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LeBron James’ Salary Mission

$45 million a year? $75 million, as Kobe thinks? $100M?!

Right now, maximum NBA salaries are capped at 35% of the salary cap. As a result, LeBron will make about $20.6 million in 2014-2015.

According to ESPN’s ace LeBron reporter Brian Windhorst, the Cavaliers star could lead a push to get rid of the max salary rule when the collective bargaining agreement is renegotiated in 2017. It’s something multiple NBA stars have talked about in recent years. The NBA’s new TV deal — which nearly tripled its average annual TV rights revenue — has flooded the league with new money, and LeBron reportedly wants a healthy chunk of it to go to star players like him whose earnings potential is capped.

So we go back to our original question: How much would NBA owners pay LeBron if they could pay him anything?

It might be a bigger number than you think.

Arturo Galletti of ran the numbers on Michael Jordan’s salaries in 1997 and 1998, and it’s baffling to see how much Jordan made relative to the rest of the league.

In the 1997-1998 season, Jordan made $33.1 million. It’s still the highest single-season NBA salary ever.

At the time the salary cap was $26.9 million, and the average NBA team payroll was $32.7 million. There was no maximum salary rule, and teams were allowed to go over the $26.9 million salary cap to re-sign their own free agents. So in summer 1997, Jordan signed a one-year, $33.1 million contract that would be impossible under the maximum salary rules, which were established in response to the contract in 1999.

Jordan’s 1997-1998 contract was insane in retrospect. His salary alone was more than the entire payrolls of 19 out of 29 NBA teams that year.

If the same rules were in effect today, Jordan’s salary would be worth $66.6 million, based on adjusted average payroll numbers. $66.6 million!

If we take this Jordan contract as the standard for a once-in-a-generation NBA superstar, LeBron would be making more than triple his $20.6 million salary if there were no max contracts.

This is a radical idea that could face pushback both from owners and fellow players who want the wealth distributed more evenly. On Tuesday night, Mark Cuban said owners would consider removing salary limits only if players gave up guaranteed contracts — which sounds unlikely.

We may never find out what LeBron would get paid in an unlimited salary world. But the last time a superstar was allowed to get paid as much as he could, the Bulls gave Jordan more money than 19 entire NBA rosters, and that has to be tantalizing for LeBron.

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