When browsing online documents, salaries for players in the NBA are available from the 1990-91 season. Finding salaries before this year is tough to find, so we narrowed it down to the salaries available via HoopsHype. Since this season, there are just 10 players that have had their names at the top of the salary leader. Some players have their names multiple times. One player has led the league in salary seven times, while one current player is making his way towards the record.
What player is at the top? You would think that Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James would lead the league many times. Those players are not at the top but will be featured on this list. All of these players are in the Hall of Fame or will be inducted eventually. One player could change the landscape of the top players' talk all time if he can win another title.
Let’s take a look at the times a player has led the league in salary since the 1990-91 season.
Larry Bird - 1 Season
1991-92 - $7.0M
Bird didn’t just lead the league in salary this season, but he nearly doubled the total of the runner-up in Hot Rod Williams, who made about $3.7 million. This was the final season of Bird’s career in the NBA. In 45 games, Bird averaged 20.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and shot 40.6% from three-point range. The Celtics did not have the team success as they were older, but it was still a solid season for the veteran.
This was a salary that was earned by Bird for his success earlier in the league. He helped the Celtics win three championships. He was also the best player in the league, with an NBA record for three straight seasons. The Celtics won 51 games this season, but in the long run, it was worth every penny to take care of their longtime superstar.
Magic Johnson - 1 Season
1994-95 - $14.6M
Johnson doubled the salary of David Robinson this season. Johnson’s $14.6 million salary was twice the amount of Robinson’s $7.3 salary. At the time, Johnson had been away from the game for four years. His salary was just the highest in the league at the time. Johnson didn’t even play during the 1994-95 season as he was still out of his HIV diagnosis. It wasn’t until the 1995-96 season that he returned to the floor.
For the Lakers, this was a sunk cost, but you have to take the good with the bad. Johnson retired early. Had he been playing in the 90s, he would have combated Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing for other high salaries. Johnson helped the Lakers win five titles during the 80s. Given his production during this time, the Lakers were okay with swallowing the salary given the circumstances of Johnson’s retirement.
Tracy McGrady - 1 Season
2009-10 - $23.2M
When you look at what McGrady produced during this season, it was a rough business decision for all parties except McGrady. For starters, McGrady made just $200,000 more than Kobe Bryant to lead the league in scoring. Bryant led the Lakers to an NBA championship and won his second Finals MVP for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, McGrady played in 30 games for the season.
McGrady averaged 3.2 points per game in six appearances with the Rockets. He was then acquired by the Knicks and played in 24 games, averaging 9.4 points. His three-point shooting was a dismal 24.2%. What we can’t forget is that McGrady was one of the most lethal scorers in the league for a decade up to this point.
LeBron James - 1 Season
2016-17 - $30.9M
At the time, James was the only player paid more than $30 million in salary. DeMar DeRozan was paid about $26.5 million this season, but it was just another way James defeated DeRozan during the season. James led the Cavaliers to his third straight NBA Finals appearance and defeated DeRozan’s Raptors in the second round on the way there.
James averaged 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game this season. It’s wild to think that the four-time MVP has led the league in scoring just one time. Since 2003, James has been a top player in this league. Even 20 years later, he remains a top player in this league, but when it comes to the highest-paid, he has only accomplished that once.
David Robinson - 2 Seasons
1992-93 - $5.7M
1993-94 - $5.7M
Robinson made about $1.7 million more than Michael Jordan during the 1992-93 season. However, it was Jordan that won his third straight Finals MVP Award in the postseason. Robinson had a successful season when he averaged 23.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game.
The 1993-94 season saw the player match the salary. Robinson nearly won the MVP Award as he finished the season as the runner-up to Hakeem Olajuwon. Robinson would win the MVP Award during the 1994-95 season but he was not the highest-paid player. During the 1993-94 season, Robinson averaged 29.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game.
Michael Jordan - 2 Seasons
1996-97 - $30.1M
1997-98 - $33.1M
For the 1996-97 season, Jordan doubled the salary of Horace Grant. Only five players made at least $10 million for the season. One of those was Grant, with his $14 million salary. Jordan was coming off of a season where the Bulls won an NBA record 72 games and won his fourth title. Jordan played exceptionally for the season and was the MVP runner-up, averaging 29.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.3 assists, but he ultimately lost the MVP race to Karl Malone.
The following season Jordan was the highest-paid player and the MVP. Jordan averaged 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists to beat our Malone this time around. Patrick Ewing was the second-highest paid player with $20.5 million, but it was Jordan that was all out victorious. Jordan led the Bulls to their sixth championship and their second three-peat.
