Home > Essays > Essay: Looking At The NBA’s Salary Scale From A Different Angle

Essay: Looking At The NBA’s Salary Scale From A Different Angle

In the grand scheme of what’s altruistically important in life, I believe it’s fair to suggest all teachers, doctors, surgeons, and members of the armed forces should be given financial compensation of equal or greater value to that of which is awarded professional athletes. Their actual impact on human life is indisputably greater, more important, and further reaching. Of course, they don’t (and never will) because the businesses they’re in don’t create the billions upon billions of dollars in gross revenue that the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL produce on an annual basis. They also have an uncountable number of members in their labor force, making each worker’s slice of pie much smaller than that of the athlete. Call it sad. Call it unfair. Call it horribly disproportionate. Call it the real world.

To say teachers have a substantially more diverse affect on an average human life than, say, the New York Yankees’ middle infield is an indisputable fact—just as it is to say Russell Westbrook is a better basketball player than Gilbert Arenas. Yet in this upcoming year, Derek Jeter will make more money than any one teacher in the entire world, and in base salary, Arenas’ compensation will triple Westbrook’s, despite him being a third of the player—at this point, a generous assessment.

Everyone knows the NBA’s current player payment model is screwed up; very few are rewarded fairly on a relative level, with almost all either finding themselves gorged with mountains of undeserved cash (Joe Johnson) or hustling to match what their higher paid teammates are seeing, despite the general public’s agreed belief that they should be the one swimming in Olympic sized pools of hundred dollar bills (22-year-old reigning MVP Derrick Rose is scheduled to make less than Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah next season. Um, what?)

What if we restructured the model to make it look more like most every other firm in the country? How much revenue are you, the sole individual, helping attract to the company/team you work for? With the NBA player, measuring how valuable you are on the court to your coaches and teammates is obviously factored in, but switching it up a bit and strictly looking at the financial impact of having a certain player on any given team’s roster would certainly be an interesting way to look at the league’s salary structure, no? Admittedly, these two are intertwined, but here goes a shot at delicately separating them.

To do this, several things must be taken into account:

1) Visibility: Does he have any sneaker deals, commercials, endorsements? Is he the subject of magazine features? Does he use Twitter or make unwarranted and random public appearances? Is he on TV or in movies? Does he crave the spotlight?

2) Popularity: How often do people talk about the player in casual conversation? Does he sell jerseys? Is it worth tuning in to watch him on League Pass even if it means switching away from your favorite squad? Is he magnetic enough to make a casual fan go in on season tickets? Is your girlfriend or mother aware of his existence?

3) Ability: How good is he at basketball? How excited are you to watch him play? (Winners are always more popular than losers.) How willing is he to smile for cameras? Does he come across as personable; an overall good guy in the proverbial jostle public figures have with those who cover them?

Here’s the real life list of the league’s 20 highest paid players for the 2011-12season, 1-20: Kobe Bryant, Rashard Lewis, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Gilbert Arenas, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Dwight Howard, Elton Brand, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Andrew Bynum, Antawn Jamison

Now, looking at the actual list, how do you think the order was constructed? Apart from it being a random disarray of underachievers, over the hill veterans, and fully formed superstars, almost none of these players are being paid the appropriate amount of money. In my humble opinion, only nine guys qualify as capable of convincing a capricious fan to choose an arena seat over his comfy couch: Kobe, Dirk, Melo, Amar’e, Dwight, Deron, Chris Paul, LeBron, and Wade. Many of these contracts coincide with words like “desperation”. Guys are either benefiting from back loaded deals they signed in their prime (one of the biggest hiccups in professional sport contracts today), or were overpaid by owners who felt like they either had no other choice or were craving a splash signing to appease their starving fan base, only to wash it spoil before their eyes.

The best players in this league are still being compensated on their rookie pay scale which makes such little sense it’s indescribable. Before the NFL settled its own Collective Bargaining Agreement last summer, first round draft picks were coming into the league as some of the highest paid players on their teams before even playing a down. This presents a problem, but it also, when slightly muted, makes sense. Just because a player is a rookie doesn’t mean he isn’t better than the players around him, and chances are, if a number one pick is drafted to one of the league’s worst teams, he will in fact be the best player before stepping foot on the court.

