As much as we love the NBA, we have to remember that the league is a business. Being a fan is all fun and games. We cheer and chastise our teams for their play on the court. What fans often forget is that there is a dollar amount attached to their name. Like us everyday workers, we have a salary attached to our production. It is no different for professional basketball players.
We see it all the time. There are some contracts handed out in the league that are not worth it. We call those bad business decisions. It was no different back in the 90s. During the late 90s, some of the best players in Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal were paid like stars. Others were paid like stars but did not live up to the hype.
These are the top-10 highest-paid salaries for the 1997-1998 season.
10. Dikembe Mutombo - $9,615,187
Mutombo led the league in total blocks and was second with 3.4 blocks per game average. He was sixth in the league with a 53.7% average and 16th in the league in total shooting percentage. On the offensive end, he did his part, but defensively, he was probably the best.
Mutombo finished the year with a line of 13.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game. Had he played in today’s game, his salary would have been about $16.2 million. Clint Capela made just about $1 million more in salary this season as a comparison.
9. Gary Payton - $10,514,688
Payton’s 19.2 points just broke the top-20 in the scoring race and finished seventh in assists. Payton finished in the top-15 for field goals made and attempted, but his greatest call to fame this season was finishing fourth in the league in steals with 2.3. Altogether, Payton was known for his defense, which is why he was a First-Team All-Defensive Player.
When looking at today’s game, Payton was another type of Chris Paul. Which player was better is up to your interpretation, but Payton’s salary would equate to about $17.8 million today. Given that Paul makes about two times that amount now, the SuperSonics had a bargain.
8. Hakeem Olajuwon - $11,156,000
Olajuwon battled injuries this season playing just 47 games. Olajuwon averaged 16.4 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals, and 2.0 blocks when on the floor. Olajuwon’s production would have equaled about $18.9 million today, so the play might not necessarily meet the demands on the contract.
With that said, Olajuwon had earned every right to earn this salary. Olajuwon had led the Rockets to the NBA Finals, where he won Finals MVP in both years, in 1994 and 1995. With two championships in hand, the Rockets had to take care of its superstar.
7. Juwan Howard - $11,250,000
Howard’s salary would have been around $19 million today, which is a tough pill to swallow when you look at the overall averages from him. Howard averaged 18.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.4 blocks. While those are solid numbers from a regular starter, they may not command the salary of a top-10 player.
Howard didn’t reach the top-20 in points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks this season. When you pay superstar money, you think you are going to get superstar production. That was not the case for the Washington Wizards this season.
6. Alonzo Mourning - $11,254,800
The Miami Heat had one of the best overall defenders on the floor. Mourning reached the top-10 for blocks per game with 2.2, while cracking the top-20 for total blocks. On the offensive side, Mourning shot 55.1% from the field, which was third in the league and his two-point field goal percentage was fourth. When it came to true shooting percentage, he ranked seventh in the league.
Mourning’s contract would have been worth just over $19 million today. Given that Mourning excelled on both ends of the floor, that’s a solid win for the Heat this season. Dwight Howard is a solid comparison for this production and he was equally worth the money when he was in his prime with the Magic.
5. David Robinson - $12,397,440
Robinson would have been one of five players worth over $20 million in today’s game and he earned every penny while playing for the San Antonio Spurs this season. For starters, Robinson averaged 21.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.6 blocks per game. He shot 51.1% from the field and played in 73 games.
Robinson broke the top-15 in total points and the top-10 in scoring averages. His rebounds broke the top-5, as did his blocks average. Robinson led the league in win shares per 48 minutes and defensive rating. On both sides of the ball, Robinson was one of the best.
4. Shaquille O’Neal - $12,857,143
Another top center in the league was worth the money. O’Neal shined with the Lakers this season. O’Neal would have been worth about $21.7 million today. O’Neal nearly won the scoring race. He finished second in the league with 28.3 points, which was just 0.4 points away. O’Neal was so efficient on offense that he led the league in field goal percentage by shooting 58.4% from the field. Defensively, O’Neal finished in the top-10 for blocks.
In today’s league, we see players like Giannis Antetokounmpo put up these types of numbers and he is making around $40 million. O’Neal has made jokes that he played in the wrong era. Given the dollar amount on these numbers back then, he might have a point.
3. Horace Grant - $14,285,714
This was a tough season for the Magic. For starters, the team paid the third-most money for a player that didn’t make an All-Star team. The team also finished 41-41. Grant averaged 12.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks. He made more money than both O’Neal and Robinson, who had All-Star seasons, while Grant’s contract would have equated to $24.2 million.
We see horrid contracts all the time, but this particular salary had to hurt, especially when O’Neal used to be a prime piece of the Magic. Grant was a productive player when the team made an NBA Finals run in 1995, but this season was not one of his best when matching the dollars amount.
2. Patrick Ewing - $20,500,000
It should come as no surprise that New York was going to find a way to play Ewing like a star. Ewing was one of two players to make over $20 million this season. In today’s league, this contract would have equaled about $34.7 million. The Knicks were 43-39 and finished their second in the second round of the playoffs. Part of that likely came with Ewing playing just 26 games in the regular season.
In those games, Ewing averaged 20.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. However, that is a lot of money for someone that could not stay healthy. With that said, the investment was well worth it for the following season. The Knicks made the NBA Finals in 1999, so it’s a matter of picking your poison because you aren’t always going to get top production for top dollar.
1. Michael Jordan - $33,140,000
Jordan wanted to be paid like the best player in the league. The Chicago Bulls got the best player production. Jordan won the league MVP and led the Bulls to the NBA Finals for a third straight year, where he captured the league MVP. Jordan led the league in scoring, scored over 200 more points than runner-up Karl Malone, scored the most two-point field goals, as well as the most overall field goals, and used a league-leading 33.7% in the offense.
The Chicago Bulls made sure to make His Airness the highest-paid player not only that season but in NBA history, even going over the salary to make the then 5x NBA champion the highest-paid player in the league.
Via Yahoo Sports:
In the 1997-98 season, the NBA salary cap was roughly $27 million dollars. No player on the Bulls made over $5 million that season, except for Michael Jordan, who earned just north of $33 million.
Jordan was a free agent after a 1995-96 season in which he made $3.8 million in the last season of a long-term deal. Jordan then signed a one-year contract for $30.1 million in 1996-97, when the salary cap stood at $24.3 million. And Jordan signed a one-year deal for $33.1 million in 1997-98 when the salary cap stood at $26.9 million.
Jordan's $33.1 million deal was worth more than the average team payroll at the time and represented the highest single-season salary in league history all the way until 2017-18, when LeBron James and Stephen Curry each surpassed it.
The Bulls' team payroll of $61.3 million for the 1997-98 season was the league's largest by $7.4 million over the second-place Knicks.
It was also $32.8 million more than the Utah Jazz's team payroll, the Bulls' eventual counterpart in the 1998 NBA Finals.
Jordan’s contract would have been worth $56.1 million. Given that the backend of Giannis and Steph Curry’s contract equals about that type of money, you would have to think this was a solid deal in place with the Bulls. All three of these players are faces of their respective eras. All in all, Jordan could have played in today’s league and been worth the money.