LeBron James re-signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday, inking a three-year, $100,000,000 contact. LeBron is due to make over $33 million in 2017-2018, the second year of his deal, which will make him the highest-paid player in a single season in NBA history. The previous highest salary was $33,140,000, which Michael Jordan commanded in his final season in Chicago.
This is kind of surprising. When I first saw the $100 million figure, I thought, “I bet Michael Jordan didn’t even make that in his entire career. That would be a fun headline for a blog post.” And you know what? When I looked at Basketball-Reference, I was right. Jordan’s career earnings were $90,235,000. More than 70 percent of Jordan’s career salary came in his final two seasons in Chicago ($30,140,000 in ’96-’97 and the $33 million in ’97-’98).
Now, obviously, Jordan more than made up for the $2.45 million he made playing basketball each year by becoming the face of Nike and earning a bazillion dollars from the 80’s until the day he dies. Still, the idea that Michael Jordan was paid $3,850,000 the year the Bulls went 72-10 (and 15-3 in the playoffs) just sounds crazy. I know I’m probably the thousandth person to bring up any and all of this, but it just shocked me. And there are two ways to put these numbers into perspective.
After playing the first 13 seasons of his career in Miami, Dwyane Wade left to sign with Chicago over what looks like $3.75 million a year. That seems like nothing today, but it’s also around what Jordan made in a good year. It is incredible how far basketball salaries have come because of what Jordan had a big (if not the biggest) part in building.
On the other hand, with the way that professional sports salaries have ballooned in the United States, it’s incredible to think that it will have taken 20 years for someone to top Jordan’s record salary. Kobe made $30,453,805 in ’13-’14 and Kevin Garnett made $28 million in ’03-’04, but LeBron will be the first one to actually earn as much on a basketball court for a single season as Jordan did.
This seems fitting for both players. Looking back, Jordan was criminally underpaid for most of his career, but he was also (briefly) rightfully compensated and those numbers – like the rest of his numbers – remain impressive all these years later. The same goes for LeBron who has regularly taken less than he could have commanded and has never been the highest paid player in the league. His career earnings through this season sit at just over $172 million. That’s almost twice what Jordan made on the court, but he’ll still need a couple highly-compensated years after this contract ends to catch Kobe ($328 million) or Garnett ($335 million).
Again. None of this really matters. Jordan is a billionaire and Nike has agreed to make LeBron one as well. I just wonder if twenty years from now, people will be as shocked at LeBron’s on-court earnings as I am by Michael Jordan’s.