For this list, all current markets are to be ignored. These are hypothetical values for any organization in any market, and what they do alone—individual from the city they currently play in—with their brand is how each player has been ranked. When we look at the best of the best, which is what we’re doing here, it’s a matter of splitting hairs; ranking any one superstar above another is obviously an objective task, with no obvious advantage any one guy has on another, but I’ve gone and done it anyway.

20. Derrick Williams: One of two players on this list who has yet to play a minute in the NBA—and undoubtedly the most controversial—Williams is the surest commodity the 2011 NBA draft had. A hyper athletic small forward who left you speechless, and the Plumlee brothers impotent, during the NCAA tournament, Williams is a poor man’s Blake Griffin, which is good enough reason to create a stir. My gut (shout out to Dan Gilbert!) tells me he’ll be one of the most riveting watches in the league. (2011-12 Projected Salary: TBD)

19. Brandon Jennings: He’s a swashbuckling renegade who treats controversy like an old friend. He’s comfortable around it, emotionally mature beyond his years, and, in some ways, a pioneer. Jennings is exciting to watch because he twists and twirls with the basketball like so few can. You can tell when you watch him play that what you’re seeing is as fearless a basketball player as the league has; the type of personality that could either strap his talents down (Steve Francis) or propel them forward (45 points in one half, as a rookie). Jennings is engaging: He tweets, he opens himself up to criticism, and he seems to always carry a shield of indifference. Jennings is not Milwaukee’s best player, and an argument can easily be made that he isn’t second either. (Next season he stands to make $5 million less than his assumed backup, Beno Udrih, and, $1 million less than his backup’s backup, Shaun Livingston.) But he’s the Buck we pay to see, basketball’s simmering 4th of July display. Of course, he could care less. And that only makes him more appealing. At least Under Armour seems to think so. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $2.5 million)

18. Russell Westbrook: He’s yet to capture the general public’s imagination—and playing alongside Kevin Durant will always submerge him as second fiddle—but Westbrook’s youth, insane athleticism, and slight resemblance to Archer from Small Soldiers should boost his brand higher as he matures. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $5 million)

17. Ricky Rubio: The largest question mark on this list, and maybe in the entire league, Rubio possesses everything but a knock down 14 footer: The lady-friendly face, the endlessly stupid comparisons to a basketball God, and unprecedented hype for a born and bred European. People will want a piece of Ricky Rubio when he enters the league. In more ways than one. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $3.5 million)

16. Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk could be higher on this list if it weren’t for his reluctance to endorse anything. Not that his decision isn’t admirable, but the reigning Finals MVP would certainly be higher if he opened up a bit. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $19 million)

15. Steve Nash: Seen and heard everywhere but the basketball court during this lockout, Nash is a do-it-all everything when it comes to marketability. He’s international (always a positive), has his own clothing line, and has lent himself to different avenues in the entertainment industry, such as directing and producing. Steve Nash is the NBA’s well-spoken transparency. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $11.7 million)

14. Rajon Rondo: Pound for pound the toughest player in the league (depending on how you define the word “tough”), and quite possibly the most mercurial, Rajon Rondo makes difficult things look easy, and easy things look difficult. When Bill Simmons wrote of the player’s union lacking intellectual capital, he wasn’t speaking about the Celtics point guard, photographic memory and all. Just recently Rondo began to wander through the opening doors of multi-million dollar endorsements; somewhere deep in the recesses of that constantly twitching brain of his is the answer of whether or not what he finds on the other side is actually what he wants. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $10 million)

13. Deron Williams: An underrated player who lets his play do the talking, is there anything about Deron Williams personal life we actually know? He’s mysterious on so many levels, but, of course, that doesn’t matter one iota on the basketball court. Williams deserves to be on this list because he’s one of the ten best players in the league. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $16.4 million)

12. Kevin Love: Already holding down endorsement deals with Walmart, Right Guard, Best Buy, and a shoe deal with a Chinese shoe brand called 361 degrees, here’s what Kevin Love had to say about the NBA lockout, months before it began.

