It's all about those dollar signs.
Though NBA players often take to the court for the love of the game, putting in long hours as they hone their crafts and attempt to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy, money is still part of the equation. And not just due to exorbitant contracts but because so many different companies are willing to shell out big bucks in order to attach a star's name to their products.
Jersey sales, shoe deals and more all matter here as we strive to find the NBA studs with the biggest and best endorsement opportunities. So too does history, but we're also looking ahead to significant signings for the 2015-16 season, with James Harden's massive new offer from Adidas serving as the primary example from the current offseason, per ESPN.com's Darren Rovell.
As you move through the three teams, keep in mind that we're adhering to the All-Star format for positions, slotting in two guards and three frontcourt players.
All-ENDORSEMENT FIRST TEAM
Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers
According to a report from Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen in March 2015, only Kevin Durant and LeBron James earned more money in shoe sales during 2014. This came despite Kobe Bryant missing the vast majority of both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 campaigns, which makes his selling power all the more impressive.
Take a look at the top five earners, along with how much time they spent on the court:
Between that, his investment in BodyArmor and Bryant's enduring status as a demigod in China, there's no reason to leave the 36-year-old legend out of the First Team's backcourt. He may no longer be one of the league's five best players, but he's certainly one of the five most prominent earners.
Until Kobe Bryant unlaces and hangs up his sneakers for the final time, he's going to serve as an incredible revenue stream for the Los Angeles Lakers. The shooting guard is a massive reason the team enjoys such a lucrative television deal, and management knows it. After all, it recognizes the type of money he'd receive in a true open market.
After Bryant's most recent max deal was signed, team president Jeanie Buss, speaking at a UCLA Institute for Molecular Medicine seminar, made it quite clear she thought the future Hall of Famer deserved his contract. Per Derrek Li of the Daily Bruin: "[Bryant] was a great investment for the organization. To me, he is worth every dime that we’re paying him, and we're going to have the opportunity to show how much we appreciate everything he's done."
James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
Let's stick in the realm of shoes.
Even though James Harden's beard has some serious marketing power, his feet are apparently worth even more money. After all, Adidas has offered him a new $200 million contract over the next 13 years, one that Nike does still have a chance to match and retain his services.
Why? Adidas spokesman Michael Ehrlich explains, per Rovell:
We've invited James Harden to join Adidas. We're a brand of creators and he truly embodies what that means with his approach to the game, his look and his style on and off the court. He's coming off a historic season where he won the scoring title and was voted MVP by his peers. His connection with fans is unparalleled and unprecedented and he can take the game, our brand and the industry to new heights.
Harden, assuming Nike doesn't steal him back to continue serving as the unquestioned major player in the world of basketball sneakers, will become the true face of the Adidas brand, a role once reserved for Derrick Rose—and, more recently, Damian Lillard. And as Cork Gaines hinted at for Business Insider, this would be quite the coup for the challenger: "Last season, Adidas was a distant second in the NBA in terms of shoe brands worn by players on the court . That gap is even bigger if Jordan Brand , a Nike subsidiary, is included with Nike's total ."
That Harden could potentially serve as the face of the challenge makes him worthy of a spot on our First Team, despite the heavy levels of competition for the backcourt berths.
Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
"[Kevin] Durant inked a blockbuster, 10-year deal with Nike in 2014 that could be worth up to $300 million, including royalties," Forbes explained about the NBA's 2014 MVP. "It is the richest endorsement deal of any active athlete. Nike is one of a dozen sponsors in Durant's arsenal, which also includes BBVA, Sprint, Sonic, Panini, 2K Sports, Skullcandy and more."
Chances are, you've seen Durant's face pop up rather frequently on your television, even when you're not watching an Oklahoma City Thunder game. He's one of the faces of 2K Sports' video game series, appears in commercials for plenty of different products and is just generally marketable.
Rovell reported before the start of the 2014-15 campaign that Durant had more endorsement deals than any other player in the NBA, including prominent ones with Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt and Sparkling ICE. That number will only continue to grow as his career progresses in a healthy fashion.
A foot injury may have held him back during this past season, both on and off the court, but the Thunder superstar is only 26 years old. Now, he's even getting involved in the investment game.
LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
It doesn't get any more obvious.
For proof, you need only look at the total earnings of the league's most powerful, most important player. Per Forbes, he blows everyone out of the water, and you can best see that by looking at the top money-makers in all of sports—not just in the NBA—between June 2014 and June 2015:
It's tough for a player in a team sport to rise that high up in the individual rankings, especially given the strict nature of the salary-cap-induced max contracts. For reference, Derrick Rose (No. 20), Carmelo Anthony (No. 25), Dwyane Wade (No. 31), Chris Paul (No. 37), Dwight Howard (No. 41), Amar'e Stoudemire (No. 44), Blake Griffin (No. 46) and Joe Johnson (No. 49) are the only other NBA players in the top 50, and many of their yearly earnings are driven largely by their salaries.
