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Basketball Inflation: 75 Years of Growth Leads to Slam-Dunk Earnings

When professional basketball in the United States was in its infancy, star players made about 2.5 times what the average family made in a year. Today, the highest-paid players in the National Basketball Association earn more than 600 times the median family’s income for the year. 

In basketball, as in other sports, the salaries of top-performing professional players have increased at rates that far outstrip the median household income rate and the inflation rate as it pertains to consumer prices. 

The national Consumer Price Index (CPI) has climbed from 19.5 in 1946 to 271.0 in 2021, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. That’s an increase of nearly 1,300%, or nearly 14 times the 1946 CPI value. If the salaries of top pro basketball players had increased by the same amount as the CPI, they wouldn’t be remotely comparable to the sky-high salaries we’re used to seeing basketball stars earn today.   

For example, take $8,000, one of the most lucrative basketball player salaries in 1946. In today’s dollars, that salary would translate to $127,080.88—just a tiny fraction of the top NBA salary for the 2021 through 2022 season, which surpasses $45,000,000. 

The highest-paid basketball player today makes 360 times what one of the highest-earning basketball players of the 1940s did after adjusting for inflation and more than 5,722 times that unadjusted 1946 salary. 

There’s a lot more we can learn about the inflation of professional basketball salaries by digging into the data.  

[Athletes and sports teams might make a fortune. But what about the cities where they play? Find out how sports stadium construction impacts local economies.]

A Note About Historical Salary Data 

Salary data from the 1940s through the 1980s is less comprehensive than that of subsequent decades, when full lists of contracts and salaries for all players in the league were compiled in readily-available records. As a result, the unadjusted salary figures presented here are drawn from select MVPs (winners of the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player Award) who were top performers and, as such, high earners during these decades. 

From the 1990s on, NBA salary data becomes more plentiful. The unadjusted salary data presented for top earners during these seasons is sourced from HoopsHype

Unless stated otherwise, salary data is presented in nominal dollars—what the amount was at the time reported, unadjusted for inflation. Where data is adjusted for inflation, inflation calculators from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis were used. 

[Get a deeper look at salary inflation across all professional sports.]

Early Professional Basketball Players’ Salaries: 1940s and 1950s

Salary data for professional basketball players in the United States predates the existence of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the professional basketball league whose games fans all over the nation—and the world—tune into today. Before the NBA was established in 1949, there were actually two separate (and rival) organizations, the National Basketball League (NBL) and the Basketball Association of America (BBA). 

During the BBA’s inaugural 1946 through 1947 season, the average player’s salary was in the $4,000 to $5,000 range, according to the Association for Professional Basketball Research. That’s already a lot more than the $3,000 that the average (non-farming) family made in a year at the time, but it’s still only a fraction of what the top-earning basketball stars earned even back then. 

Basketball player Joe Fulks
IMAGE SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Joe Fulks, power forward for the Philadelphia Warriors, earned a then-lucrative $8,000, the fruits of leading the league in scoring. The highest-paid basketball player during the 1946 through 1947 season was technically Tom King, playing guard for the Detroit Falcons. However, King’s $16,500 salary also accounted for his job duties as the business manager and publicity director for the team. 

Salaries generally climbed over the next decade. During the 1955 through 1956 season, MVP Bob Pettit, power forward for the St. Louis Hawks, earned an unadjusted $11,000. That was a great deal of money at the time—2.5 times the median household income of $4,400 that the United States Census Bureau reported for 1955. Pettit later said in an interview that, at the time he signed the contract, he had just $100 in the bank, according to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame

By the 1959 through 1960 season, star and MVP Wilt Chamberlain, who started with the Harlem Globetrotters and played center for the Philadelphia Warriors, was making $30,000. To put that in perspective, Chamberlain’s salary was about 5.5 times the $5,400 median family income that the Census Bureau reported for 1959.   

Basketball Salaries Break the Six-Figure Benchmark in the Mid-1960s

During the first half of the 1960s, Bill Russell, who played the center position for the Boston Celtics, wasn’t just a multi-time MVP winner (receiving the award four times between 1961 and 1965 and five times overall). He was also a top earner. During the 1960 through 1961 season, Bill Russell had a $35,000 contract. He would be paid $75,000 for the 1964 through 1965 season. 

This more than doubling of salary in a matter of only a few years may seem surprising, but keep in mind that the average family’s income also increased considerably in a short time—from $5,600 in 1960 to $6,900 in 1965. Bill Russell went from earning 6.25 times the median family income in 1960 to earning more than 10 times the median family income in 1965.  

