By: Keanu Richards, Thierry Tully, James Perkins, Gabe Mekonen, Aboubakar Gbane, Reanna Jones
What is an NBA player’s salary based on: their contribution to the team on the court or their contribution to ticket sales?
The graph below, based on NBA data from basketball-reference.com, illustrates the distribution of player salaries: The majority players in the NBA receive around $1 million to $7 million whereas there are just two players who receive the highest salary of nearly $35 million. The median salary of an NBA player in 2017 is about $3.3 million.
The top two highest-paid athletes in the league are also among the most popular: the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, followed by LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Russell Westbrook of the OKC Thunder is the top scorer in the NBA so far this year, with a total of 2,558 points this season, and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden has a grand total of 2,356 points, more than Stephen Curry’s 1,999 points and LeBron James’s 1,954 points.
This causes us to question if the NBA salary rate might be based more on a player’s popularity than their stats and skills. For more context, we spoke with NBA expert Tim Cato who recently wrote about this in his article Why NBA teams are signing so-so players to massive contracts for SBNation.
Cato informed our reporters about the massive TV deal between the NBA, ESPN, and Turner Sports in which these media companies would pay $2.6 billion annually to the NBA. The extra money leads to bigger contracts for almost every player, distributed as teams see fit. Because the Collective Bargaining Agreement splits the payment 50-50 between owners and players, this is essentially why certain players, and not just the most popular ones, have such high salaries.
Cato gave the example of Nick Young, previously of the Los Angeles Lakers, who recently signed with Golden State for a $5.2 million contract. Jordan Clarkson, by comparison, signed a $12 million contract, but he doesn’t seem to be more popular than Young: Young has 2.8 million followers while Clarkson has 876k followers.
Although there are some cases where more popular players are definitely payed more, their performance is high as well. There are also other factors that should be considered, like some teams’ ability to spend more than other teams would on a player, because of salary caps.
In conclusion, we found that we can’t prove our initial idea that salaries are determined more by popularity than performance. Unlike for something like a TV show, where acting skill doesn’t always correlate to popularity, the more popular players in the NBA are usually the most skillful as well.