During all the coverage of Kevin Durant’s free agency tour, one that ended with his stunning decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder and join the Golden State Warriors, one name was rarely mentioned: LeBron James. This despite the fact that the Cavaliers star was a free agent in his own right, one with the ability to shift the league’s balance of power in any direction he desired.
The reason almost no one made a big deal out of James’s free agency, of course, was that everyone expected him to re-sign with Cleveland. It may have taken longer than some expected, but on Thursday, the four-time MVP did just that, returning to the team he led to its first NBA title for a reported $100 million over three years.
The contract is the real eye-opener here, as for the first time in his career (per ESPN’s Brian Windhorst), James will be the highest-paid player in the league. In fact his reported salary of over $33 million for the 2017-18 season will be the most ever paid to an NBA player. Only Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have previously topped $30 million for one season.
If any athlete in any sport is worth that kind of money, it’s James, who has been to the Finals six straight years with two franchises, winning three titles. His performance this spring in breaking Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, at the expense of the 73-win, defending champion Warriors, is the stuff of legend.
A FiveThirtyEight analysis recently claimed that, over the next five seasons, James is expected to generate about $309 million of value for his team (Steph Curry’s figure came in at $404 million). That works out to $61.8 million per year, so by that standard, the Cavs are getting a huge bargain.
The contract is also reported to have a player opt-out clause after two seasons, meaning that James can be a free agent again in 2018. Some noted that his closest NBA pals, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, can also hit the open market that summer, setting up some intriguing possibilities for a new (if rather long in the tooth) super team. In addition, the likes of Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul Millsap can be free agents in 2018 as well (per Spotrac).
“My hometown team, I can’t be more excited in this opportunity to defend our crown,” James, an Akron, Ohio, native said Thursday in a video posted by Uninterrupted. “It was an unbelievable season, and I just can’t wait to get the group back together,” he added, throwing in a pitch for the Cavs to re-sign current free agent J.R. Smith.