Then, when Wilt Chamberlain signed a $100,000 per year contract (for three years) in 1965, Bill Russell managed to secure a raise that put his annual salary at exactly $100,001, according to sports cards collecting authority Wilt Chamberlain, now playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, reported salaries of $100,000 throughout the 1965 through 1968 basketball seasons. 

Meanwhile, the median family income in 1968 was $8,600, according to the Census Bureau. Top NBA stars were making 11 times what the average family earned in a year. 

1970s Star Basketball Salaries Climb to Half a Million Dollars 

If you’re looking for the most successful professional basketball player of the 1970s—performance-wise and salary-wise—the name that most stands out is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
IMAGE SOURCE: Steve Jenner, The Sporting News Archives, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not only won the MVP award five times during the 1970s (six times total in his career) but also earned yearly salaries in the range of multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars. During the 1970 through 1971 season, he earned a salary of $250,000 playing the center position for the Milwaukee Bucks (then going by the name Lew Alcindor). This put his salary for one season of playing basketball at 25 times the $9,870 median family income the Census Bureau reported for 1970. 

Between 1975 and 1977, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reported salaries of $500,000 per season playing for the Los Angeles Lakers (and his most lucrative years were still ahead of him.) Based on the Census Bureau’s report of a $13,720 median family income for 1975, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was now making more than 36 times what the average family earned in a year. 

[For professional athletes, “salary inflation” is clearly a good thing. But what about everyday people and families? Jump to our article about how inflation is impacting everyday consumers.]

The First $1,000,000 (and $2,000,000) Professional Basketball Salaries Emerge in the 1980s

The ‘80s brought about the first seven-figure salaries in the history of professional basketball. Over the course of this decade, the initially record-breaking $1,000,000 salaries would double and then triple among the highest-paid NBA stars. 

Moses Malone, who played the center position for the Houston Rockets, wasn’t just the first player to earn $1,000,00 per year per three-year, $3,000,000 contract he signed in 1979. He was also the first player to make $2,000,000 per year, per the six-year, $13,200,000 contract he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982, according to Sportscasting

Malone’s salary for the 1982 through 1983 season amounted to $2,200,000. That’s more than 89 times the $24,580 median family income the Census Bureau reported for 1983.  

Other top earners in the NBA during the decade also made (or exceeded) $1,000,000 per season. Larry Bird, small forward and power forward for the Boston Celtics, reported salaries of $1,800,000 for the 1984 through 1985 and 1985 through 1986 seasons. Magic Johnson, point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, earned salaries of $1,000,000 during both the 1986 through 1987 season and the 1989 through 1990 season. The 1988 through 1989 season saw Magic Johnson earn $3,142,860—108 times the $28,910 median family income the Census Bureau reported for 1989.  

[Jump to our focus on salary inflation in professional football.]

Salaries for Highest-Paid NBA Players Top $5 Million, $10 Million, $15 Million, $30 Million—All in the 1990s 

It would be fair to say that the next decade saw basketball’s star player salaries increase exponentially, breaking record after record. From the earliest basketball season of the 1990s to the decade’s high point in NBA player salary history, the salary of the highest-earning player grew 7.7 times—from $4,250,000 to more than $33,000,000.

Meanwhile, median salaries of NBA players grew at a much less volatile rate, increasing more than 2.5 times, from $650,000 for the 1990 through 1991 season to $1,750,000 for the 1998 through 1999 season.

For the 1990 through 1991 basketball season, the highest-earning player, Patrick Ewing, earned $4,250,000 playing the center position for the New York Knicks. More than half a dozen players earned the median salary during this season, $650,000 in unadjusted dollars, including Utah Jazz center Mike Brown, San Antonio Spurs power forward Dave Greenwood, Sacramento Kings center Duane Causwell, Seattle SuperSonics point guard Sedale Threatt, Milwaukee Bucks point guard Jay Humphries, Houston Rockets shooting guard Dave Jamerson, and Atlanta Hawks center Alexander Volkov.

Larry Bird topped the list of the highest-paid NBA players for the 1991 through 1992 season, with a salary of $7,070,000. This contract made Bird the first-ever NBA player to earn more than $5,000,000 in a single season. The median salary this year—which Washington Bullets center Charles Jones, Orlando Magic shooting guard Nick Anderson, Los Angeles Clippers center Olden Polynice, and Golden State Warriors center Victor Alexander all reported earning—was $750,000.

The highest NBA salary for the 1992 through 1993 season dipped from that of the previous year. San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson earned $5,720,000. The median salary for the NBA was the $831,000 salary paid to Boston Celtics center Stojko Vranković.

