I once had a boss who told me "The only thing worse than being underpaid is being overpaid." Looking back, perhaps he was trying to send a message to me personally, but the general message was this -- making too much money makes one utterly expendable.
That's a fine notion, and in most walks of life, where contracts are either non-guaranteed or nonexistent, it works. However, in the NBA, where virtually every penny of every contract is guaranteed upon signature, being overpaid is sheer bliss!
Now, you could make a case that the most underpaid players in the NBA are some of the highest paid players. With league-imposed ceilings creating maximum contract values, the true superstars, the ones whose presences exponentially multiply profit margins generated by television ratings and ticket/merchandise sales, are grossly underpaid, even with maximum-level deals.
LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, a handful of others -- $15 million, $20 million, $25 million per year doesn't begin to do justice to the effect these players have on the intrinsic value of their teams and the league as a whole.
To that end, perhaps no player in league history was more underpaid than Michael Jordan.
Now, to be clear, when I refer to Michael Jordan as "underpaid," I'm strictly referring to the checks that he cashed from the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards as an NBA player. I fully realize that Jordan dwarfed his own basketball income (and the gross national product of several third world countries) with his off-the-court income streams -- Nike, Gatorade, and the endless list of other products he endorsed.
I also realize that with a basketball-related income totaling nearly nine figures that none of us should be crying the blues for Michael Jordan. This post is more meant to be one more way to illustrate just how out of whack the NBA's economic system has been for years, and continues to be today: average to below average players, guys who are utterly replaceable and have never put one ass in a seat or drawn one set of eyeballs to the television, making nearly as much as the superstars.
It's messed up. It's basketball socialism, really.
Back to Jordan, during his nearly two decades of on-again, off-again playing in the league he took in an estimated grand total of $90,235,000. And actually, nearly two thirds of that came in just two seasons -- $30,140,000 in 1996-1997 and $33,140,000 in 1997-1998, Jordan's final two seasons with the Bulls. (Those numbers come from Jordan's basketball-reference.com profile, and it appears that the information is not totally complete, but the missing pieces don't move the needle much. In short, $90,235,000 is close enough to illustrate the point of this post.)
So to us average Joes $90,235,000 sounds like a lot, the same way LeBron James' $16,022,500 salary in 2011-2012 sounds like a lot. But much the same way that Joe Johnson's 2011-2012 salary of $18,038,573 should provide some perspective on LeBron's "underpaid-ness," so too should the career earnings of the following seven players, all of whom made more total salary in their NBA careers than Michael Jordan, all of whose careers overlapped at least partially with Jordan's (so time value of money is not a major issue here), and all of whom had the same number of All-Star game appearances.
NONE of these guys ever played in an NBA All-Star game. Check out these names:
7. Erick Dampier Career Earnings: $97,963,871 I scour Dampier's basketball-reference.com bio and try to unearth reasons why he somehow managed to make almost $100 million in salary in his sixteen year career. I mean, he averaged less than eight points and less than eight rebounds for his career, and he was never an elite shot blocker. As best I can tell, Dampier got paid for two reasons: 1) He was (and presumably still is) really, really tall (lucky sperm club!), and 2) he had his one season of averaging a double-double in his contract year in Golden State (2003-2004) and that was about the time Mark Cuban started dishing out $50 million contracts to anything that moved, including Dampier who could barely move.
6. Damon Stoudamire Career Earnings: $99,672,198 After being tagged as the first pick in the history of the Toronto Raptors organization by Isiah Thomas (which, in retrospect, should have been an immediate red flag), Stoudamire decided to spread his wings at the end of his rookie deal and take an $80 million deal from the Portland Trail Blazers, where he became one of the many faces of the most gangsta collection of professional athletes not wearing silver and black. As it turns out, Stoudamire left his best basketball behind in Toronto, having peaked at age 23. (Quick Rockets-related aside: Houston fans will remember Stoudamire nearly being the final piece of the Olajuwon/Drexler/Barkley Rockets in 1998, but trade talks with Toronto fell through. Instead, the Rockets wound up committing to Matt Maloney for the next fifty years or so. Ouch.) 5. Jalen Rose Career Earnings: $102,438,250 Before becoming an insightful analyst (and sometimes awkward studio host) on ESPN, Jalen Rose was a pretty solid NBA player, averaging 14.3 points a game over thirteen seasons with a handful of teams. The only good team on which he was really a meaningful scorer, though, was the 1999-2000 Indiana Pacers, a team that lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals (Kobe and Shaq's first title!). That season compelled the Pacers into giving Rose a seven-year, $90 million deal. However, they quickly realized that Rose was more glorified role player than foundation piece, so they moved him soon thereafter and allowed him to realize his true destiny -- averaging over 20 points a game for some utterly shitty Chicago Bulls teams.
4. Mike Bibby Career Earnings: $107,093,621 After three decent seasons to open his career in Vancouver, Bibby was traded to Sacramento to run the point there for a Chris Webber/Vlade Divac-led group with NBA championship aspirations. It was in the 2002 postseason that Bibby appeared to be on the verge of blossoming, hitting several clutch shots for a team that came within a few minutes and some bad luck of making the NBA Finals. The Kings bought into "post-season Bibby" that offseason and decided to give him a seven-year, $81 million deal -- All-Star money to a guy who hadn't made an All-Star team. Nor would he ever make one. Bibby would go one to be a pretty good point guard on some okay teams. He was last seen getting booted from his son's high school game last week for arguing with referees:
3. Lamar Odom Career Earnings: $107,767,658 I don't know that anybody has been paid more for the unfulfilled allure of what he could be than Lamar Odom, who's been just productive enough to get millions of dollars and multiple years handed to him a couple times and yet a big enough turd to never even be discussed for the All-Star team, let alone make one. He's the perfect fourth guy on a good team, the quintessential role player on steroids, which means his making over $100 million is maybe the classic example of why the league's fiscal system is broken.
2. Brian Grant Career Earnings: $109,842,052 Wait, did I just call Lamar Odom a "role player?" Hell, he's LeBron James compared to Grant, who averaged ten points and seven rebounds over his twelve-year career. Grant is actually probably best known for being a very expensive, salary-balancing piece (along with Odom, ironically) in the trade that sent Shaquille O'Neal from the Lakers to the Miami Heat. Quite the legacy.
1. Marcus Camby Career Earnings: $119,024,322 And the title of highest paid player to never make an NBA All Star team goes to Camby, whose legacy is complex enough to where his supporters can say "Hey, the guy averaged almost a double-double for his career (9.6 points, 9.8 rebounds), and was considered the second or third most valuable guy on most of the teams he was on!" and yet his detractors can say "Um.....Marcus Camby?....$119 million?....Really?....REALLY??"
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And oddly enough, they're both probably right.
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