The National Basketball Association really has come a long way. Some people can hardly remember, but it wasn’t always the lucrative money-making machine it is today. When it first started out and for the first few decades of existence, playing in the NBA wasn’t even the athletes’ only job.
Everything has changed now. The television deals are larger. The endorsements are fatter. Tickets are more expensive. The rise in sportsbooks and betting strategies has also helped popularize every sport and widened their revenue streams. Franchise valuations have reached into the billions of dollars, with many of the league’s 30 teams worth close to $2 billion or more.
Player salaries are now skyhigh as a result of a decades-long financial boon. Even players who aren’t superstars make life-changing money. These days, if you’ve signed two separate multi-year contracts at the NBA level, chances are you’re set for life.
It begs the question: Who are the highest NBA players of all time? Are there any guys from past eras, when the money was usually less? Or does the list consist of mostly newer-age players?
Fortunately, we’ve got the answer. And just as a reminder, this list includes money earned from NBA contracts only. Other revenue streams such as endorsement deals are not included. Finally, these figures are accurate as of the 2020-21 season, have not been adjusted for inflation and come via HoopsHype.
1. LeBron James ($339,330,546)
No one’s going to quibble with this one. LeBron James is arguably the greatest player of all time. And he’s definitely no worse than the second best player of all time. Given that he’s entering the 18th year of his career, it makes sense that he would top this list.
Fun fact, though: Despite being the highest paid player of all time, LeBron has never had the highest salary in the league. That’s patently wild.
This is also a good time to ponder what Michael Jordan would’ve earned had he entered the league today. He cleared $30 million per year a couple of times toward the latter end of his career when he was signing short-term deals, but he never enjoyed this contract-by-contract windfall the superstars of today are negotiating.
2. Kevin Garnett ($343,862,398)
Kevin Garnett played in the NBA for more than two decades, most of which saw him perform at an All-Star level, so it makes sense he would nearly top this list.
Perhaps most impressively, he topped $20 million in annual earnings seven times over the course of his career, which was basically unheard of given the era in which he spent most of his prime.
3. Kobe Bryant ($328,237,108)
Though there is a $15 million gap between Kobe Bryant and the No. 2 spot, he still cleared more than $325 million in career earnings. That’s just absurd.
The only reason his totals aren’t higher is he didn’t enter free agency nearly as often as LeBron and Garnett. He tended to sign long-term deals that he would either extend or allow to expire.
Unlike many other players, especially stars of today, he rarely cleared $30 million in a single season. It only happened once. His prime came so long before the biggest salary-cap spike in league history, this was unavoidable.
4. Chris Paul ($300,177,385)
Some people might be surprised to see Chris Paul here. Sure, he is one of the five best point guards of all time, but he isn’t someone normally associated with making a lot of money.
That’s sort of fair. But CP3 has signed numerous max contracts through his career and played long enough to rake in the dough. His earnings are most inflated by his latest contract, which was worth $160 million over four years.
“Chris Paul goes low on Tyson Chandler pick” by All-Pro Reels is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
5. Shaquille O’Neal ($292,198,327)
Nowadays, entering free agency and signing massive contracts, even if it’s not with your own team, has become the norm. Back in Shaquille O’Neal’s prime, it wasn’t as common. He helped bring it into the mainstream.
His decision to leave the Orlando Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers early in his career was particularly significant. It not only put him on the path to making absurd amounts of money, but it also forced the league to rethink how they could protect incumbent teams against losing players they drafted that quickly.