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King's Value: LeBron James Finally And Deservedly Becomes The Highest Paid Player In The NBA

Why it took this long for James to be the biggest earner in the NBA is a tricky story to tell
by Kirby Garlitos | Aug 13, 2016
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LeBron James is heading into his 14th NBA season and he has already amassed quite a trophy collection. Three NBA titles, four regular season MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and 10 All-NBA First team selections. The list goes on but there’s really no point mentioning all of them. There is, however, one surprising fact about LeBron James that few people know about. Before he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 2014-2015 season, James was never the highest-paid player in his own team. That, of course, changed when he went home to Cleveland, but even in the past two seasons, LeBron has also never been the highest paid player in the league.

That was until Friday, August 12, and whether you’re a LeBron fan or an unabashed hater, you can’t deny that the “highest paid player in the league” title that has eluded James for so long is not only long overdue, but is also well-deserved.

James’ new three-year, $100-million contract will pay him about $31 million in the first season and a little over $33 million in the second season. The third season is a player option, which means that he can opt out after the second season and be a free agent again with the chance to sign a new long-term deal for what could presumably be the equivalent of a small country’s GDP.

Why it took this long for James to be the highest paid player in the NBA is a tricky story to tell, in large part because of a willingness on his part to leave money on the table to get other players on board and a salary cap system that dictated the maximum salary any NBA player can get. It becomes even more egregious when you consider what LeBron could have commanded in a free market, or in other words, a market without a salary cap.

Kurt Badenhausen, a senior editor at Forbes who has spent years compiling lists of highest-paid athletes, told ESPN in 2014 that LeBron could be worth $60 million, or at least 30 percent of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ revenue back then. Badenhausen even compared James’ value to the Cavaliers to that of Michael Jordan during his last two years with the Chicago Bulls. “Jordan was getting paid $33 million, and that was 30 percent of the Bulls' revenue back then, Badenhausen said. “If you look at 30 percent of the Cavs' revenue, that's $60 million, and I think you can certainly justify LeBron being worth that."

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Turns out, Badenhausen’s estimate of LeBron James was a modest one, or at least compared to the recently retired Kobe Bryant, the league’s highest paid player in each of the past two seasons. At one point, the Black Mamba admitted that James could be worth as much as $75 million per season in an open market. Use Bryant’s estimate as a baseline for LeBron’s new contract and that three-year, $100 million deal explodes to something in the neighborhood of a three-year $250 million deal.

Does LeBron deserve $250 million spread out over three years? You better believe he does. Between ticket sales, sponsorship money, merchandising, and the mother-load of them all, TV deals, LeBron James is the singular force of nature that skyrockets these prices, not just for the Cavs, but for the entire NBA. Remember why the salary cap exploded to $94 million in the upcoming season? That’s because of the whopping nine-year, $24 billion TV deal the NBA struck with ESPN and Turner Sports back in 2014. You can make a case that your favorite player—Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, etc —all had a hand to play in that and you’d be right.

But don’t get sideways into thinking that they played the biggest part in that mammoth deal as far as popularity is concerned. The biggest reason is LeBron James and whether you love him or hate him—popularity cuts both ways, you know—there’s no denying that the newly minted three-time NBA champion is the biggest reason why the league is as popular as it ever has been in its 70-year history.

So before you start asking if LeBron deserves to be the highest-paid player in the NBA, consider the access we all have to NBA games here in the Philippines. Between NBA Premium TV, NBA League Pass, and the games shown on Basketball TV, all of that was made possible because of the NBA’s booming popularity. And the guy leading the charge?

LeBron James.