With NBA Max Salaries Rapidly Approaching $50 Million a Season, Who Was the NBA’s 1st $1 Million-a-Year Player?

Within five years, an NBA player will earn more than $50 million in a single season. Let that sink in for a moment. Now consider we’re only a little more than two generations removed from the first player to get paid $1 million in a season. Moses Malone turned out to be a bargain at that price for the Houston Rockets, winning a second MVP award and leading the team to its first NBA Finals during that contract.

The business of professional sports grew explosively since the turn of the millennium. How explosively? Try 1,102% since 2000. Since the NBA’s salary cap ties contracts to basketball-related income, those contracts have been getting more expensive every step of the way.

Suffice it to say; the NBA was in a far different place financially when Moses Malone signed his historic deal.

The day Moses Malone made professional sports history

Moses Malone was the NBA's first million-dollar-a-year player
Marvin Webster (40) of the New York Knicks battles for position with Moses Malone (24) of the Houston Rockets during an NBA basketball game circa 1978 at Madison Square Garden. In 1979, Malone signed what was then the first contract in team sports history to pay an athlete $1 million a season. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Not only did Moses Malone become the first NBA player to earn at least $1 million per season, but he was also the first athlete in any team sport worldwide to do so. On July 16, 1979, Malone signed a three-year, $3 million contract to remain with the Houston Rockets.

The NBA’s free agency rules were different in that era. It was before the salary cap, and free agency was still a relatively new thing for players. Team owners only begrudgingly acknowledged a player’s right to play out his contract and sign with another team. However, when a player did that, the team losing the player got compensation — players, cash, draft picks, or some combination.

If teams couldn’t agree to a compensation deal, the commissioner imposed it. For instance, the day Malone re-signed with Houston, free-agent guard Tom Henderson also signed with the Rockets. In exchange, the Washington Bullets got Houston’s first-round draft pick in 1980.

Did compensation restrict player movement? Yes, yes, it did. But Malone, as the reigning NBA MVP who in 1978–79 set a record for offensive rebounds in a single season that still stands, was a unique case.

Malone treated the signing as no big deal, according to The Associated Press.

“The money doesn’t change anything. It just changes what you can get. I won’t worry about that. I’m just going to do my best while I am here.”

Moses Malone in 1979

He delivered on that promise with the 1981–82 MVP award and a trip to the 1981 NBA Finals. But in 1982, he left Houston to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers for six years and $13.2 million. That made Malone the first player to surpass the $2 million mark annually. But much more significant things are ahead for the NBA.

The 1st $50 million salary looms on the horizon

With the creation of the Designated Player rule in the last collective bargaining agreement, a specific class of players can receive up to 35% of the salary cap in a season. With the extension Giannis Antetokounmpo signed with the Milwaukee Bucks in December 2020, he is on target to be the NBA’s first $50-million-a-year player.

Antetokounmpo’s extension is for five years and kicks in next season. The final year of that deal, 2025-26, is a player option for $51,935,360. According to Spotrac, that is the first annual salary over $50 million on the horizon. Moses Malone might even be impressed with that.

The explosion in salaries is tied directly to the value of the NBA and its franchises. According to a Marquette University Law School paper, the average franchise was worth $183 million in 2000. The New York Knicks were the most valuable franchise at $334 million, and the Los Angeles Clippers holding the smallest valuation, $103 million.

In 2015, the average value passed the $1 billion mark for the first time. According to Forbes, the value of an average NBA franchise today is $2.2 billion. The Knicks remain the most valuable franchise in the NBA at $5 billion. But even the 30th-ranked Memphis Grizzlies are valued at $1.3 billion. It’s a whole new game.

What would Moses Malone’s record deal be worth today?

Moses Malone was a trailblazer when he signed the NBA’s first $1-million-a-year contract. Salaries are enormously higher today, but how has Malone’s historic deal track when adjusted for inflation?

Suffice it to say that the rise in NBA salaries has outpaced the inflation rate, at least a little bit. Stephen Curry was the highest-paid player in the league in 2020–21 at a little more than $43 million.

Malone’s ground-breaking, earth-shatteringly large contract in 1979? It’s worth a bit more than $3.7 million today.

Moses Malone, who died in September 2015, did see much of the expanding value of NBA contracts, but nothing like what’s on the horizon. It’s understandable why players from the past marvel at today’s salaries.

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