James is worth every penny.
He averaged 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game during the regular season and was instrumental in Cleveland winning its first major pro championship in 50 years, culminating in his third NBA Finals MVP award in five years.
He led the league in ESPN’s real plus-minus metric (plus-9.8), which estimates a player’s on-court impact, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions, after accounting for teammates and opponents. The reigning MVP, Stephen Curry, ranked fourth (plus-8.5 RPM), and the league’s other best player, Kevin Durant, ranked eighth (plus-6.5 RPM).
But it’s also possible James is undervalued, even with his record-setting compensation.
James was worth 20.5 wins above a replacement player for his regular season performance, the third most after Curry (26.5) and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (22.4). Based on what teams must pay replacement-level players (approximately $1.3 million per player), the amount a team spends above and beyond those minimum contracts for a 12-man roster ($78.4 million), and the number of wins it takes to go from replacement-level to league average (25), each win above replacement a player can contribute to a team is worth approximately $3.1 million. That would value James’s performance at $63.6 million for the 2015-16 season. And that doesn’t include any of his postseason performance, which was worth an additional 8.4 wins above replacement — not to mention those shiny new rings.
FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine even argued that despite turning 31 years old, James is still very much in his prime. Relying on game score, John Hollinger’s single-game productivity rating, Paine found that James produced his highest (pace-adjusted) per-game average of his Finals career against the Warriors after averaging 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game, producing a 26.5 average game score. The only players with similar scores in the Finals are Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson.
And once the championship run was over, James passed Jordan as most valuable player in NBA history.
It’s sounds ludicrous to say a player making the maximum allowed under the CBA is grossly underpaid, but based on his performance, his star power and his ability to put fans in the seats, it is clear that an average of $33.3 million per year for James is an absolute bargain.