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Who was the highest paid NBA player each season?

There’s a certain fascination with seeing how much our sporting heroes get paid. Most of the time it’s an obscene amount of money, but given how much joy they can bring into people’s lives, well maybe heartbreak as well, i’d say on balance they earn it. We’re going to take a look at the highest paid NBA players for each season and dive into how this fits around the salary cap.

Who was the highest paid NBA player each season? Prior to the introduction of the Salary Cap for the 1984-85 season NBA wages were the wild west. Even after the Salary Cap was in place, it took a while for contracts to settle down. The highest paid player in the inaugural 1946-47 NBA season was Joe Fulks of the Warriors, the highest paid player in the upcoming 2023-24 season is Steph Curry of the Warriors.

For the details in between read on!

First of all let’s get the info on the table. We aren’t looking at anyone but the highest contracted earner for each season, from when the NBA started to where current contracts run out.

Table of highest paid NBA players by season:

NBA SeasonHighest Paid Player ContractTeamHighest Contracted SalaryNBA Salary CapSalary Cap %Wage % IncreaseSalary Cap % Increase
2026–27Damian Lillard (projected)Portland Trail Blazers$63,228,828$181,043,95135%6%10%
2025–26Stephen Curry (projected)Golden State Warriors$59,606,817$164,585,41036%7%10%
2024–25Stephen Curry (projected)Golden State Warriors$55,761,216$149,623,10037%7%10%
2023–24Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$51,915,615$136,021,00038%8%10%
2022–23Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$48,070,014$123,655,00039%5%10%
2021–22Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$45,780,966$112,414,00041%6%3%
2020–21Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$43,006,362$109,140,00039%7%0%
2019–20Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$40,231,758$109,140,00037%7%7%
2018–19Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$37,457,154$101,869,00037%8%3%
2017–18Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$34,682,550$99,093,00035%12%5%
2016–17LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers$30,963,450$94,143,00033%24%34%
2015–16Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$25,000,000$70,000,00036%6%11%
2014–15Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$23,500,000$63,065,00037%-23%7%
2013–14Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$30,453,805$58,679,00052%0%1%
2012–13Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$30,453,805$58,044,00052%21%0%
2011–12Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$25,244,493$58,044,00043%2%0%
2010–11Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$24,806,250$58,040,00043%8%1%
2009–10Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$23,034,375$57,700,00040%-7%-2%
2008–09Kevin GarnettBoston Celtics$24,751,934$58,680,00042%4%5%
2007–08Kevin GarnettBoston Celtics$23,751,934$55,630,00043%13%5%
2006–07Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$21,000,000$53,135,00040%5%7%
2005–06Shaquille O’NealMiami Heat$20,000,000$49,500,00040%-28%13%
2004–05Shaquille O’NealMiami Heat$27,696,430$43,870,00063%-1%0%
2003–04Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$28,000,000$43,840,00064%11%9%
2002–03Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$25,200,000$40,271,00063%13%-5%
2001–02Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$22,400,000$42,500,00053%14%20%
2000–01Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$19,600,000$35,500,00055%14%4%
1999–00Shaquille O’NealLos Angeles Lakers$17,142,000$34,000,00050%-7%13%
1998–99Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$18,500,000$30,000,00062%-44%12%
1997–98Michael JordanChicago Bulls$33,140,000$26,900,000123%10%9%
1996–97Michael JordanChicago Bulls$30,140,000$24,693,000122%61%7%
1995–96Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$18,724,000$23,000,00081%28%44%
1994–95Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$14,660,000$15,964,00092%155%5%
1993–94David RobinsonSan Antonio Spurs$5,740,000$15,175,00038%0%8%
1992–93David RobinsonSan Antonio Spurs$5,720,000$14,000,00041%-19%12%
1991–92Larry BirdBoston Celtics$7,070,000$12,500,00057%66%5%
1990–91Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$4,250,000$11,871,00036%13%21%
1989–90Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$3,750,000$9,802,00038%15%34%
1988–89Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$3,250,000$7,323,00044%18%19%
1987–88Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$2,750,000$6,164,00045%10%25%
1986–87Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$2,500,000$4,945,00051%0%17%
1985–86Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$2,500,000$4,233,00059%0%18%
1984–85Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$2,500,000$3,600,00069%14%
1983–84Moses MalonePhiladelphia 76ers$2,200,000No Cap0%
1982–83Moses MalonePhiladelphia 76ers$2,200,000No Cap120%
1981–82Otis Birdsong, Julius Erving, Moses Malone Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-JabbarNew Jersey NetsPhiladelphia 76ers Philadelphia 76ers San Diego Clippers Los Angeles Lakers$1,000,000No Cap0%
1980–81Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-JabbarPhiladelphia 76ers, Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers$1,000,000No Cap0%
1979–80Moses Malone, Bill WaltonPhiladelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers$1,000,000No Cap25%
1978–79David ThompsonDenver Nuggets$800,000No Cap23%
1977–78Kareem Abdul-JabbarLos Angeles Lakers$650,000No Cap0%
1976–77Kareem Abdul-JabbarLos Angeles Lakers$650,000No Cap0%
1975–76Kareem Abdul-JabbarLos Angeles Lakers$650,000No Cap30%
1974–75Ernie DiGregorio, Kareem Abdul-JabbarBuffalo Braves, Milwaukee Bucks$500,000No Cap0%
1973–74Ernie DiGregorioBuffalo Braves$500,000No Cap32%
1972–73Pete MaravichAtlanta Hawks$380,000No Cap0%
1971–72Pete MaravichAtlanta Hawks$380,000No Cap0%
1970–71Pete MaravichAtlanta Hawks$380,000No Cap52%
1969–70Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-JabbarLos Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks$250,000No Cap0%
1968–69Wilt ChamberlainLos Angeles Lakers$250,000No Cap100%
1967–68Bill BradleyNew York Knicks$125,000No Cap25%
1966–67Bill RussellBoston Celtics$100,001No Cap0%
1965–66Bill RussellBoston Celtics$100,001No Cap54%
1964–65Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ers$65,000No Cap0%
1963–64Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ers$65,000No Cap0%
1962–63Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ers$65,000No Cap0%
1961–62Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ers$65,000No Cap0%
1960–61Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ers$65,000No Cap117%
1959–60Wilt ChamberlainPhiladelphia 76ers$30,000No Cap20%
1958–59Bob CousyBoston Celtics$25,000No Cap0%
1957–58Bob CousyBoston Celtics$25,000No Cap0%
1956–57Bob CousyBoston Celtics$25,000No Cap0%
1955–56Bob CousyBoston Celtics$25,000No Cap25%
1953–54George MikanMinneapolis Lakers$20,000No Cap0%
1952–53George MikanMinneapolis Lakers$20,000No Cap33%
1951–52George MikanMinneapolis Lakers$15,000No Cap0%
1950–51George Mikan, Harry BoykoffMinneapolis Lakers, Tri-Cities Blackhawks$15,000No Cap0%
1949–50George MikanMinneapolis Lakers$15,000No Cap0%
1948–49George MikanMinneapolis Lakers$15,000No Cap20%
1947–48George MikanMinneapolis Lakers$12,500No Cap56%
1946–47Joe FulksPhiladelphia Warriors$8,000No Cap

