For decades, the largest NBA salaries were given to dominant big men. But as the three-point era has dawned, that landscape has changed drastically.
In researching league salaries for the last three decades, we can see how teams used to allocate their resources. Between 1990-91 and 2017-18, for example, it was always centers or power forwards who ranked on top.
During the 1999-00 campaign, all 13 of the top salaries (Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Alonzo Mourning, Juwan Howard, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Hakeen Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Dikembe Mutombo, Jayson Williams, Rik Smits, Larry Johnson and David Robinson) were given to frontcourt players.
Back in 2002-03, big men were eating half of the salary pie of the league. They are at a record low 34.6 percent right now, although still handsomely paid. In fact, the average center makes more money ($7.7 million in 2019-20) than the average player in other positions. It’s just that there fewer of them.
For context, 43.2 percent of the players in 2011-12 played primarily power forward or center. But now in 2019-20, that has dropped to only 36.3 percent.
As such, gone are the days of bigs leading all NBA players in total annual salary. If you look at the top earners this season, for example, there is a very noticeable trend.
Centers went from earning 27.7 percent of the total salary in 1990-91 (which was the first year of our research) to a likely all-time low of 18.9 percent this season. Based on current expenditures, point guards account for 22.9 percent of the salaries in the NBA – ahead of all of the other positions.
Guards combine for 44.4 percent of salary money right now, which is the highest number we have on record.
Point guards leading the charge is a distinct change from as recently as the 2015-16 season. Even then, none of the seven highest-paid players in the NBA (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh and Kevin Durant) were point guards.
Now the three highest-paid players (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul) are all point guards. Veterans like John Wall and Kyle Lowry currently rank in the Top 10. Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and Mike Conley do not trail far behind.
Overall, the average point guard salary increased almost $1.4 million while the average center salary dropped around $750,000.
Over the next few years, expect this trend to only continue. For example, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard will earn $47.8 million per year when his next deal kicks in for the 2020-21 season.
With these rates in mind, young point guards like Trae Young and De’Aaron Fox should be in for big paydays when their eligibility arrives as well.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa conducted research for this report