Million-Dollar Men: How the NBA's Biggest Earners Made Their on-Court Cash

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 14, 2015

Getty Images

By the time Kevin Garnett finishes out his two-year, $16 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he will have been banking NBA salaries for more than half of his life.

No wonder he tops the list of the league's biggest all-time earners.

He has company at the top, though, and three of the other top-five NBA cash collectors are still active. The reported $1.4 billion NBA teams doled out on the first day of 2015 free agency proved something these five players have known for a while: There's never been a better (or more lucrative) time to be an NBA star.

We've pulled together the top five on-court earners in NBA history through the 2014-15 season who, combined, have made nearly $1.4 billion all by themselves.

Here's how they did it.

5. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Career Earnings: $212,038,467

It's rare for a player who could be rightly described as chronically underpaid to make over $200 million in a career. But Dirk Nowitzki is a rare dude.

Rare because he's never even really contemplated leaving the Dallas Mavericks, the only team for which he's ever played.

And rare because he's left a ton of money on the table in each of his last two contract negotiations—if it's even fair to call them negotiationswhen Dirk essentially agrees up front to take much less than he's worth.

Nowitzki's modest rookie contract gave way to a four-year, $48 million deal in 2001 that didn't come close to reflecting his value as one of the league's best players. In each year of that second contract, Nowitzki ranked in the top 10 in player efficiency rating and the top three in offensive win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

After signing a hefty five-year extension in 2006, Nowitzki exercised an early-termination option in 2010, which led to a four-year, $80 million deal.

According to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, Nowitzki "ignored exploratory feelers from New Jersey and New York and stuck to his oft-cited desire to keep chasing his championship dream in Dallas," ultimately leaving at least $16 million on the table to stay with the Mavs.

Then he walked away from max offers from the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers in 2014, deciding instead to take just $25 million over three years from Dallas.

That one cost him $72 million, according to Forbes.com.

"We want to get better as a team," Nowitzki said before signing his most recent agreement, via Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News. "And I'm pretty sure I'm not going to sign Kobe's deal. We'll find a good way where I feel respected for what I did and we still have enough money left for us to get great players in here."

That last part hasn't worked out so great lately, but it's hard to blame Nowitzki.

4. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

Career Earnings: $234,709,155

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Take everything we just discussed with Nowitzki—the one-career, one-team loyalty; the willingness to sacrifice money; the all-time great production—then add four more championships and another $20 million or so in career earnings.

Now you've got Tim Duncan.

Though they're dissimilar players stylistically, Duncan and Nowitzki share the same professional priorities. They want consistency, and they want to win. The best recent evidence: Duncan's two-year, $10 million deal with the San Antonio Spurs.

Five million dollars per season for a guy who just made the All-NBA third team?

Yep, that's Duncan.

Tim Duncan's Contracts
1997Three years, $10.23 million
2000Three years, $31.9 million
2003Seven years, $105 million
2007Two years, $40 million (extension)
2012Three years, $30.4 million
2015Two years, $10.85 million

The main difference between the two future Hall of Fame bigs is that Duncan may have come closer to leaving his team than Nowitzki ever did. In 2001, Duncan nearly joined Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady with the Orlando Magic.

Duncan had won just one championship at the time he visited Orlando with Hill. He heard the pitch and liked it. But, as we all know now, he didn't sign.

"Orlando had a lot to offer," Duncan told reporters after signing back on with the Spurs. "I went down there and had a good time. When it came down to it, I just like what I had here."

Four more rings with the Spurs indicate Timmy chose wisely.

3. Shaquille O'Neal, Retired

Career Earnings: $292,198,327

After hitting two players who've never changed teams, we get to a guy who has been all over the place. Shaquille O'Neal's 19 seasons featured six different squads and, as you might imagine, a whole bunch of huge contracts.