The following year, David Robinson once again claimed the title of the highest-paid NBA player, earning $5,740,000, but the median salary increased significantly. The median NBA salary hit the six-figure mark, at $1,100,000 for the 1993 through 1994 basketball season. Five players reported earning this salary: New York Knicks power forward Anthony Mason, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Nick Van Exel, Los Angeles Lakers small forward George Lynch, Denver Nuggets shooting guard Bryant Stith, and Boston Celtics small forward Kevin Gamble.

The highest NBA salary awarded for the 1994 through 1995 basketball season more than doubled that of the previous year. Magic Johnson signed a deal (in 1992) that would award him a $14,660,000 contract for the 1994 through 1995 season even if he did not play due to his illness. This contract not only made him the first NBA player to earn $10 million or more in a year but was also the single largest one-year payment promised to any one athlete in the history of team sports, according to The Washington Post. The median NBA player salary, however, remained at $1,100,000.

During the 1995 through 1996 season, Patrick Ewing reclaimed his spot as the top-earning NBA player with a salary of $18,724,000. The median salary for all players in the league rose slightly—by less than 6%, although the difference amounted to more than twice the median family income as of the 1990 Census—to reach $1,165,000.

In the 1996 through 1997 season, the title of the highest-earning NBA player went to the legendary Michael Jordan. The Chicago Bulls shooting guard commanded an astonishing $30,140,000, shattering the previous record.

The median salary reported for the league during this year was $1,235,000. More than half a dozen players were paid this salary: Toronto Raptors center Acie Earl, Phoenix Suns center Joe Kleine, Philadelphia 76ers shooting guard Rex Walters, Minnesota Timberwolves point guard James Robinson, Los Angeles Lakers power forward Corie Blount, Dallas Mavericks point guard Sam Cassell, Cleveland Cavaliers small forward Chris Mills, and Charlotte Hornets small forward Scott Burrell.

Michael Jordan continued his reign as the highest-earning basketball player in the U.S. during the 1997 through 1998 season, with his salary rising to $33,140,000—more than $10,000,000 above the salary of the next-highest earner that year, Patrick Ewing. 

With Michael Jordan’s retirement (though he would later return to play for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s), Patrick Ewing again became the top-paid player of the 1998 through 1999 season, but the value of the highest NBA salary decreased back down to $18,500,000. The second-highest salary that season, $15,000,000, belonged to Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal. The median salary in the league that year, $1,750,000, was reported for more than a dozen NBA players.

At the close of the decade, Shaq would take over the title of the highest-paid player for the 1999 through 2000 NBA season, with a contract worth $17,142,858 for the year. The median salary this season, earned by Washington Wizards power forward Lorenzo Williams, amounted to $1,540,000. 

When Patrick Ewing was making $4,250,000 playing for the New York Knicks during the 1990 through 1991 season, his salary was 141 times the $29,943 median family income reported by the Census Bureau for 1990. Michael Jordan’s $33,140,000 salary for the 1997 through 1998 season amounted to 852 times the $38,885 salary the Census Bureau reported for 1998. 

Salaries in the $20 Million Range for the Highest-Earning NBA Players Throughout the First Decade of the 2000s

Two names would dominate the list of the highest-paid players in the NBA through the first decade of the new millennium. One was Shaquille O’Neal, who ended the ‘90s as the best-paid player in the league. The other was Kevin Garnett, a power forward who started the decade playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves and began playing for the Boston Celtics during the 2007 through 2008 decade. Top NBA salaries during the 2000s hovered at and around the $20,000,000 range. 

For the 2000 through 2001 season, Kevin Garnett’s $19,610,000 contract topped NBA player salaries. Shaquille O’Neal was close behind, with a salary of $19,285,715. The median salary for NBA players surpassed $2,000,000 for the first time this season, reaching $2,200,000—and more than 20 players reported earning this salary.

Kevin Garnett would continue to earn the most the following year, boasting a $22,400,000 salary for the 2001 through 2002 NBA season, while Shaq’s salary climbed to $21,428,572. The $2,343,635 salary reported by Golden State Warriors shooting guard Larry Hughes was the median for the league.

The 2002 through 2003 season, too, saw Kevin Garnett at the top of the best-paid player list, with a salary of $25,200,000, followed by Shaquille O’Neal with a salary of $23,571,429. Dajuan Wagner, Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard, held the median salary for the year: $2,298,840.

For the 2003 through 2004 NBA season, Kevin Garnett led the league with a salary of $28,000,000, trailed by Shaquille O’Neal with a salary of $24,749,999. The median salary, earned by Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Wilcox, dipped to $2,066,760.