Even more strikingly, James makes more in endorsements than anyone but Roger Federer, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. In fact, his off-court earnings alone trump the total income of every sports figure outside the top 13.
On the flip side, James makes twice as much off the court as he does on it. But the crazy thing is how much more the four-time MVP could be worth if there wasn't an upper bound on his contract value.
According to Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard, Kobe Bryant once told friends that James would be worth $75 million on a true open market. And if he's worth that much, the bidding war that would ensue from eliminating the cap would probably push his price tag up even higher, putting him in position to top the earning potential of every athlete in the world who doesn't fight for a living.
Now, if he's worth that much on the court, just imagine the feeding frenzy whenever he wants to ink a new endorsement deal.
Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
Before we begin, let's take a quick commercial break.
Blake Griffin loves to show off his acting chops, and he does so for quite a few companies. As you can see above, Kia is one of them, and he's done everything possible for that company, between the television appearances and his infamous jam over a car during the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest.
The Los Angeles Clippers power forward also boasts endorsement deals with Panini America, Subway, GameFly and Vizio, and that's saying nothing of his previous appearances on video game artwork for 2K Sports.
Hold on; it's time for another commercial break.
All-ENDORSEMENT SECOND TEAM
Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
When you're endorsing flavored mouthguards, you're either doing something right or very right.
In Stephen Curry's case, it's the latter. He's not exactly desperate for endorsement deals, especially now that he's coming off an MVP season, one that culminated in a championship for the Golden State Warriors. Instead, he's taking advantage of his penchant for chewing the oral accoutrement during his free-throw trips and capitalizing on the screen time.
The point guard's jersey now flies off the shelves faster than that of any other player in the league. Though he's not No. 1 in shoe sales, it's not like he's far behind, either. His signature shoe, the "Curry One" is the marquee product for Under Armour, which is presumably quite glad Nike didn't come calling to renew Curry's contract before he achieved such celestial status.
"It's one of the hottest shoes in basketball," Adam Peake, the brand's executive vice president of global marketing, told Rovell in May 2015. "And they're selling from kids sizes all the way up to adults. There are 450 players in the NBA and we're proud that the one MVP has our shoes on his feet."
Is it a coincidence that Under Armour's revenues from footwear in the second quarter rose substantially? After all, that period began in May and overlapped entirely with the MVP's run to a title.
From the company's official release to investors: "Second quarter footwear net revenues increased 40% to $154 million from $110 million in the prior year's period, primarily reflecting continued product expansion across the running category and ongoing excitement around Stephen Curry signature product."
Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls
Even though we're quite a long way removed from Derrick Rose's MVP season, the Chicago Bulls point guard remains popular in both the hometown market and the national one.
His massive shoe deal with Adidas is still in effect, as Forbes explains, and he's not exactly lacking in other endorsement opportunities:
Rose is one of the NBA's top earners off the court thanks to the massive 13-year, $185 million Adidas shoe deal he signed in 2012. The deal paid Rose a base retainer of $12 million last year. Adidas sold $32 million of his signature shoes in the U.S. in 2014, according to research firm SportsOneSource. Other Rose partners include Powerade, Wilson, Skullcandy, 2K Sports, Giordano's and Panini.
But nothing shows the Windy City floor general's enduring popularity better than his jersey sales.
Despite clearly declining and spending so much time in street clothes, he still inspires plenty of people to put his name on their back. According to a release on NBA.com from Antonio Gonzalez of the Associated Press, Rose's jersey sales trailed only that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James from April through June.
Carmelo Anthony, SF, New York Knicks
Take a peak at the top signature shoe sales in 2014, per Badenhausen:
Carmelo Anthony was shut down by a knee injury this past season. He's now subject to waning popularity as the New York Knicks fail to win with him leading the charge, bringing his potential inability to serve as a championship centerpiece back into question. But he's still one of the league's most popular players, and his shoes routinely sell out in expeditious fashion.
However, despite playing in one of the league's biggest markets, Anthony doesn't have any major endorsement deals.
He has quite a few smaller ones—Jordan Brand, Powercoco, Foot Locker, Isotonix and Haute Time, per Fortune.com's Daniel Roberts—but they don't add up to the same level of earnings boasted by the clear-cut frontcourt choices on the First Team.
Andrew Wiggins, SF, Minnesota Timberwolves
This is more speculative than anything else. Andrew Wiggins hasn't played in the NBA long enough to make as much money as his more established colleagues, but he's already entrenched himself as a potential face of the league.
Following his Rookie of the Year campaign, the Kansas product teamed up with Damian Lillard and Jimmy Kimmel in a Foot Locker advertisement, and it certainly won't be his last national campaign:
But even more impressive is the initial deal he signed to sell sneakers.
That might not seem like a huge figure, but it is for a rookie. The days of first-year players inking exorbitant contracts are behind us, with Kevin Durant, LeBron James and John Wall serving as the last of the dying breed.
