In 1996, Juwan Howard became the first player in NBA history to sign a $100 million contract. It took two decades for Mike Conley to become the league's first $150 million player in 2016... but only one year later, Stephen Curry broke the $200 million barrier. Now, six years after that, Jaylen Brown has became the league's first $300 million player by with the Boston Celtics.
What did we learn from that first paragraph? Two very important points:
- NBA salaries are not only rising, but doing so exponentially. So long as revenue continues to increase, we're going to continue hitting milestones at faster and faster rates.
- Curry is the sort of player you'd expect to hit such a milestone. But Howard, Conley and Brown? Not so much. They were all excellent players, but the three of them combined to make four All-Star teams in their careers. Timing is everything when it comes to milestone contracts. Brown, Conley and Howard all happened to sign their deals at extremely opportune moments.
As easy as it would be to say "if Jaylen Brown got $300 million, Player X certainly deserves $400 million!" that simply isn't how the salary cap works. The NBA's maximum salary is based on a number of factors out of the control of individual players.
A player's given salary is, in most cases, based on experience. Players with six or fewer years of experience can earn 25% of the cap in the first year of a new deal, while players with seven-nine years of experience can make 30% of the cap and players with 10 or more years of experience can earn 35%. When a player re-signs with his own team, he can earn 8% annual raises, but if he leaves to sign with a new team, he can only get 5% raises. Similarly, a player can sign a five-year deal with his own team but only a four-year deal elsewhere. This is largely why players have preferred re-signing and forcing trades later to moving through free agency lately. Doing so is simply more lucrative.
There are a few exceptions to the rules above, and they are reserved for only the NBA's best players. Players with less than six years of experience can jump up to 30% of the cap when re-signing with their own team through the Derrick Rose Rule, which applies when such a player has won MVP, Defensive Player of the Year or earned All-NBA honors in either the previous season or two of the last three. The same set of criteria can take a player with seven-nine years of experience from 30% of the cap to 35% of the cap through the Designated Veteran rule, though they can only get this contract from a team that drafted them or traded for them within the first four years of their career.
So now we know how max contracts are calculated, but as they are a percentage of the salary cap, we also have to consider where the cap is likely headed. Fortunately, the NBA simplified this process tremendously in their newest collective bargaining agreement. Under current league guidelines, the cap cannot rise by more than 10% in a given season. However, because of the new, impending national television contract infusing billions of projected dollars in revenue into the league's coffers, we can say with relative certainty that so long as the NBA does not experience another black swan event like COVID-19, the cap will rise 10% every year for the foreseeable future. Therefore, we can safely project the salary cap for the next several seasons accordingly:
Finally, we have to seek out the specific circumstances under which a player would actually sign a contract of that magnitude. Many players nowadays choose to sign contract extensions years before free agency. Doing so gives them extra financial security, but it deprives them of their maximum earning power. That is because extensions are limited in length and do not wipe away the previous years on a contract. No player can be under contract with a given team for more than six years in total, and if a few of those years pay salaries based on a cheaper max, that player misses out on the value of those 10% cap jumps every year and the bigger raises that come with them. A player could, in theory, make $400 million over the combined years covered by his old contract and his new one, but it doesn't quite seem fair to call someone a $400 million player over two contracts.
These are the stars that aligned for Brown this offseason. He only had one year left on his deal, so he was eligible to add the maximum possible five years to his deal. Because he made an All-NBA team and remained with the franchise that drafted him, he could earn a 35% max in the first year of that new deal, and since he was re-signing in Boston, he could assure himself 8% raises each year. Add all of that up and you get a $304 million contract.
So let's take a look at what max contracts will look like over the next few years and try to figure out when we'll see the NBA's first $400 million player and who that player might be.
The 2025-26 season
Brown's $304 million contract will kick in for the 2024-25 season. Therefore, to see where things are headed next, we need to take a look at what a supermax contract would look like if it started in the 2025-26 season. Here is how the projected numbers on such a contract would shake out:
The obvious candidate to sign this contract is Giannis Antetokounmpo. Technically, he is eligible to extend later this offseason. However, for a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that he does so. He has two guaranteed years left on his current deal, so he'd be giving up the chance to guarantee himself that $76 million figure in 2030 by signing now. He may also want to wait for basketball purposes. His three best teammates will all be 32 or older on opening night, so it would be worthwhile for him to see how this season shakes out before he makes a long-term commitment. If he does decide to extend next offseason, he would simply decline his 2025-26 player option and re-up at his new max.
Another Celtic, Jayson Tatum, is in the same boat, though he will not become extension-eligible until next offseason. At that point, he will almost certainly sign a contract that looks like the one listed above with the Celtics. That would give Boston two supermax players for the foreseeable future.