NBA player wage trends

Since the salary cap spike after the 2015-16 NBA season, where the cap jumped 34%, allowing the 73-9 Warriors to add Kevin Durant using only cap space, the highest paid player wage per season has been pretty stable. The following 2016-17 season saw Lebron James salary take a 24% Jump on Kobe Bryants from the season before. This was the only season in his career that Lebron James has been the highest paid NBA player, despite earning more in total wages than any player in history. After Lebron’s jump, the 2017-18 season saw the start of unanimous MVP Steph Curry’s new contract and a 12% jump in salary. Since then his extension has kicked in and by the time it ends in 2025-26 Curry will have been the highest paid NBA player for 9 seasons in a row. No other player has ever achieved this feat.

The overall trend of this is that the highest paid NBA players salary has risen by an average of 7% a year since the 2016 spike, while the salary cap has risen at around 9%. This means that there is more money to spread around amongst the next tier of players and that more teams have a player earning close to the maximum money allowed under Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) rules.

Does the NBA salary cap always go up?

The NBA salary cap is based on a calculation of 51% of Basketball Related Income. This means that 51% of income defined as coming through Basketball related means in the CBA is paid out in player wages. This number is projected by the NBA and used to calculate each season’s salary cap. This includes things like broadcast rights, ticket sales and the most recent addition starting 2023-24, licensing and merchandise sales.

This means that if the NBA is more profitable than it was the previous year, then the salary cap will go up. If it is projected as being less profitable then the salary cap will probably go down. Since its introduction in 1984 the salary cap has only gone down twice. 2002–03 where it dipped 5% and in 2009-10 where it dipped 2%. The biggest jump so far was 44% in 1995-96. Usually big chances in the salary cap are driven by the big driver of National and Global TV broadcast deals. Often when coinciding with a new CBA negotiation, causing the players to push for a bigger slice of the pie.

In the table at the top of this article we have used the NBA’s projected Salary Cap for the coming 2023-24 season and estimated a 10% jump for the 2 years after that. Similarly we have used contracts that are already signed, regardless of player options, to project the highest paid player. It is always possible that a player contract that hasn’t been signed yet, would supersede these figures or the named player might turn down their player option in search of a change of team or a longer contract.