Initially, Wiggins was rumored to be receiving a $180 million offer from Adidas, one that would stretch over the course of 10 years. And, as sources told Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling, Nike was expected to match.
But neither of those events came to pass, further cementing the notion that the mega-deals for rookie stars are behind us. With that context firmly in place, Wiggins remains a standout for this competition, especially now that he's serving as the face of Canadian basketball.
Dwight Howard, C, Houston Rockets
Even though Dwight Howard's popularity plummeted in the wake of his ugly departures from both the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, he remains one of the sport's top earners.
His sneakers? According to Forbes, he made $1.5 million off his signature shoes with Adidas in 2014, leaving him trailing only seven other standouts throughout the league. His jerseys? Though he may not crack the top portion of any lists at this stage of his career, it's not hard to see how popular his digits remain in the Houston market, simply by watching a broadcast.
Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Gatorade all declined to negotiate new deals with Howard after his free-agency fiascos, and that puts him at risk of losing this spot in the future. But for now, there's a dearth of current stars capable of taking this final frontcourt spot on the All-Endorsement Second Team.
All-ENDORSEMENT THIRD TEAM
Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
Chances are, you're going to see Chris Paul appear on your television screen whenever you watch an NBA game. Even if the Los Angeles Clippers aren't involved in the action, his advertisement campaign with State Farm makes him and Cliff Paul rather ubiquitous.
But prominent exposure isn't akin to raking in Scrooge McDuck levels of cash.
Per Badenhausen, he piled up $6 million in endorsements during 2014, leaving him behind seven other players. It's an impressive rank, but three of those standouts also play in the backcourt. And while Stephen Curry is less than $1 million behind him, the Golden State Warriors' stock will inevitably skyrocket in the wake of his MVP selection, pushing him up into that final Second Team slot.
Paul has to serve as a de facto honorable mention, simply because there are too many legitimate candidates for a limited number of places.
Dwyane Wade, SG, Miami Heat
The crowd of guards also rears its ugly head here.
Were the squads entirely positionless, Dwyane Wade would certainly own a spot on the Second Team rather than finding himself relegated to the third, but the smallest and flashiest players on the court typically make the most money off endorsements—freakish forwards such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant notwithstanding.
Thanks to his exorbitant shoe deal with Li-Ning and his longstanding popularity as a superstar with the Miami Heat, Wade is one of the most popular players in the league, as well as one of the richest. But in the wake of Curry's MVP season and Harden's upcoming $200 million deal with Adidas—or Nike, if the rival company matches—there are just too many guards ahead of him.
Amar'e Stoudemire, PF, Miami Heat
This is the last time you'll find Amar'e Stoudemire on such a list, even if he's still writing children's books and working on plenty of his own off-court ventures. His massive contract—a five-year, $100 million deal signed in 2010 while he was still in his prime—has now expired, and he's not going to find many new endorsement opportunities.
But Stoudemire still remains a rather valuable athlete.
Thanks to his $3 million in endorsements, Forbes has him ranked at No. 44 in the countdown of the highest-paid athletes in 2015. That's a significant drop from the No. 27 spot he occupied one year earlier, and we can reasonably expect for that trend to continue, allowing a younger star to take his place on a future iteration of these All-Endorsement squads.
Of course, there's always a chance some investor or vineyard in Napa Valley falls in love with his penchant for red-wine bathing, then decides to make Stoudemire an offer he can't refuse.
Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
Somewhat shockingly, Anthony Davis hasn't truly capitalized on his massive marketing potential. He did some commercials for Foot Locker early in his career, but he hasn't shown off his acting chops—or flaunted his trademarked unibrow—nearly enough. His work for "Pixels" isn't exactly going to change that.
At least he realizes the unibrow has selling power.
"Most definitely," he told Sporting News' Sean Deveney back in 2012 when asked if the follicular sensation would be a part of pitches. "Unless I cut it off."
Still only 22 years old, Davis is already a legitimate MVP candidate. Now that he's tested the playoff waters, proving himself on that bigger stage, perhaps companies will feel like he's a safer investment option.
The off-court money will come eventually, but for now this is more of a speculative inclusion than one steeped in receipts from previous ventures.
Tim Duncan, C, San Antonio Spurs
Though you rarely see him flaunting much personality, Tim Duncan makes $2 million off the court, according to his Forbes profile, and still manages to sell plenty of jerseys. From April to June, only Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Blake Griffin ranked higher than the San Antonio Spurs big man in that pursuit.
You won't ever see Duncan wearing flashy clothes or showing off his acting skills in a national ad, though you should watch as many of his H-E-B commercials as possible. He's just a fantastic basketball player who's always at the top of his game, and that still pays off.
Just like the other 14 players involved in these three squads, Duncan knows how to make money. And even if he takes paycuts to further the pursuits of his San Antonio Spurs, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, he still counts his cash.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.