The Step Back

Another Michael Jordan record falls to LeBron and Curry

Next season, LeBron James will earn $33.28 million and Steph Curry will earn $34.68 million. It’s my expert opinion that this is, uh, a lot of money. It’s like ten thousand dollars into either bank account every time they eat a banana or wait at a red light or fart or whatever.

It’s not really a big deal, though. The Warriors and Cavaliers will pay the luxury tax and it’s totally cool, because investing in either player is just so stone cold obvious. Both players are so reliably dominant that those actual sums — $33.28 million, $34.68 million — are somehow anti-newsworthy. Actually, I didn’t even notice until now: both players are breaking the single-season earnings record.

For almost twenty years, this record belonged to, yes, Michael Jordan. He first took the record away from Patrick Ewing in 1996-97, earning $30.14 million. Then Jordan pushed it a little further in 1997-98, earning $33.14 million in his last non-Wizards year.

Forget about adjusting Jordan’s record-setting salary for inflation. At the time, the league’s salary cap was $26.9 million. Jordan was earning 123 percent of the cap. Today, that would be $121.88 million.

How the heck did the Bulls do that?

Today, a team can only pay any player up to a certain percentage of the total salary cap — it’s 35 percent right now — and no more. There are understandable competitive balance reasons for this rule, and also there are very good reasons to huck this rule right into the garbage, as voiced by LeBron himself:

Fortunately for His Airness back in the day, this rule was devised during the 1998-99 lockout. That was months after Jordan sunk the dagger over Bryon Russell and began retirement two out of three.

But the salary cap and Bird Rights had been around since the eighties. That basically meant: since Jordan was a returning Bull, Chicago could explode their cap sheet to bring MJ back in free agency for the 1996-97 season.

The Bulls needed to do it, too. As Sam Smith wrote for the Chicago Tribune at the time, the Knicks were gunning for then-free agent Jordan with a devious $25 million offer. The plan was that Jordan would earn $12 million as a Knick, giving New York a plausible chunk of cap space to put a roster around him. Then he would earn the rest as a spokesman for Sheraton hotels, which was owned by the same group that then owned the Knicks. (Honestly, it’s incredible that league history is not littered with spidery, cross-corporate deals like this one.)

If the Bulls didn’t come forward with the massive new deal, they would have been vulnerable to a new pinnacle in sports heartbreak: getting flushed out of the playoffs by a Jordan-Ewing duo.

In both 1996-97 and then 1997-98, Jordan out-earned the entire rest of team, combined. And: it was totally worth it. In the past I’ve personally wondered about LeBron’s priorities for linking together these short-term deals during Cavaliers Era 2.0. But in this context, LeBron’s moves totally make sense. Even in this record-setting year, James will be earning fractionally more than a gaggle of players who have not made it to a single NBA Finals. We all know that LeBron operates in a stratosphere that is much more Jordan-esque than, well, Millsap-esque.

This record is about to get busted all the time now

Even if free agency were somehow canceled during each upcoming July, this single-season earning record is already on-schedule to get busted each of the five years after this one. Pen has already been put to paper:

  • 2018-19: James has a player option for $35.60 million that he is almost certain to decline. Curry’s salary is $37.45 million.
  • 2019-20: John Wall and James Harden’s identical mega-extensions kick in: they both earn $37.80 million. Curry is breaking his own record, though: $40.23 million.
  • 2020-21: Wall and Harden jump past Curry again, at $40.82 million. And Curry jumps back in front at $43.00 million.
  • 2021-22: Same thing: Wall and Harden jump to $43.84 million, Curry jumps to $45.78 million.
  • 2022-23: Curry’s contract is over and Wall and Harden are the only NBA players who currently have deals for this season. Their $46.87 million salaries aren’t just new records — they’re also player options.

It seems impossible that we could be in a world anything like our own where a player turns down $46.87 million guaranteed. Then again, 2022 could totally be that world. After all, LeBron is about to turn down $35.60 million, and that would have been unthinkable in the very recent past.

A lot is going to happen before 2022. Players like Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson are all going to hit free agency — in their twenties — before then. Heck, 2022 is the year that Joel Embiid is on track to be an unrestricted free agent, which may or may not be a seismic event. By then, Wall, Harden, and their $46.87 million might not be anything special.

Salary information via Basketball-Reference and Spotrac.

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