How was Michael Jordan paid more than the total salary cap?

Michael Jordan earned just $93,627,500 in player wages during his NBA career. This pales in comparison to the contracts even average players make in today’s NBA. The interesting thing is that Jordan earned $63 million of that money, almost 2 thirds, in just 2 seasons.

Prior to him signing his final contract with the Bulls for the 1996-97 Jordan’s highest single year salary had been $4 million. In the 1995-96 season where Jordan led the Bulls to their 4th title and started the march to their second 3 peat of the decade, Jordan was paid just $3.85 million. This amounted to only 16% of the $23 million salary cap. Patrick Ewing was the highest paid player that season, with his $18.7 million salary amounting to 81% of the salary cap. This was all due to recent spikes in the salary cap, since Jordan had signed his previous contract. Bottom line was Jordan was due a pay rise.

Just as they are today teams were allowed to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own players. However in 1996 there were no max limits to player contracts and no luxury tax to hit owners in the pocket should they exceed the salary cap by too much. Jordan’s previously low value contract expired after the 1995-96 season. The Bulls offered Jordan an unprecedented 1 year contract for $30,140,000 which amounted to an insane 122% of the salary cap. After winning his 5th title, Jordan signed on for another year at $33,140,000, this time 123% of the salary cap, winning his 6th title in 8 seasons and retiring (for the second time).

The Bulls’ team payroll of $61.3 million was over double the $26.9 million salary cap for the 1997-98 season. Jordan’s 1997-98 Chicago Bulls salary would be the record NBA single year salary for 20 years until Steph Curry was paid $34 million for the 2017-18 season.

When did the NBA introduce Max Player Contracts?

Following Michael Jordan’s destruction of the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, his retirement and the aftermath of his record breaking $33 million single year contract the NBA would not resume again until January 1999.

The 1999 NBA lockout shortened the 1999 season to just 50 games. It was triggered when the Owners and Players couldn’t agree to new CBA terms. One of the key issues being the restructuring of the salary cap (which the Bulls had more than doubled in winning the title in 1998) and putting a max figure on player contracts, Jordan had earned 123% of the Salary Cap on his own in 1997-98.

Eventually the dispute was resolved and Max Player contracts became a thing. Soon after the Luxury Tax came into force. These two features of the CBA would now control roster construction and player wages while attempting to keep the NBA profitable and allowing parity across the league.

That is why it took 20 years for Jordan’s 1997-98 $33 million salary to be beaten. Since Steph Curry earned $34 million in 2017-18, wages have continued to rise along with the salary cap.

In 2026-27 Damian Lillard is contracted to earn almost $64 million. A conservative estimate sets this at around only 35% of the Salary Cap. In less than a decade maximum player wages would have almost doubled and the NBA is still making money hand over fist.

Season Maximum NBA player wages as a percentage of salary cap

Below we have produced a table that shows the maximum season player wage ranked by the % of that year’s salary cap they took up. (numbers from the introduction of the salary cap in 1984)

NBA SeasonHighest Paid Player ContractTeamHighest Contracted SalaryNBA Salary CapSalary Cap %Wage % IncreaseSalary Cap % Increase
1997–98Michael JordanChicago Bulls$33,140,000$26,900,000123%10%9%
1996–97Michael JordanChicago Bulls$30,140,000$24,693,000122%61%7%
1994–95Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$14,660,000$15,964,00092%155%5%
1995–96Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$18,724,000$23,000,00081%28%44%
1984–85Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$2,500,000$3,600,00069%14%
2003–04Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$28,000,000$43,840,00064%11%9%
2004–05Shaquille O’NealMiami Heat$27,696,430$43,870,00063%-1%0%
2002–03Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$25,200,000$40,271,00063%13%-5%
1998–99Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$18,500,000$30,000,00062%-44%12%
1985–86Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$2,500,000$4,233,00059%0%18%
1991–92Larry BirdBoston Celtics$7,070,000$12,500,00057%66%5%
2000–01Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$19,600,000$35,500,00055%14%4%
2001–02Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$22,400,000$42,500,00053%14%20%
2012–13Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$30,453,805$58,044,00052%21%0%
2013–14Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$30,453,805$58,679,00052%0%1%
1986–87Magic JohnsonLos Angeles Lakers$2,500,000$4,945,00051%0%17%
1999–00Shaquille O’NealLos Angeles Lakers$17,142,000$34,000,00050%-7%13%
1987–88Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$2,750,000$6,164,00045%10%25%
1988–89Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$3,250,000$7,323,00044%18%19%
2011–12Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$25,244,493$58,044,00043%2%0%
2010–11Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$24,806,250$58,040,00043%8%1%
2007–08Kevin GarnettBoston Celtics$23,751,934$55,630,00043%13%5%
2008–09Kevin GarnettBoston Celtics$24,751,934$58,680,00042%4%5%
1992–93David RobinsonSan Antonio Spurs$5,720,000$14,000,00041%-19%12%
2021–22Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$45,780,966$112,414,00041%6%3%
2005–06Shaquille O’NealMiami Heat$20,000,000$49,500,00040%-28%13%
2009–10Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$23,034,375$57,700,00040%-7%-2%
2006–07Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$21,000,000$53,135,00040%5%7%
2020–21Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$43,006,362$109,140,00039%7%0%
2022–23Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$48,070,014$123,655,00039%5%10%
1989–90Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$3,750,000$9,802,00038%15%34%
2023–24Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$51,915,615$136,021,00038%8%10%
1993–94David RobinsonSan Antonio Spurs$5,740,000$15,175,00038%0%8%
2024–25Stephen Curry (projected)Golden State Warriors$55,761,216$149,623,10037%7%10%
2014–15Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$23,500,000$63,065,00037%-23%7%
2019–20Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$40,231,758$109,140,00037%7%7%
2018–19Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$37,457,154$101,869,00037%8%3%
2025–26Stephen Curry (projected)Golden State Warriors$59,606,817$164,585,41036%7%10%
1990–91Patrick EwingNew York Knicks$4,250,000$11,871,00036%13%21%
2015–16Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$25,000,000$70,000,00036%6%11%
2017–18Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$34,682,550$99,093,00035%12%5%
2026–27Damian Lillard (projected)Portland Trail Blazers$63,228,828$181,043,95135%6%10%
2016–17LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers$30,963,450$94,143,00033%24%34%

