For the eighth straight year, King James reigns supreme, earning more than $110 million.
LeBron James has ruled over the NBA almost from the moment he entered the league in 2003, racking up four MVP Awards, four championships and 17 All-Star Game selections. Yet even now, at age 36 and entering his 19th season, King James is finding new jewels to add to his crown.
With his $41.2 million salary for the upcoming 2021-22 season and an estimated $70 million from his ventures off the court, the Los Angeles Lakers star is set to haul in $111.2 million in a single year, demolishing the NBA earnings record of $96.5 million he established over the 12 months ending in May. That keeps him atop Forbes’ ranking of the NBA’s highest-paid players for the eighth straight year.
Combined, the NBA’s ten top-earning players are set to make $714 million, up 28% from 2020-21 and 19% from the previous high of $600 million from 2019-20. It also represents a staggering 132% increase from a decade ago. The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry takes the runner-up spot with $92.8 million, which would have been a record for an NBA player just a year and half ago. The Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant ($87.9 million), the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo ($80.3 million) and the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook ($74.2 million) round out the top five.
James already reached a financial milestone this year when he surpassed $1 billion in career earnings before taxes and agents’ fees, pushing his net worth to roughly $850 million, according to Forbes estimates. He continued his march toward billionaire status this week when his media and entertainment business, the SpringHill Company, announced the sale of a minority stake at a valuation of about $725 million. The Los Angeles-based company does everything from producing movies and documentaries (Space Jam: A New Legacy, What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali) to doing marketing work for the likes of J.P. Morgan. James is not expected to pocket much cash from the deal, instead reinvesting the bulk of the proceeds into the business, a source close to the transaction tells Forbes. James and his business partner Maverick Carter will retain a controlling interest in the company, which has a TV deal with ABC Studios and a first-look film agreement with Universal Pictures.
The NBA’s highest-paid players are set to collect more than $305 million combined off the court, easily beating last year’s record total of $260 million. But the surge in this year’s top-ten total also owes a great deal to two factors on the court, where the highest-paid players are raking in $408 million, up from a high of $351 million in 2019-20.
First, teams can simply pay their best players more. The NBA’s salary cap is up to $112.4 million and the luxury-tax threshold to $136.6 million this season, nearly double the levels of a decade ago. That has given teams more cash to hand out and driven up the level of max contracts, especially after the introduction in 2017 of so-called super-max extensions, which allow teams to spend even more on their stars.
More important for this season specifically is the return of fans to arenas. Last season, with the pandemic severely hampering attendance, the NBA made emergency financial adjustments that effectively cut player pay by up to 20%. The league is projecting revenue will return to pre-pandemic levels this season, and the hope is that there will be minimal adjustments to player salaries. Because the exact figures won’t be known until after the season ends in June, Forbes has elected to credit players for their full salaries this year. James, for instance, is credited with receiving $41.2 million on the court, up from the $31.4 million Forbes assigned him for 2020-21.
Still, the effects of the pandemic linger. Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ point guard, has refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19, and that has sidelined the Australian-born superstar. The docked pay keeps him off the top-ten ranking entirely.
LeBron James looks well on his way to becoming the second billionaire to emerge from pro basketball, after Michael Jordan, who joined the three-comma club in retirement. The 36-year-old signed a two-year, $85 million extension with the Los Angeles Lakers in December, and his collection of off-the-court ventures is unmatched in the NBA, with his Nike deal alone paying him $32 million annually. James lent his likeness to Epic Games’ Fortnite video game in July and joined home gym company Tonal as an investor and brand ambassador just this week. His total of $111.2 million for this season would be the ninth-highest figure ever recorded on Forbes’ annual ranking of the highest-paid athletes, and he is set to become just the fifth active team-sport athlete, and the tenth active athlete overall, to surpass $100 million on a Forbes list (after soccer stars Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar and NFL quarterback Dak Prescott, plus golf legend Tiger Woods, boxers Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, tennis ace Roger Federer and MMA fighter Conor McGregor). A ProPublica report in July indicated James had declared $124 million in income on his 2018 tax return; however, Forbes has not been able to obtain the document to verify its authenticity or determine whether the $124 million figure included pass-through income.