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.
No NBA player will make more than Stephen Curry in salary this season, and that’s before the four-year, $215 million contract extension he signed with the Golden State Warriors in August kicks in. The 33-year-old sharpshooter also ties for second, with Kevin Durant, with his off-the-court earnings. Under Armour, which pays him $20 million a year, launched Curry Brand in December, hoping to challenge Nike’s Jordan Brand, and he last month announced a major endorsement deal with cryptocurrency platform FTX. Curry also has his own production company, Unanimous Media, which is behind the ABC reality competition series Holey Moley.
In his return to the court from an Achilles injury last season, Kevin Durant was as dominant as ever, falling just a toe’s length short of an Eastern Conference finals appearance, and he was rewarded with a four-year, $198 million contract extension with the Brooklyn Nets in August. Off the court, the 33-year-old has been just as impressive, with a thriving media business in Boardroom and investments in more than 80 companies through his firm Thirty Five Ventures. He is set to score big on his stakes in investing apps Robinhood and Acorns, online bank Mercury, fitness-tracker maker WHOOP and fantasy sports startup Sleeper, and he recently partnered with cannabis tech company Weedmaps and NBA Top Shot creator Dapper Labs through his firms. Thirty Five Ventures is also involved in special-purpose acquisition company RedBall’s deal to take SeatGeek public, announced this week.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is fresh off a championship run with the Milwaukee Bucks and has two MVP Awards to his name—more than anyone on this list not named LeBron James or Stephen Curry. Yet for all that success, Antetokounmpo is still only 26—the only member of this top ten still under 30. The Greek Freak is just beginning the five-year, $228 million super-max contract he signed in December, and he counts Nike, JBL and TCL—plus Greece’s Sarantis—among his sponsors. He is also the subject of a biopic from Walt Disney currently in production, and he recently bought a small stake in baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers.
Russell Westbrook is playing for his hometown team after an off-season trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. That puts him closer to the ten auto dealerships he owns in Southern California, including a massive Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram dealership in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. The 32-year-old recently added Hennessy as a sponsor and is behind eyewear brand Westbrook Frames and clothing label Honor The Gift. He can become a free agent after this season by declining his $47 million player option for 2022-23.
Starring for the Brooklyn Nets after a blockbuster trade in January, James Harden ties with John Wall—coincidentally a member of his old team, the Houston Rockets—for the NBA’s second-highest salary this season, with a $47.4 million player option for next year. Harden, who has leaned toward equity deals in recent years, took a stake in massage-device maker Therabody in February through his firm 13 Endeavors and joined Saks, the e-commerce offshoot of luxury retailer Saks Fifth Avenue, as an investor and board member in June. The 32-year-old also recently partnered with luxury watch brand Vanguart as an ambassador and shareholder.
Damian Lillard rejected an off-season report that he was prepared to request a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers—the only pro team he has ever known—but he will continue to be dogged by speculation after demanding urgency from the organization. The 31-year-old has three years and a player option for a fourth remaining on his contract. Adidas, Gatorade and Modelo are among his brand partners, with Oakley eyewear and Tissot watches two recent additions to the stable. Lillard is also the co-owner of a Toyota dealership outside Portland and raps under the name Dame D.O.L.L.A., showing off his flow in a Hulu commercial in January.
After missing the last two seasons because of leg injuries, Klay Thompson is nearing a return to the Golden State Warriors, with three years remaining on a contract he signed in 2019. He has continued to pick up sponsors during his time away, recently adding Hugo Boss and Shake Shack to a portfolio that also includes healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente and Tissot watches. The 31-year-old is one of the four athlete founders behind the CBD brand Just Live and has a new sneaker set to be released from Chinese brand Anta, which pays him an estimated $8 million a year.
Paul George, unquestionably the Los Angeles Clippers’ on-court leader with Kawhi Leonard sidelined by a knee injury, has a four-year, $190 million contract extension kicking in this season. The 31-year-old, coming off a third-team all-NBA campaign and a dominant 2021 postseason, counts Nike, Gatorade and AT&T among his partners and is an investor in home gym company Tonal.
Jimmy Butler, riding out his contract before a lucrative extension lifts his salary past $45 million in 2023-24, is the lone member of this list making his first appearance in the NBA’s top ten. The 32-year-old Miami Heat star signed with Chinese shoe brand Li-Ning last year, the biggest partner in an endorsement portfolio that picked up TAG Heuer watches and Jaybird wireless earbuds in the spring. Butler, who sold $20 cups of coffee out of his hotel room to fellow players in the NBA’s 2020 playoff bubble in Florida, is now turning that half-serious side hustle into a legitimate business, announcing this month that he has joined Shopify’s creator program with his coffee brand, Bigface.
The Forbes ranking of the NBA’s highest-paid players reflects on-court earnings for the 2021-22 season, including base salaries and bonuses. Incentives that are based on 2021-22 individual or team performance are not included.
Last season, emergency adjustments to the NBA’s escrow system appeared likely to cut players’ salaries by 20%, so Forbes reduced the top ten’s published on-court earnings figures accordingly. Under the league’s “ten and spread” system, last season’s losses could theoretically continue to cut into player pay, but with revenue projected to return to normal this season, the league expects any player losses to be within the escrow system’s standard 10% cushion. Forbes has thus elected to credit players for their full salaries.
The off-court earnings estimates are determined through conversations with industry insiders and reflect annual cash from endorsements, licensing, appearances and memorabilia, as well as businesses operated by the players. Forbes does not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees.
As a senior editor at Forbes, I report on the business of sports and edit coverage in Forbes.com’s SportsMoney section.
I previously served as an assistant managing
As a senior editor at Forbes, I report on the business of sports and edit coverage in Forbes.com’s SportsMoney section.
I previously served as an assistant managing editor, overseeing the website’s network of nearly 3,000 contributors and the editors working with them, and as the deputy business editor, overseeing the business coverage at Forbes.com and working closely with the channel’s contributing writers in digging up stories, developing angles and delivering strong analysis. In my pre-Forbes days, I worked in sports and business news as an editor at the New York Times.