You can see that all the top figures are from contracts signed prior to the 1999 lockout.

Below we have produced the same table, excluding the years before the introduction of max limits on player contracts in the 1999 CBA. You can see that it takes a while for the introduction of the maximum limits to take effect. Kevin Garnett had signed a huge 6 year deal in 1998 that saw his salary dominate the league for years after the 1999 changes. Shaq and Kobe also had huge deals that carried weight past the 1999 change.

Since these players have retired, contracts have risen, but the percentage of the salary cap they take up has fallen and stabilized to around 38%.

NBA SeasonHighest Paid Player ContractTeamHighest Contracted SalaryNBA Salary CapSalary Cap %Wage % IncreaseSalary Cap % Increase
2003–04Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$28,000,000$43,840,00064%11%9%
2004–05Shaquille O’NealMiami Heat$27,696,430$43,870,00063%-1%0%
2002–03Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$25,200,000$40,271,00063%13%-5%
2000–01Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$19,600,000$35,500,00055%14%4%
2001–02Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$22,400,000$42,500,00053%14%20%
2012–13Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$30,453,805$58,044,00052%21%0%
2013–14Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$30,453,805$58,679,00052%0%1%
1999–00Shaquille O’NealLos Angeles Lakers$17,142,000$34,000,00050%-7%13%
2011–12Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$25,244,493$58,044,00043%2%0%
2010–11Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$24,806,250$58,040,00043%8%1%
2007–08Kevin GarnettBoston Celtics$23,751,934$55,630,00043%13%5%
2008–09Kevin GarnettBoston Celtics$24,751,934$58,680,00042%4%5%
2021–22Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$45,780,966$112,414,00041%6%3%
2005–06Shaquille O’NealMiami Heat$20,000,000$49,500,00040%-28%13%
2009–10Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$23,034,375$57,700,00040%-7%-2%
2006–07Kevin GarnettMinnesota Timberwolves$21,000,000$53,135,00040%5%7%
2020–21Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$43,006,362$109,140,00039%7%0%
2022–23Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$48,070,014$123,655,00039%5%10%
2023–24Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$51,915,615$136,021,00038%8%10%
2024–25Stephen Curry (projected)Golden State Warriors$55,761,216$149,623,10037%7%10%
2014–15Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$23,500,000$63,065,00037%-23%7%
2019–20Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$40,231,758$109,140,00037%7%7%
2018–19Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$37,457,154$101,869,00037%8%3%
2025–26Stephen Curry (projected)Golden State Warriors$59,606,817$164,585,41036%7%10%
2015–16Kobe BryantLos Angeles Lakers$25,000,000$70,000,00036%6%11%
2017–18Stephen CurryGolden State Warriors$34,682,550$99,093,00035%12%5%
2026–27Damian Lillard (projected)Portland Trail Blazers$63,228,828$181,043,95135%6%10%
2016–17LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers$30,963,450$94,143,00033%24%34%

The issue for NBA teams now is how to get 3 or 4 players on your roster that are all worthy of max level NBA contracts. The salary cap is here, it’s working and parity is closer than it’s ever been before.

Summary