During the 2004 through 2005 season, Shaq commanded the highest salary in the league, at $27,696,430—while Kevin Garnett dropped to the fifth highest-paid position, with a salary of $16,000,000. The median NBA salary this year, $2,200,000, was paid to both Seattle SuperSonics point guard Antonio Daniels and Indiana Pacers point guard Anthony Johnson.

Basketball player Shaquille O’Neal
IMAGE SOURCE: Mwinog2777, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Shaq again topped the list of the highest-paid players for the 2005 through 2006 season, during which he earned a salary of $20,000,000. More than half a dozen NBA players were earning the league’s median salary at that time, $2,500,000.

Kevin Garnett was back on top of the list of the highest-paid NBA players for the 2006 through 2007 season, earning $21,000,000—exactly $1,000,000 more than second-highest-earning player Shaquille O’Neal. The median NBA player salary dropped to $2,210,000.

Kevin Garnett continued his reign as the highest-paid player during the 2007 through 2008 and 2008 through 2009 seasons, earning $23,750,000 and $24,751,934, respectively. Meanwhile, Shaq dropped to the third-highest paid player and then the fifth-highest paid player, despite earning salaries of $20,000,000 and $21,000,000. Golden State Warriors center Andris Biedriņš held the median salary for 2007 through 2008, at $2,636,696, while Golden State Warriors small forward Kelenna Azubuike held the median salary of $2,900,000 for the 2008 through 2009 season.

As the first decade of the 2000s ended, New York Knicks shooting guard Tracy McGrady was the highest-paid player, with a $23,239,562 salary, closely followed by Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant’s $23,034,375 salary. (Shaq was still the fifth-highest paid NBA player, with a salary of $20,000,000.) The median salary for the 2009 through 2010 season was Orlando Magic shooting guard JJ Redick’s $2,839,408.  

Kevin Garnett’s $19,610,000 salary during the 2000 through 2001 NBA season amounted to 465 times the $42,148 median household income reported by the Census Bureau in 2000. Shaquille O’Neal’s $20,000,000 salary for 2005 was 432 times the $46,242 median family income reported by the Census Bureau.

Top NBA Salaries Rise From the Mid-$20,000,000s to $40,000,000s Over the Course of the 2010s

The biggest (and highest-paid) basketball star throughout the first half of the 2010s was undoubtedly Kobe Bryant, who saw his yearly salary rise from $24,000,000 to a career-high of more than $30,000,000. Later in the decade, LeBron James and Stephen Curry would become the standout stars in the NBA. 

For the 2010 through 2011 season, Kobe Bryant earned a salary of $24,806,250, topping the list of the highest-paid NBA stars. The median salary this season, $2,630,503, was paid to Washington Wizards shooting guard Nick Young.  

Kobe Bryant’s salary would continue to rise—to $25,244,493 for the 2011 through 2012 season and $27,849,000 for the 2012 through 2013 season. The median salary in the league flip-flopped, first down to $2,500,000 and then trending back up to $2,532,960.

Not until the 2013 through 2014 season would any NBA player reach the (unadjusted) salary heights that Michael Jordan had attained a decade and a half earlier. Kobe Bryant would, of course, be the one to break the $30,000,000 salary next, earning $30,453,000 in nominal dollars for the 2013 through 2014 NBA season. (Adjusted for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index rate, Michael Jordan’s $33,140,000 salary awarded for the 1997 through 1998 NBA seasons would have been worth around $48,100,903 by this time—making Jordan still the highest-paid player to date when salaries are adjusted for inflation). The median salary in the NBA at this time, paid to five of the league’s players, reached $2,500,000.

Both the highest salary in the NBA and the median salary for the league declined during the 2014 through 2015 season. Kobe Bryant remained the highest earner, but his salary decreased by more than 20% from the previous year, to $23,500,000. The median salary, paid to Detroit Pistons point guard Reggie Jackson, decreased by more than 6% to $2,325,680.

In his final season as the highest-paid NBA player—2015 through 2016—Kobe Bryant earned a salary of $25,000,000. Trailing Kobe Bryant this year was LeBron James, who at the time played for the Cleveland Cavaliers and who would, over the course of his professional basketball career, play four positions: small forward, power forward, point guard, and shooting guard. For the 2015 through 2016 season, LeBron James reported earning $22,970,500. Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke’s annual salary of $2,658,240 was the median in the league for this season.

LeBron James would earn $30,963,450 during the 2016 through 2017 season, while the median salary in the league—awarded to more than half a dozen NBA players—climbed to $2,898,000.