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will also be extension-eligible next offseason. However, neither will be receiving a contract of this magnitude because of the Over-38 rule. Should they extend, their deals will only take them through their age-38 seasons. A five-year pact would go well beyond that for both, so expect high annual salaries with fewer guaranteed seasons. Sadly for the NBA's best players, we still haven't reached that $400 million plateau. So let's jump forward one more year.
The 2026-27 season
The next batch of max contracts won't hit $400 million either, but it does reach another very important milestone. Here's what a supermax contract beginning in the 2026-27 season will look like.
An NBA season includes 82 games, not including the postseason. Therefore, players who sign a supermax contract that begins in the 2026-27 season will become the first players in NBA history to earn $1 million per game in a single season, though that season will not come until the 2030-31 campaign. Less than five decades ago, Bill Walton and Moses Malone became the first players in league history to earn $1 million over the course of an entire season. Now? That's less than the rookie minimum.
There are a number of players that could credibly earn this contract. Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic could both sign an extension at this number if they wait until the 2025 offseason to do so and continue to hit the benchmarks required to retain supermax eligibility. What is important to note here, though, is that both are viewed around the league as possible flight risks in the interim. This isn't a problem for Embiid, as next season will be his 10th year in the NBA, so he will be eligible for 35% of the cap regardless of where he lands and his new team will be able to extend him for five years. Doncic, however, has only five years of NBA experience under his belt. That means that if he is traded to a new team before he signs a new deal, he would lose super-max eligibility and have to sign for the smaller, 30% max.
Trae Young is on the same contract timeline as Doncic and Embiid, though he has made just one All-NBA team in his career and either an MVP or Defensive Player of the Year award appear unlikely. Therefore, he may or may not be eligible for such a contract at that time. The same is true of De'Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, who, unlike Embiid, Doncic and Young, do not have player-options for the 2026-27 season. Ultimately though, no contracts that start in the 2026-27 season will cross the $400 million mark. To get there, we need to jump ahead one more year.
The 2027-28 season
Here we go. Supermax contracts that kick in for the 2027-28 season are the first batch expected to hit $400 million. Here's how those contracts are projected to look.
Nikola Jokic stands out as a worthy recipient of the NBA's first $400 million contract, and if he wants it, he can have it. He'll be eligible as a 10-year veteran whether or not he's experienced any meaningful decline in his game. However, Jokic and the Nuggets have historically always agreed to new max contracts at the earliest possible date. Therefore, Jokic will likely extend with the Nuggets at a (slightly) lower number before the 2026 offseason. Devin Booker would have been another obvious candidate to extend at this price in the summer of 2026, but without a player-option for the 2027-28 season, he won't be able to tack on five new years at that point, so an extension for him will also likely come earlier at a lower price.
The real group of players we need to look for here are players currently on rookie extensions who are slated for free agency in the summer of 2028. These are the players likely to be good enough to qualify for a supermax deal and young enough to wait for an extension until the last possible minute. Our prime candidate here is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who did not get a player-option on the last year of his rookie extension like draft-mates Doncic and Young, so if he wants to tack five years onto his deal, he will have to wait until the summer of 2026. If he does so and remains at the All-NBA level he reached last season, he has a real chance to become the NBA's first $400 million player.
Notably, none of the max rookie extensions given to 2019 draftees included player options on the final year of the deal. This means that while Ja Morant, Zion Williamson and Darius Garland could all extend in 2026, they'd only be able to tack four years onto their existing deals. That locks them out of the "$400 million a single contract" club unless they wait a little bit longer. Fortunately, none of these players are going to be strapped for cash so long as the league continues to thrive financially.
We should note here that all of the numbers we're dealing with here are projections. The cap may not rise as quickly as we expect. We might also see unexpected players become prominent enough to claim contracts of this size. The future is, obviously, unknowable. We can project, for instance, that the league's first $100 million salary will be paid out during the 2032-33 season, but that is nearly a decade away. A decade ago, the NBA's salary cap was $58.7 million. Plenty can change over such a vast period of time.
We should also note that the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement runs only through the 2029-30 season. That won't invalidate signed contracts beyond that point, but it might shape the way contracts are negotiated. If revenue nosedives over the next few years, for instance, teams might be hesitant to give out any contract worth $400 million. Another factor here is expansion. The NBA is widely expected to add two teams in the somewhat near future, but doing so means dividing the player's share of revenue across 32 teams rather than 30. As the cap is based on the share of revenue players receive in the CBA, this effectively means that the cap will be lower on a relative basis when the league introduces new teams. However, without know when those two teams will join the league, we can't say for certain when the cap will be affected.
But right now, the NBA is an extremely healthy financial position. The new national television contract is expect to create tens of billions of dollars in extra revenue, and that money has to be shared roughly evenly with the players. So far in his career, LeBron James has earned roughly $530 million. It is not a stretch to suggest that the first player who will earn $1 billion in lifetime NBA salaries is already in the league today. Just churn through a few $400 million contracts and you'll cross that line in no time.