed the playoffs again. Bryant went on a farewell tour, which included a season-high 60 points against Utah in his last NBA game, outscoring the entire Jazz team 23-21 in the fourth quarter. He became the oldest player to score 60 or more points, but the Lakers finished 17-65, which was their worst record in franchise history.
2016-2017 - LeBron James (30.9 Million)
The only year that LeBron led the league in salary came after he led the Cavaliers to an NBA championship. It’s wild that it took LeBron this long to get paid like the superstar he is, but it goes to show what LeBron was willing to sacrifice to get a championship. LeBron couldn’t be the league leader in salary when he played with Wade and Bosh. Still, LeBron had a successful season by leading the Cavs back to the NBA Finals.
2017-2018 - Stephen Curry ($34.6 Million)
On the first day of free agency, Curry signed a five-year, $201 million extension with the Warriors. He became the first NBA player to sign a supermax contract worth over $200 million. Given that the Warriors had won championships in 2015 and 2017, the investment seemed worth it. Also, the Warriors won an NBA record 73 games in 2016, which was the second straight year Curry won MVP. By the end of this year, Curry was a part of the team’s third championship in four years.
2018-2019 - Stephen Curry ($37.4 Million)
Curry lived up to expectations once again as he made All-NBA First Team. The Warriors had completed their fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals. The Warriors fell to the Raptors due to injuries to Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Had this not happened, we might have been talking about how Curry always pulled through on the investment on him.
2019-2020 - Stephen Curry ($40.2 Million)
This was one of those years where Curry did not give back on the investment. With Thompson out for the season, and Durant leaving for the Nets, this was Curry’s team. Instead, Curry broke his left hand and played just five games this season. With the Warriors out of the playoff picture, he didn’t rush back to play.
2020-2021 - Stephen Curry (43.0 Million)
With Thompson missing the season once again, the Warriors fiddled around .500, but Curry put on a show. Curry surpassed Wilt Chamberlain to be the all-time leading scorer. In an 11-game stretch in April, Curry scored at least 30 points each game to surpass Kobe Bryant’s previous record for a player age 33 or older. He also had 78 three-pointers which was the most threes in during that span. Curry was talked about in the MVP conversation as he led the league in scoring, but the Warriors missed the playoffs.
Upcoming Highest-Paid Players
Curry remains the highest-paid player for the next five years. This past offseason, Curry agreed to a four-year contract extension worth $215.4 million that will keep Curry with the Warriors through the 2025-2026 season, when he will be 38 years old.
2021-2022 - Stephen Curry ($45.7 Million)
2022-2023 - Stephen Curry ($48.0 Million)
2023-2024 - Stephen Curry ($51.9 Million)
2024-2025 - Stephen Curry ($55.7 Million)
2025-2026 - Stephen Curry ($59.6 Million)
Breaking Down The Value
Since 1984, only nine players have been the highest-paid player in the league and won an NBA championship. The last time that the highest-paid player won a championship was in 2018 when Curry won his third. Before that, it was Garnett in 2008. The point that we are trying to make is that you don’t have to get top dollar to get a title.
In today’s league, players from generations ago would be making close to $40 million per year. For players that have not received an All-Star nod, they are getting close to $20 million per year. Imagine what Wilt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or even Scottie Pippen would have received in today’s era. Looking ahead, who will be the first $60 million player?