I’m not rooting for a lockout, but there is one thing I’d like to try that my current contract prohibits: I’ve always wanted to jump out of a plane and try skydiving. You might not know it, but I’m somewhat of a wild man. Now, I’m not going to do something illegal, and I won’t do it if the contract terms still apply, but if they don’t, I just might.

Who knows how long we’ll be out. But I’ve got a Plan B, two of them actually. I’d like to pursue my broadcasting career. I’ll probably go back to UCLA and finish my communications degree. Obviously there wouldn’t be NBA games to call, but maybe I could work some college games. Or I might do a little Ochocinco route and go play another sport. When I was little, I wanted to be a pitcher. Maybe I’ll go try out for the Twins. I still think I can do it. I last pitched when I was 15 and had a fastball [reportedly clocked at 90 mph], curve and changeup. I really thought that was going to be my sport. I’m sure I could still throw the ball around for a living if it came to that.

He’s adventurous, smart, and likable. He also may have the Defensive Rebound Rate statistic named after him by 2020. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $4.6 million)

11. Stephen Curry: He does it all: shoots a high percentage from everywhere on the court, creates for others with crafty handle, and, on a nightly basis, kickstarts an exciting brand of basketball with what sometimes feels like a genetically altered brain specifically geared towards his sport. More importantly, Steph Curry has the baby-like innocence to sell anything to anybody. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $3.1 million)

10. John Wall: The handpicked face of Reebok basketball, armed with an all-knowing, toothy smile, and a craving for the spotlight. Wall has (had?) a gimmicky-dance, a pedigree hinging on legendary lineage (Calipari coached point guards), and he plays a position that places the team on his shoulders. The way he runs around as an unstoppable whirl-winding cyclone, John Wall is the perfect franchise player/pitchman for 2011 and beyond. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $5.5 million)

9. Amar’e Stoudemire: The mutually beneficial embrace reciprocated by Amar’e Stoudemire and New York City was rare and beautiful. He dazzled the metropolis with pogo stick dunks, 30-point games, and trendy reading glasses, popping up at fashion shows and appearing in magazines like Vogue, Essence, and Gotham. Stoudemire started with his net cast over an entire city, but ended with it trapping the housewives of America. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $18.2 million)

8. Chris Paul: The question is often debated, but it shouldn’t be. Chris Paul is the best point guard alive, and one of the five premier players of his generation. It’s tough to gage whether or not his presence was a major factor in keeping the New Orleans Hornets from turning into the San Jose Web Designers, but having him on the roster didn’t hurt. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $16.4 million)

7. Derrick Rose: Adidas has thrown gobs and gobs of money at Derrick Rose to fill in the giant hole left by Kobe Bryant, who left the company for Nike (and has since shown to be a big man about it) a few years ago. Rose is the youngest MVP in league history which is a be-all-end-all reason to make him one of the seven highest paid players in the league, but the type of person he appears to be—insatiable work ethic, humble take on life, level headed view of priorities—makes him all the better investment. Rose is talented enough to will a team to contender level, which puts people in the seats and gives his team nation-wide recognition. Rose is good business. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $7 million)

6. Dwyane Wade: Next to Kobe Bryant, Wade is probably the most respected player by his peers in the entire league. His credentials, his two way talent, and his off the court associations (dating Gabrielle Union) make Wade an unbelievable spokeman for basketball as a whole, let alone whichever team he plays for. Before the Miami Heat became the Miami Heat, Wade was the league’s cool hand luke, rarely mistepping in public and preserving an untouchable golden image. His hungry man humble pie eating marathons had him as Derrick Rose before Derrick Rose, but then LeBron had to ruin everything. Wade is still in his prime though, and the Jordan’s leading endorser. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $15.5 million)

