In the past 30 years, nearly every NBA team has signed a player to a contract worth at least $2 million. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Chris Paul were all the first NBA players to make $10 million per year, and Kobe was the first player to make $20 million per year. Now, in 2017, that threshold has been breached by the Philadelphia 76ers, who signed center Jahlil Okafor to a $68 million, five-year contract. The third overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft, the 6’11” Okafor has career averages of 17.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. At 25 years old, he is entering the prime of his career.

The NBA is full of superstars who are worth more than $50 million, so who was the first player to top that threshold? That’s the topic of this week’s blog post.

An NBA player earns more than $50 million in one season over five years. Let it soak in for a while. Now consider that we are just over two generations away from the first million dollar a season player. Moses Malone proved to be a bargain for the Houston Rockets at this price. He won his second MVP award and led the team to its first NBA Finals during this contract.

Since the turn of the millennium, the professional sports sector has boomed. How do you explode? Try 1.102% since 2000. Since the NBA’s salary cap ties contracts to basketball revenue, these contracts become more expensive at each stage.

Suffice to say, the NBA was in a very different financial position when Moses Malone signed his historic contract.

The day Moses Malone made professional sports history

Marvin Webster (40) of the New York Knicks battles for position with Moses Malone (24) of the Houston Rockets during an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in 1978. In 1979, Malone signed the first million-dollar-a-season contract in team sports history. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Moses Malone was not only the first NBA player to earn at least $1 million in a single season, but also the first athlete in a team sport in the world to do so. On the 16th. July 1979, Malone signs a three-year, $3 million contract to remain with the Houston Rockets.

At the time, the NBA had different rules for free agency. This was before the salary cap was introduced and Free Agency was still a relatively new phenomenon for players. The owners of the team reluctantly accepted the player’s right to terminate his contract and sign with another team. But if a player did that, the team that lost him was compensated – player, money, draft pick or a combination.

If the teams could not agree on the fee, it was imposed by the commissioner. On the day Malone signed with Houston, for example, free defender Tom Henderson also signed with the Rockets. In return, the Washington Bulletts got the first pick of Houston in 1980.

Did compensation limit players’ freedom of movement? Yes. Yes, it was. But Malone was a special case, as the reigning NBA MVP who set the still-standing record for most offensive rebounds in a season in the 1978-79 season.

According to the Associated Press, Malone didn’t think the signature was anything special.

Money changes nothing. It only changes what you can get. I won’t worry. I’ll just do my best while I’m here.

Moses Malone in 1979

He made good on that promise by winning the 1981-82 MVP award and reaching the 1981 NBA Finals. But in 1982, he left Houston and signed a six-year, $13.2 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. Malone became the first player to cross the $2 million a year mark. But there are much more important things coming up for the NBA.

$50 million salary is on the line

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Following the introduction of the designated player rule in the last collective agreement, a certain category of players can receive up to 35% of the salary cap for the season. After a contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks in December 2020, Giannis Antitokounmpo becomes the first NBA player with a contract worth $50 million per year.

Antetokounmpo will extend his contract for five years and play from next season. The final year of this contract, 2025-26, is a player option for $51,935,360. According to Spotrac, it is the first annual salary above $50 million that is at stake. Even Moses Malone would be impressed by that.

The increase in salaries is directly related to the cost of the NBA and its franchises. According to Marquette University Law School, the average value of a franchise in 2000 was $183 million. The most expensive franchise was the New York Knicks at $334 million, while the Los Angeles Clippers had the lowest value at $103 million.

In 2015, the average value exceeded the $1 billion mark for the first time. According to Forbes, the average value of an NBA franchise is now $2.2 billion. The Knicks remain the most expensive franchise in the NBA at $5 billion. But the Memphis Grizzlies, in 30th place, are also valued at $1.3 billion. This is a completely new game.

What would Moses Malone’s record be worth today?

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Moses Malone became a trailblazer when he signed the first million dollar a year contract in the NBA. Wages are much higher now, but how has the historic Malone deal, adjusted for inflation, evolved?

Suffice it to say that salary growth in the NBA is at least slightly above the rate of inflation. Stephen Curry was the highest paid player in the league in 2020-21, with a salary of just over $43 million.

Malone’s revolutionary and overwhelming contract in 1979? Today it is worth just over $3.7 million.

Moses Malone, who passed away in September 2015, saw much of the expansion of contract value in the NBA, but nothing of what lies ahead. It’s understandable that players from the past are surprised by today’s salaries.

COMPARED TO: New York Knicks’ incredible run to the NBA Finals continues

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