Here's a breakdown of who paid him, how much and when:

Shaquille O'Neal's Contracts
1992Orlando MagicFour years, $17.4 million
1996LA LakersSeven years, $120 million
2003LA LakersThree years, $88.5 million
2005Miami HeatExercised early-termination option
2005Miami HeatFive years, $100 million
2010Boston CelticsTwo years, $2.75 million

The most significant financial moment in O'Neal's career was definitely his free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Lakers—signed in 1996 for a reported seven years and $120 million. Another pivotal point came in 2005, when he exercised an early-termination option on a three-year, $88.5 million contract.

O'Neal with Jerry West in 1996
O'Neal with Jerry West in 1996HANS DERYK/Associated Press

He promptly recouped that money by signing a five-year, $100 million pact with the Miami Heat that would take him all the way into his late 30s.

One final two-year deal with the Boston Celtics at the veteran's minimum capped off his career, though O'Neal didn't even play out the second year of that contract for $1.4 million.

Glance again at his career earnings to see how he managed to leave that money on the table when he retired.

2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

Career Earnings: $303,238,062

Kobe Bryant will be the NBA's highest-paid player for the seventh straight season in 2015-16, and that's a pretty good way to rack up over $300 million in career earnings.

Kobe Bryant's Contracts
1996Three years, $3.5 million
1999Six years, $70 million
2004Exercised ETO
2004Seven years, $136.4 million
2010Three years, $84 million
2013Two years, $48 million

Every dime has come from the Los Angeles Lakers, but we've learned recently there were moments when he was close to having his checks signed by someone else.

Bryant went from his rookie deal to a six-year pact in 1999—one that would pay him $79 million. But he exercised an early-termination option in 2004 that allowed him to ink a seven-year, $136.4 million contract.

The year before signing that agreement, Bryant wanted to play with Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards—a fact he admitted in 2013. Then, in 2007, Bryant desperately wanted out of Los Angeles, and a trade was in place to send him to the Detroit Pistons.

Bryant vetoed the deal, but there were also talks with the Chicago Bulls and Mavericks.

As the years have gone by, there have been fewer and fewer rumblings of Bryant ever leaving. He inked a two-year $48 million contract in 2013, releasing a picture of the signing on Instagram: 

Now, Bryant enters the final year of what could be his last contract. And there doesn't seem to be any chance he'll ever wear another jersey.

1. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves

Career Earnings: $327,372,293

Garnett's contract breakdown is historically significant—not just because he's made more money than anyone, but also because the manner in which he's made it reshaped the NBA over the course of two decades.

Rookie contracts in 1995 only lasted three years, which let Garnett hit free agency when he was just 21 years old. The Wolves retained him with a humongous extension: six years and $126 million.

Kevin Garnett's Contracts
1995Three years, $5.4 million
1997Six years, $126 million (extension)
2004Five years, $100 million
2009Three years, $51.3 million
2012Three years, $36 million

According to Cork Gaines of Business Insider, Garnett's first two contracts were factors in the league establishing longer rookie deals and individual salary limits: "With Garnett's contract a major factor, the NBA changed the rules on rookie contracts and put a cap on player salaries, but not until a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was reached following the 1999 lockout."

Minnesota tossed another $100 million deal (this one for five years) to a 27-year-old Garnett in 2004, right after he'd won the MVP award. By the time he was traded to the Boston Celtics in the third year of that deal, he had already made $186 million—at age 31.

Garnett, like many of the other players on this list, is fiercely loyal. And it's almost impossible to find a credible report of him considering exits in free agency. His three-year and two-year extensions with Boston, totaling nearly $90 million, came without much drama.

Knowing that, it shouldn't be surprising that KG's latest deal with the Wolves happened quietly. It doesn't count toward his total here, but that final $16 million will push his career earnings to over $343 million by the time he's finished.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

That's reason to smile.

Career salary information courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Specific contract signing dates and amounts courtesy of Spotrac.com.

Note: The down-to-the-dollar details of NBA contracts often change depending on payouts from league surpluses, trade kickers and other unreported details. Hence the occasional minor discrepancy between Spotrac's contract information and Basketball-Reference's year-by-year salary data.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.