In the last three years of the decade, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry would reign as the highest-paid NBA player. The 2017 through 2018 season saw Curry earn a salary of $34,682,550, followed by $37,457,154 in the 2018 through 2019 season and a record-breaking $40,231,758 for the 2019 through 2020 season. 

During the 2017 through 2018 season, LeBron James trailed Curry with a salary of $33,285,709. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook overtook LeBron James’ place as the second-highest paid NBA player for the 2018 through 2019 season, earning $35,665,000 compared to James’ $35,654,150 (now playing for the Los Angeles Lakers). By the 2019 through 2020 season, LeBron James had dropped to the sixth-highest paid player, despite earning his highest salary yet: $37,436,858.

During these years, the median salary for NBA players increased from $2,422,560 during the 2017 through 2018 season (paid to Philadelphia 76ers power forward Dario Šarić and Atlanta Hawks small forward Taurean Prince) to Indiana Pacers center Domantas Sabonis’ $2,659,800 for the 2018 through 2019 season, and finally Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Malik Beasley’s $2,731,713 salary for the 2019 through 2020 season.  

Kobe Bryant’s $24,806,250 salary awarded for the 2010 through 2011 season was more than 500 times the $49,445 median household income reported by the Census Bureau for 2010. The median household income grew substantially during this decade, rising to $61,372 in 2017, according to the Census Bureau. Still, the $30,963,450 salary LeBron James earned for the 2016 through 2017 season amounted to 504 times what the average family made during that year. 

The $40,231,758 salary Stephen Curry received for the 2019 through 2020 season also overshadowed the income of the average family by a record-shattering amount. He made more than 612 times the $65,712 median family income the Census Bureau reported for 2019.  

Salaries Topping $40,000,000 Characterize the 2020s (So Far) 

In the first years of the 2020s, top NBA salaries climbed into the mid-$40,000,000 range. Stephen Curry was the highest-paid player of the 2020 through 2021 season, with a salary of $43,006,362. The $2,957,520 salary paid to Indiana Pacers center Goga Bitadze was the median salary in the league.  

For the 2021 through 2022 NBA season, Stephen Curry continues to command the highest earning power in the league. His salary of $45,780,966 is an increase of more than 80% over the $24,806,250 top salary Kobe Bryant commanded a decade before. Stephen Curry’s impressive salary wasn’t exactly an outlier. No less than six NBA players reported salaries above $40,000,000 for the season, and a total of 33 players earned salaries above $30,000,000. The median salary in the league, however, dipped to $2,389,641. 

Stephen Curry’s $43,006,362 salary for the 2020 through 2021 NBA season amounted to 636 times the $67,521 2020 median family income reported by the Census Bureau.


We can learn a lot from looking at this data—not just over the entirety of the last 75 years, but especially at the points where patterns shifted and trends strengthened. 

If you look at the unadjusted top NBA salary data compared to the unadjusted median family income data between 1946 and 2021, you might be tempted to conclude that both sets of data increased in similar ways, because both numbers technically have climbed over the last 75 years. 

However, when you focus on the point where top NBA salaries increased more sharply—beginning in the 1990s—it becomes clear how much steeper the rate of increase for the unadjusted top NBA salaries is compared to the rate of increase in the median family income. 

Note that the median family income as shown above is measured in units of $10,000, while the top NBA salaries are measured in much larger units of $5,000,000. If the top NBA salaries and the median family income amounts from the 1990s through 2021 were put on the same graph, which measured data in increments of $5,000,000, you would see that the rate of increase in the median household income during the same decades that NBA salaries soared was so negligible that, on this scale, the increase in the median family income is almost invisible. 

What’s next for the future of basketball salaries? Experts at Sportscasting anticipate top NBA salaries soaring to $50,000,000 for a single season by 2026. Assuming Stephen Curry’s contract continues, he’s on track to be the first NBA player to earn $50,000,000 for a single year of playing—and to do so by the 2023 through 2024 season. 

How long will it be before someone becomes the first NBA player to break $60,000,000 per year? $75,000,000? $100,000,000? How fast will top basketball player salaries grow to outpace median household earnings by a rate of 800 times (again) or even 1,000 times what the average family earns? 

No one knows the answers for sure, but if past salary inflation is any indication, these are eventualities, not possibilities—whens, not ifs. What we can conclude from the last 75 years of basketball salary data is that we’re likely to keep seeing sustained increases in the earnings of top-performing players that put these massive salary numbers on track to rise much faster than the average family’s income. 


You might not earn what the pros do, but staying fit can actually help your earning power. Find out how