Patrick Ewing - 3 Seasons
1990-91 - $4.2M
1995-96 - $18.7M
1998-99 - $18.5M
There are three occasions that Ewing led the league in scoring on record. Ewing’s $4.2 million salary beat out Hot Rod Williams’ $3.7 million salary in 1990-91. For that season, Ewing averaged 26.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game. Later in his career, Ewing doubled the salary of Clyde Drexler with a salary of over $18 million. Ewing averaged 22.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. Each time, Jordan probably deserved the recognition as the highest-paid player for helping the Bulls win the championship.
When Jordan left in 1998, it allowed the Knicks to break through. With that said, the Knicks were the No. 8 and made a run to the NBA Finals. The Knicks fell to the Spurs, led by another top-salary player David Robinson and a young Tim Duncan. Ewing remains the face of New York Knicks basketball all these years later despite not leading the team to a title.
Shaquille O’Neal - 3 Seasons
1999-00 - $17.1M
2004-05 - $27.6M
2005-06 - $20.0M
One year, O’Neal led the league in salary and was with the Los Angeles Lakers. That season was special because O’Neal won the MVP Award by winning the scoring race. Then, he led the Lakers to the championship and won Finals MVP. He would ultimately win three Finals MVP trophies between 2000 to 2002. That led to a hefty contract extension that would ultimately pay him over $27 million in the final year.
That final year of the deal saw O’Neal play with the Heat. O’Neal would agree to a contract extension with the Heat in the 2005 offseason that would make him the highest-paid player a consecutive season. That year would live up to expectations as well as the Heat won the 2006 championship. All in all, O’Neal was two for three when leading the league in salary and winning a title.
Kobe Bryant - 6 Seasons
2010-11 - $24.8M
2011-12 - $25.2M
2012-13 - $27.8M
2013-14 - $30.4M
2014-15 - $23.5M
2015-16 - $25.0M
At the beginning of the 2000s, Bryant helped O’Neal lead the Lakers to three championships as well as four appearances in the NBA Finals. The beef between the two split them up even with O’Neal being the highest-paid player in the league in 2004-05. Bryant then won a scoring title, an MVP Award, two Finals MVPs, and proved he could lead the Lakers to the Finals and win from 2008 to 2010.
In 2011, Bryant signed a three-year, $88.5 million contract, and then he signed a two-year deal in 2014 that paid him $48.5 million. For six years, Bryant was the highest-paid player in the league, but no championships or Finals appearances came with it. The 2011, 2012, and 2013 teams looked good on paper, but never produced. The 2013-14 season was when Bryant hurt his Achilles and never returned to his same form. The 2014-15, 2015-16 seasons were some of the worst in franchise history, but this felt similar to Bird at the end of his career. The team was paying him for what he did for all of those years, but, unfortunately, he was not able to ride off into the sunset with more success. A lot of that was likely okay, given the amount of money he received.
Stephen Curry - 6 Seasons
2017-18 - $34.6M
2018-19 - $37.4M
2019-20 - $40.2M
2020-21 - $43.0M
2021-22 - $45.7M
2022-23 - $48.0M
Let’s talk about how Curry has led the last five seasons in salary. With this year’s salary, Curry is going to lead the league in salary a sixth time. When looking at the future, Curry is projected to lead the league in salary in 2024, 2025, and 2026. That could change if other players sign large deals that could top him. The player that is the closest is when Damian Lillard makes $58.5 million in 2025-26 while Curry makes $59.6 million.
Let’s look at what Curry has meant to the Warriors, though. Curry led the team to the NBA Finals five years in a row from 2015 to 2019. That included winning three championships in 2015, 2017, and 2018. He also won the MVP Award in 2015 and was unanimous MVP in 2016. He won the scoring title in 2020-21 and then led the Warriors to their fourth title as he won his first Finals MVP in 2022. It’s a lot of money, but that investment has been ever so fruitful for Golden State. In two years, Curry will rightfully have deserved to lead the league in salary a record eight times.
Kevin Garnett - 7 Seasons
2000-01 - $19.6M
2001-02 - $22.4M
2002-03 - $25.2M
2003-04 - $28.0M
2006-07 - $21.0M
2007-08 - $23.7M
2008-09 - $24.7M
It’s not very often you look back and realize that the Minnesota Timberwolves were spending a ton of money. It wasn’t until this past offseason that the franchise became buyers again. In the early 2000s, the team was a legit contender in the West. That was because they had an MVP-caliber player in Kevin Garnett. With that said, the postseason success never came with the regular season success, but the small market was in the nationwide conversation. The 2003-04 season remains special because that was when Garnett won the MVP Award and the team qualified for their lone Conference Finals appearance.
Garnett would eventually be traded to the Celtics in the largest package of players in NBA history in the 2007 offseason. Garnett would enter Boston as the highest-paid player in the league. With Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the team would win the NBA championship and Garnett was named Defensive Player of the Year. In the Finals against the Lakers, Garnett averaged 18.2 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.0 blocks. According to Spotrac, Garnett was the all-time leader in career earnings with $334.3 million. It wasn’t until recently that LeBron James passed him on that list.