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PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Projecting the First NBA Player to Make $60 Million in a Season

Steph, Giannis, KD, Harden, Luka, and Trae are all in the mix to break the NBA’s $60 million ceiling. But only one can reign supreme.

The 2021-22 NBA campaign is less than a week away, and Stephen Curry is poised to reign as not only the league’s best shooter in its 75th anniversary season, but its highest-paid player as well at $45.7 million. And at the end of his new four-year, $215 million extension in 2025-26, he’s projected to earn $59.6 million.

That got us thinking over here at Boardroom: Who will be the NBA’s first-ever $60 million player?

It’s possible that salary cap adjustments make Curry that player in four years’ time. If he does check in right below the $60 million threshold, however, it’s unlikely he’ll be paid even bigger money on a subsequent contract given that he’ll be 38 years old by the summer of ’26.

That means we need to find some other candidates for basketball’s inaugural $60 million man.

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To make the most educated guess possible Boardroom, we looked to ESPN’s front office insider Bobby Marks for a little help and guidance.

His educated guess? The NBA’s current second-highest paid player, Brooklyn’s James Harden.

“But only if he does not sign an extension before the start of the season,” Marks added as a caveat.

Harden has a three-year, $161 million offer on the table from the Nets until Monday. If the former MVP waits, Marks said, he’d be in line to receive a four-year extension worth $227 million next offseason.

“By Harden opting-in to his $47.4 million contract for the 2022-23 season,” Marks said, “he would be in line to become the first $60 million ($62.5 in 2026-27) player in NBA history.”

If Harden takes the contract extension following Kevin Durant re-upping with Brooklyn earlier in the offseason — something he’s been non-committal about so far — then we’d still be searching for our $60 million man.

As we ruminate on this, there’s a handful of players we can pretty confidently rule out:

  • LeBron James will be 38 when his next contract is up, but if any NBA player can be a top-10 talent into his early 40s, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be commanding that kind of salary in 2026 or 2027.
  • Kevin Durant is scheduled to be a free agent entering his age 38 season after earning an estimated $53.28 million in the final year of his brand-new extension.
  • At 36, Chris Paul‘s career is winding down.
  • Russell Westbrook joining the Lakers makes record-setting money effectively an impossibility.
  • Kawhi Leonard missed out on the supermax by leaving San Antonio; the same goes for Anthony Davis and New Orleans. Leonard could be a free agent after the 2023-24 season at age 33, but would he really earn something unprecedented given his partial ACL tear?
  • Paul George won’t be a free agent again until age 34.
  • Nikola Jokic is almost certain to sign a supermax contract next summer, but the current cap growth outlook is likely to see him fall reasonably short of our magic number in the deal’s final year.

With all this in mind, here are some more likely candidates to break the $60 million ceiling:

Luka Dončić’s five-year, $207 million rookie max extension kicks in at the start of the 2022-2023 season. The cap could go up enough to have him make enough toward the end of the decade, and that would be even more likely if the Mavericks somehow trade him, which would trigger a 15% kicker on his deal.

Trae Young gets the same five-year, $207 million deal if he becomes rookie max eligible by making an All-NBA Team, as well as the same 15% trade kicker. But the Hawks All-Star has a 2025 early termination option on his deal, which would get him to his next contract even faster than Luka.

Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum both have identical five-year, $163 million contracts can escalate to $195 million with an All-NBA selection. Both have 15% trade kickers and can become free agents in 2025. Tatum would be 27 and Spida 29, making them strong supermax candidates with $60 million annual paydays in reasonable striking distance.

Coming off a championship and two MVP awards, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s NBA record five-year, $227 million supermax deal has a player option that could make him a free agent after the 2024-25 season at age 30. Whether the Greek Freak will become the first $60 million player depends on his durability and the overall cap situation of a Bucks team that has been occasionally skittish about paying the NBA’s luxury tax, but he’s almost certain get there if he stays healthy — the only remaining question is whether he’d be the first.

Damian Lillard is in the first year of a four-year, $176 million supermax extension that was originally intended to be $196 million before cap values were reduced. He can be a free agent after the 2023-24 campaign at age 33, with the possibility of reaching $60 million in his next contract assuming he remains a face-of-the-franchise player.

Devin Booker’s five-year, $158.2 million rookie extension expires after 2023-24 at age 27. He’ll be supermax-eligible if he makes an All-NBA Team this season.

Five biggest active NBA contracts by average annual value, via Spotrac

Other younger options include two players who just signed rookie max extensions: Oklahoma City point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Denver forward Michael Porter Jr. SGA’s five-year, $172.5 million extension would increase to $207 million if he makes an All-NBA team, but he wouldn’t be a free agent until 2027 at age 28.

MPJ has a similar contract to Gilgeous-Alexander with a partially guaranteed year in 2026-27 that wouldn’t bring him back to free agency until 2027 at age 29.

Then, there are players still on their rookie deals like Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. They are prime candidates to make $60 million in one year, but are quite likely to be beaten to the punch.

Zion, LaMelo, or even players who haven’t even reached the NBA yet like Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren, Emoni Bates, or Victor Wembanyama probably have a better chance at ultimately becoming the NBA’s first $70 million player as the league ages into its 80s, however.