5. Kobe Bryant: Kobe Bryant is the all powerful life force who makes people in Los Angeles care about the Lakers. No matter how relatively old he plays, or how feeble he’ll look towards the end of his monstrous contract, Bryant will summon Los Angelinos to the Staples Center—with either their cars or remote controls—like a witch who’s brainwashed a city. Kobe is awkward by nature, a basketball “nerd” as Chris Ballad refers to him in “The Art of a Beautiful Game”. He’s up there among the leading money makers (the highest next season, in fact) because of the simple fact he’s arguably his generation’s best player, and one of the most recognizable professional athletes on the planet. He’s at single name status: Madonna, Cher, Prince, Kobe. All the stars come not to watch the Los Angeles Lakers; all the stars come to watch Kobe Bryant. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $25.2 million)

4. Dwight Howard: No player makes the hearts of opposing coaches beat faster before a game even starts than Dwight Howard. He’s simply unstoppable on both ends of the court, happily taking advantage of an era with no legitimate rival for miles. Howard’s name is synonymous with pleasantries: the smile, the technical fouls swept under the rug, the celibate aura of wholesome goodness. Adidas gave Howard a signature shoe, which is extremely rare for a big man. He fits in step with the league’s more traditional long line of franchise pillars; he should be paid accordingly. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $17.9 million)

3. Kevin Durant: A prodigious scoring talent with humble roots similar to Derrick Rose, Durant is one of the league’s most precious players. A man of the people. When he scores, each individual making up the crowd in Oklahoma City feels like the basketball just left their fingertips instead of his. He plays with boyish love, as we’ve seen this summer in the seemingly dozens of organized summer league games he’s hijacked. His frame is slight, giving off the appearance of an underdog, when in actuality he’s the best player on the court 90% of the time. Durant sleeps with the Gatorade and Nike, the Kings of athletic endorsement, while also associating himself with the likes of EA Sports and Degree Men. All while playing in one of the smallest markets in professional sports. Durant is charismatic, honest, and for the time being, liked by all. What he’s already done to help Oklahoma City embrace his team is remarkable, and if he can do it big there, limitations are off the table. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $13.6 million)

2. LeBron James: Common sense says he’s the best basketball player in the world. Common sense says he’s one of the five most recognizable athletes on the planet. Therefore, common sense says he should be the highest paid player in the NBA. NOT so fast, my friend. With signature shoes and an expanding portfolio of sturdy endorsers, LeBron is this generation’s Michael Jordan in more ways than proud holder of the prestigious Best Player Alive title. LeBron’s face is the sport’s face and his actions represent the NBA in no way any player can equal. Say what you want about “The Decision” but the fact is people wouldn’t care one way or the other if he weren’t so damn talented. LeBron isn’t just a game changer, he sets the bar for excellence in the sport he plays. With that being said, his life continues to be run by those who’ve exposed James for the business world novice most men in their mid-20′s are. He’s intelligent, but not invincible. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $16 million)

1. Blake Griffin: If any player were strong enough to reverse the Los Angeles Clippers’ slight penchant for losing basketball games, Blake Griffin would be it. A once in a generation athletic phenom who nearly hijacked “The Decision” with “The Dunk Contest” as the single most memorable yet inconsequential NBA moment of 2011, his dunks were ferocious and unrelenting, common yet never tiresome. Why is he number one over the most talented player in the world? For starters, he exudes an easygoing personality with effortless ease. He’s cool and magnetic like nobody else in the sport. Maybe I’m wrong for this, but once the vitriol for Miami begins to wear off, whether it be one or two years from now, Blake Griffin will have a different landscape to showcase his inexplicable abilities. Things will be less bleary than they are now, with basketball fans focusing in on a hero as opposed to a villain. By making Griffin the highest paid player in the game, I’m also saying he has a shot at being the most marketable. The view is subjective and can’t be proven either way—and as I write this LeBron’s clearly the league’s driving force—but as Griffin improves as a player and continues his friendly assault on mass media (can’t you see him hosting Saturday Night Live in 16 months?) he’ll be the NBA’s single largest draw, a reason for people who don’t even like basketball to sit down and watch a game/series, and, ultimately, it’ll be hard to argue against him deserving the most sizable paycheck. (2011-12 Projected Salary: $5.7 million)


(All salary information is used courtesy of the indispensable HoopsHype, and does not take into account endorsement deals or other sources of income.)



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