Even in this seemingly fictional world we have chosen to accept, where the top one percent of earners — of which many professional athletes certainly qualify — accumulate a disproportionate and unfair amount of the wealth, some numbers are so outlandish as to require a double-take.
This is a story, then, about Kawhi Leonard and I. But it's more than that.
Leonard is my double-take. It's not that he is any more or less deserving of insane wealth, but the San Antonio wing has been in the news a lot lately as the Spurs ponder their next move with him. One option: paying him a "supermax" contract totaling five years and $219 million — guaranteed, as all NBA contracts are.
I'm pretty good at math (at least for a sports writer), and my mind immediately breaks that down to almost $44 million per year to play basketball (maybe, at least, since Leonard was injured most of last season). It stops me every time, even as I've mostly become numb to these things.
In times like this, history is a handy reference point. To understand where we are, we must remember how we got here.
In short: NBA salaries have looked like Monopoly money for a while, but during the last economic recession things were relatively flat. The league has a salary cap, and it was virtually unchanged from 2008-2013.
But starting in 2013-14 through last season, the NBA salary cap increased by 69 percent in a four-year span – from $58.6 million to $99.1 million last season. It is only projected to go up another $2 million for 2018-19, to $101 million, but the runaway train is already speeding down the tracks. Even for what will now be a five-year span, a more than 70 percent jump is a huge leap.
Even the NFL, which has grown substantially in that same span, hasn't matched the NBA's salary pace. From 2013 to 2018, the NFL salary cap increased by 44 percent. (Based on an $80 million projection for next year, the NHL cap will increase 24 percent in the same five-year span, while MLB salaries in the uncapped league have gone up 33 percent).
In the midst of those rather dramatic salary cap jumps in the NFL and NBA, though, was a single factor most responsible for both: a huge influx of TV money from massive contracts in both the NFL (starting in 2014) and the NBA (starting in the 2016-17 season).
Stars in both leagues get a huge portion of that cash, and in the NFL it's usually the quarterback who benefits most (hence Kirk Cousins and his 84 million guaranteed reason to join the Vikings).
But the NBA numbers are particularly startling because that league had the biggest cap jump by percentage and because simple math tells us there are fewer players to play relative to other leagues. The active roster in the NBA is 15 players; in the NFL, it's 53. The money is then doled out in larger shares to each basketball player.
Even the merely good players are reaping those rewards. In the NBA last season, 125 players made at least $10 million and 41 players made at least $20 million.
And pretty soon, Leonard might make an average of $44 million. Even though I'm the one who wrote that, I'm still doing a double-take.