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The Birth of the Bag: 75 Years of NBA Salaries

A lot has changed in the NBA over the last 75 years — the teams, the talent, the game itself — but nothing has changed as much as the money.

Seventy-five years ago, the NBA salary cap was $55,000, and each player earned, on average, between $4,000-$5,000, save for a few notable exceptions.

This season, the league’s salary cap is a whopping $112.4 million, with the average annual player salary checking in right around $7.5 million.

Feel free to do the math, but it’s pretty simple. Today’s players are getting paid. Big time. Especially compared to their predecessors.

And it’s not just because of inflation — today’s NBA has exceeded all expectations, both in terms of popularity and revenue. The players themselves have also become master marketers, a skill that has fueled the parallel growth of player empowerment, which in itself has drastically redefined what it means to secure the bag and continues to set the NBA apart from other sporting organizations around the world.

So, in celebration of the NBA’s 75th anniversary, here’s a look at just how drastically NBA salaries have changed over time.

The First $eason (1946-47)

In the NBA’s official inaugural season, at which time it was known as the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the league’s highest-paid player was Tom King of the Detroit Falcons.

King’s salary was $16,500, according to the History of NBA Labor.

King earned his league-leading salary partly because of his performance on the court, but also because of his front office duties as the team’s publicity director and business manager. He only averaged 5.1 points per game that year; the league’s scoring leader, Joe Fulks, averaged 23.2 points per game for Philadelphia and was paid $8,000.

During this time, the National Basketball League, a competitor to the BAA before the two merged to form the NBA in 1949, was paying top players five-figure salaries.

George Mikan, a.k.a. “Mr. Basketball,” was making $60,000 plus incentives to play for the Chicago American Gears.

Similar to today, players back then were very much wrangling for the best possible payday. And it was this effort and the standoff between the BAA and the NBL that led to the NBA we know today.

  • Player Salaries: $5,000-$60,000
  • Team Salary Cap: $55,000
  • Annual Household Income: $2,600
  • A House: $5,500
  • A New Car: $1,125
  • A Gallon of Gas: 21 cents
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The 25th $eason (1970 -71)

Similar to the early days, not much is documented about salaries in the 1970s. However, at least one pundit considers it to be an era in which the “economics of pro basketball exploded.”

The league’s most valuable player at the time was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then still known as Lew Alcindor, who would just led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA championship to cap the NBA’s 25th season.

The 24-year-old future Hall of Famer is believed to have been making roughly $250,000 a year with the Bucks, a salary that was reportedly subsidized by the NBA. Fellow superstar Wilt Chamberlain was also making around $250,000 per year.

  • Average Player Salary: $90,000
  • Team Salary Cap: N/A — the league abolished the salary cap until 1984
  • Annual Household Income: $6,497
  • A House: $25,200
  • A New Car: $3,742
  • A Gallon of Gas: 36 cents

The 50th $eason (1995-96)

It’s only fitting that the league’s 50th anniversary season began with a lockout centered around collective bargaining and money — particularly the salary cap.

Michael Jordan, who had already achieved GOAT status at this point, was the league’s undisputed best player and went on to lead the Chicago Bulls to a record-setting 72-10 season, as well as their fourth of six NBA championships in the 90s.

MJ became a free agent after the 1995-96 season in which he made $3.8 million in the last year of a long-term deal. He then signed a one-year contract for $30.1 million in 1996-97, actually exceeding the league’s team salary cap all by himself.

The biggest salary in the league’s 50th season, as noted by HoopsHype, was Patrick Ewing’s $18.7 million rate with the New York Knicks, followed by Clyde “the Glide” Drexler’s $9.8 million with the Houston Rockets.

  • Average Player Salary: $2.2 million
  • Team Salary Cap: $23 million
  • Annual Household Income: $35,492
  • A House: $140,000
  • A New Car: $15,000
  • A Gallon of Gas: $1.23

The 75th $eason (2021-22)

Today’s NBA features more superstars than ever, each making truly incredible money to play ball.

Stephen Curry is the league’s highest-paid player with a $45.7 million annual salary, followed closely by James Harden, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook, all of whom make $44 million per year on supermax deals.

Combined, the league’s top 10 highest-paid players make over $400 million in annual salary.

But basketball isn’t the only thing thing that’s padding the pockets of some of today’s top hoopers.

The Stephs and KDs and LeBrons of the world have proven they are true entrepreneurs with legitimate chops, each launching business ventures and ever-expanding investment portfolios that go far beyond sports.

Thanks to their efforts, today’s players know how to secure the bag on and off the court.

We’re even having conversations about athletes becoming billionaires before their playing careers are even over, an absolutely gobsmacking thought even a decade ago.

  • Average Player Salary: $8.8 million
  • Team Salary Cap: $112 million
  • Annual Household Income: $79,900
  • A House: $269,039
  • A New Car: $42,736
  • A Gallon of Gas: $3.30

Given the sheer acceleration of salaries over the NBA’s 75 years, especially in the last decade, it’s only natural to assume the league will see a $60 million-a-year man sooner than later.

And with the league’s popularity continuing to grow, especially overseas and in emerging markets like Africa, it’s safe to say a rising tide will lift all boats.

Can you imagine where we’ll be in 25 years when the NBA celebrates a century? Get ready for the league’s top earner to make $100 million in year 100.

You know Tom King and Joe Fulks would be proud.