LeBron James and Kevin Love are smiling all the way to the bank, as two of the highest-paid players in the NBA this season. The NBA boasts the highest average salary of any team sport in the world, at $4.7 million. Here are the top 20 earners in the league, ranked in ascending order (source: basketball-reference.com). **Note: Anthony Davis, who is not yet in the top 20, has the largest guaranteed contract at $126.6 million for six years.
No. 20: Kawhi Leonard, $16.5 million – Leonard was named MVP of the 2014 finals for the San Antonio Spurs when he was tasked with guarding LeBron James, while averaging 17.8 points on 11-19 3-point shooting. Still only 24, Leonard will anchor the Spurs long after the "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have retired.
No. 19: Russell Westbrook, $16.7 million – Without injured running mate Kevin Durant, Westbrook was only a game away from single-handedly willing Oklahoma City to the 2014-15 playoffs after a stellar season featuring 11 triple-doubles. A leading MVP candidate for 2016, Westbrook's contract escalates to $17.8 million next season, his last under contract. Look for him to benefit from a new collective bargaining agreement in 2017.
No. 18: Paul George, $17.1 million – The versatile Indiana Pacers small forward (#24) was a budding superstar until breaking his leg before last season. He came back to play six games but it was too early to tell whether George will live up to the $55 million the Pacers guaranteed him after his breakout 2014 campaign (21.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg).
No. 17: Blake Griffin, $18.9 million – For all his skills and physical prowess, Griffin shies away from the big shot in the fourth quarter, which is partially what doomed the Clippers in the playoffs last year. But as long as he is a Clipper, a spectacular dunk is just a moment away, keeping the Hollywood glitterati packing the Staples Center.
No. 16: Paul Millsap, $19 million – Without averaging more than 18 points or nine rebounds in any season, Millsap (#4 of the Atlanta Hawks) is the least-known player in the top 20. But he was a leader for the 60-win Hawks, who were intent on keeping the team intact; hence, the $60 million, three-year deal for the 30-year-old power forward.
No. 15: Kevin Love, $19.5 million – Love was always going to get paid, the question was -- who was going to write the checks? After an an up-and-down first season in Cleveland capped by a separated shoulder that kept him out the Cavs' playoffs run, speculators had Love bolting to his native West Coast. But the sharp-shooting power forward wisely committed to Cleveland and, more importantly, teaming with LeBron James for five years and $113 million in total.
No.14: DeAndre Jordan $19.5 million – The second Clipper on the list, Jordan is a beast under the basket, but is plagued by terrible foul shooting (39.7% last season) that kept him out of big chunks of fourth quarters, especially in the playoffs. In a league favoring small-ball, the standoff between Dallas and LA to sign Jordan was a curious one. After committing to Dallas in July and then changing his mind, the center signed with the Clippers for $88 million over four seasons.
No. 13: LaMarcus Aldridge $19.5 million – After nine seasons with Portland, the four-time All-Star power forward brings his 23.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game to San Antonio, who ponied up for an $80 million deal to 2019.
No. 12: Marc Gasol $19.7 million – Like Kevin Love, Gasol was one of the most coveted free agents during the offseason, but opted to remain with his team. The Spaniard -- whose time in Memphis stretches back to high school when he accompanied his older brother Pau to the U.S. -- re-signed for five years and $110 million. With those kind of numbers, the Grizz are hoping for championship payback.
No. 11: Brook Lopez, $20 million – Lopez (#11 of the Brooklyn Nets) came off an average season for a starting center (17.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg) but the big-spending Nets re-signed him to a three-year, $63 million contract. The 7-foot Lopez also sat out half of the last four seasons with injuries. Sometimes it pays to be tall, literally.
No.10: Dwyane Wade, $20 million – The NBA has a culture of paying for past performance. Entering his 13th season, the 33-year-old Wade hasn't played in 70 regular season games since 2011. When healthy, however, he's still one of the best guards in the league, averaging 24.3 points, 5.5 assists and 1.3 steals in 2015. He was signed to a one-year, $20 million deal by Miami in the offseason.
No. 9: Derrick Rose, $20.1 million – Rose signed a $94 million extension with the Bulls halfway through his 2011 MVP campaign. Unfortunately, due to a variety of injuries, he's only played in 61 regular-season games in the three years since then. Because of situations like this, NBA owners will be pushing for non-guaranteed contracts in the next collective bargaining agreement, set to be in place by 2017.
No. 8 Kevin Durant, $20.2 million – Durant was an MVP two seasons ago, then promptly had foot surgery to rule him out of most of last season (sound familiar?). He's on the last year of his Oklahoma contract, so has plenty of incentive to impress on the court.
No. 7 Chris Paul, $21.5 million – The third Clipper in the top 20, Paul is the undisputed leader of the perennial playoff team. He has three more seasons under an escalating contract, with an option to terminate his 2018 salary of $24.3 million and test the open market at age 33.
No. 6 Chris Bosh, $22.2 million – The Miami Heat's starting center on the 2012 and 2013 NBA championship runs was diagnosed with career-threatening blood clots in his lungs that sat him out for the entire second half of last season. Thankfully, Bosh made a full recovery -- but had he been forced to retire, the Heat would have been on the hook for the remaining $98 million on his contract.
No. 5 Dwight Howard, $22.6 million – Once thought of as a franchise player, Howard sat out half of last season with knee problems, having previously had back surgery. Worrying trends for the Rockets, who are on the hook for $45.6 million if "Superman" decides to come back to Houston next season. Sadly, like DeAndre Jordan, his Kryptonite is free-throw shooting (career 57.3%).
No. 4: Carmelo Anthony, $22.9 million – 'Melo missed half of the 2014-15 campaign with left knee surgery, which gave him a front-row seat to watch the Knicks sink to their worst season in franchise history. Since signing with the Knicks in 2011 for three years and $65 million, the team has won one playoff series. Anthony recently re-signed for three years and a guaranteed $73 million, with a team option for a fourth year at $28 million.
No. 3: LeBron James, $22.98 million – It's tough to argue that anyone making $23 million is underpaid -- except when it comes to James. The self-anointed best basketball player in the world (agreed on by nearly everyone) was worth $162 million to the economy of Northeast Ohio when he returned from Miami last year, as forecast by LeRoy Brooks of John Carroll University. He is set to make another $24 million next season, his last under contract before the new collective bargaining agreement kicks in. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's negotiating skills will be put to the test in 2017.
No. 2: Joe Johnson $24.9 million – Johnson was thought as of as a potential NBA superstar when Atlanta signed him to a six-year, $123.7 million deal in 2010, coming off a 21.3-point, 4.9-assist, 4.6-rebound season. Unfortunately, that was his peak. At least Johnson has stayed healthy and productive for the Nets, who picked up his crippling contract in 2012, though last season's 14.4 points, 3.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds was nothing to write home about.
No. 1: Kobe Bryant, $25 million – The 17-time All-Star and five-time NBA champion is not only top of this list, but after this season (which he says will be his last) he will have accumulated the most salary money in NBA history at $303.24 million. Only Bryant and his rival/mentor Michael Jordan have ever notched paychecks of over $30 million in a season (Jordan received $33.14 million in 1998 and $30.14 million in 1997 -- but received only $90.24 million for his career).