- LeBron James, the Finals MVP, is one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
- However, the NBA’s salary cap rules mean he typically earns less than other mega-star athletes.
- European soccer leagues lack a salary cap, and both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo made far more last year than James.
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LeBron James led the LA Lakers to an NBA championship on Sunday night, marking his fourth championship and first since joining the Lakers in 2018.
The Lakers’ victory adds to the age-old debate on whether James should be considered the greatest basketball player of all time. And with that debate also comes the question of whether he is being paid like the potential GOAT.
On Monday, The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Cohen made the argument that James represents a “market inefficiency” in the NBA. While he made over $37 million in salary over the last year, the NBA’s salary cap rules mean that this is effectively around the most a team can play a player, even a once-in-a-generation talent like James, and a fair market valuation without the cap would suggest a much higher rate of pay.
To get a quick sense of how James’ pay stacks up, we compared his salary to those of comparable mega-star athletes:
James’ $37.4 million was slightly above the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout’s annual average pay of $35.8 million, according to CBS Sports, but he was below the other athletes we looked at. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a contract this year with an average annual payout of about $45 million, according to the NFL.
Unlike the NBA, European soccer leagues do not have a salary cap, which shows up in the enormous salaries for Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo, as reported by Forbes. These are arguably the strongest comparison for James — Messi and Ronaldo are arguably the two best soccer players of their generation, and their importance to their teams is similar to James’ crucial role in the NBA. It’s not hard to imagine a capless NBA resulting in a $70-90 million per year payout to James.
Before the modern salary cap went into effect, Michael Jordan, the leading competitor with James for the title of greatest NBA player of all time, earned a career high of $33.1 million in the 1997-1998 season, according to Spotrac. Adjusting by the most commonly used measure of inflation, that would be worth about $53 million in 2020 dollars, or about 40% larger than James’ salary.
There are a lot of complicated factors in trying to figure out what James is “really” worth. Our comparison above cuts across leagues and sports with very different salary rules and team structures. While Mike Trout is an incredible baseball player, he’s only up to bat a relative handful of times in a given game, while James could be involved in nearly every play.
The soccer superstars made roughly double what James did, but the economics of the NBA are very different than European soccer.
Further, any counterfactual about what the NBA would look like without a salary cap would imply a very different league with very different incentives for teams and GMs, meaning any attempt at estimating a market value in that world would be highly speculative.
While $37 million in a year is an extremely high rate of compensation, it may not be as much as King James would be worth in a different world.