The formation of the Miami Heat super team has been the dominant NBA storyline for the past four months as fans weighed the merits of the game’s best players joining forces to win a title. Two-time MVP LeBron James(notes) took the most criticism as even Dan Gilbert, the owner of his former team, called James selfish among other names in his infamous letter to fans.
James might be guilty of a few things in his move to Miami, but being selfish isn’t one of them. James and new teammates Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) all left money on the table this summer when they signed with the Heat thanks to the league’s salary cap. James and Bosh will make $14.5 million apiece in salary this season, while Dwyane Wade’s deal is worth $14 million. None of them are among the 20 top-paid players in the game.
In Pictures: The NBA’s 10 highest-paid players
The NBA’s highest-paid player is guard Kobe Bryant(notes), who last season led the Los Angeles Lakers to its fifth title since he entered the league in 1996. This season he is the NBA’s highest-paid player for the first time in his career with a salary of $24.8 million.
Bryant inherits the title from Tracy McGrady(notes) who last season still reaped the benefits of a $63 million, three-year contract extension he signed in 2004 before injuries forced him to miss 60 percent of his team’s games the past two years. Kevin Garnett(notes) held bragging rights as the NBA’s top earner in the three seasons before McGrady.
Bryant signed a three-year, $83.5 million extension in April with the Lakers that will make him the highest-paid player through the 2013-14 season in which he is set to earn $30.5 million. He will be the first NBA player to make more than $30 million since Michael Jordan during the 1997-98 season. The NBA is looking to enact a salary rollback as part of its next collective bargaining agreement with the players, which would knock Bryant under $30 million if successful. Bryant and Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki are the only NBA players with no-trade clauses in their contracts.
NBA owners are bracing for a battle with players over their collective bargaining agreement, which expires after this season, and a lockout is a strong possibility. Owners lament about losses that reached $380 million last year according to the NBA and want to cut salaries by $800 million, or 35 percent. Yet it is the owners who are guilty of handing out dozens of rich contracts to players where the production does not match the pay.
The NBA’s best players are not its highest-paid. Each year there are 10 players selected to the All-NBA first and second teams. Out of those 10 players chosen last year, Kobe Bryant is the only player that is also among the game’s 10 highest-paid this season.
Bryant deserves his role as the highest-paid player with his championship pedigree and individual accolades that include selections for: All-Star games (12 times), All-NBA teams (eight times), All-NBA defensive teams (eight times) and All-Star MVP (three times). Some of the other highest-paid players are head-scratchers though.
Take the second highest-paid player in the game: Orlando Magic forward Rashard Lewis(notes). Lewis signed a $118 million, six-year deal in 2007 that pays him $20.5 million this season. Lewis scored 14 points a game last year and averaged 4.5 rebounds. ESPN’s John Hollinger devised a player efficiency rating, which had Lewis ranked 48th out of 71 power forwards last season. Lewis has no right being in the league’s financial elite. He deserves closer to the NBA average salary of $5 million which would mean a 75 percent pay cut.
The No.3 and No. 4 highest-paid are veterans Garnett and Tim Duncan(notes) who will earn $18.8 million and $18.7 million respectively this season. The two are among the best power forwards to ever play the game (Duncan is arguably the best) and have earned 25 All-Star nods between them. They are still productive players (Hollinger ranked Duncan fifth and Garnett 30th among all players last season in his ratings). Yet both are on the back-ends of their career and their teams play them only 30 minutes a game to keep them fresh for the playoffs.
No. 5 Michael Redd(notes) ($18.3 million) and No. 9 Yao Ming(notes) ($17.7 million) played 12 games between them last year as both were hit with injuries. No. 8 Gilbert Arenas(notes) has played in only 19 percent of Washington Wizards games the past three years thanks to various injuries and a half-season suspension for bringing guns into the locker room last December. Other high-priced players like No. 6 Andrei Kirilenko(notes) and No. 10 Zach Randolph(notes) have not lived up to their lofty contracts.
LeBron James might not be among the NBA’s top-paid on the court, but James and Bryant are in a class by themselves when you factor in endorsement incomes. James will earn more than $40 million in salary and endorsements thanks to his deals with Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nike, State Farm and Upper Deck. Bryant’s total take should hit $50 million when you factor in endorsements. No other NBA player will earn more than $30 million from salary and sponsors.
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