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Having already won three NBA MVPs, an NBA championship with the Miami Heat and an NBA Finals MVP, LeBron James is at the pinnacle of his sport. This week, he was named NBA's Player of the Month for the third straight month, cementing himself as the early favorite for the 2012-13 MVP award.
But James is not the highest-paid player in the NBA. His $17,545,000 pretax salary this season, while enormous, is smaller than those of twelve other NBA players. Kobe Bryant, the league's top earner and one of only two players who could challenge James for NBA supremacy, will net $27,849,000 this season (the other, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, will earn $17,548,838 this season).
When asked about his place in the NBA's money list Friday, James demurred.
"It doesn't matter to me being the highest-paid player in the league," he said. "I think my value shows on the floor."
He added: "If this was baseball, it (the salary) would be up, I mean way up there."
The NBA's salary cap and luxury tax penalties kept James and teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh from earnings as high a salary as possible when they decided to join forces in Miami three years ago. James and Bosh each reportedly signed six-year deals worth $110 million. Wade's deal was for six years and $107 million. Each deal was under the NBA's maximum contract.
The move has paid off on the basketball court, as the Heat have made two NBA Finals in each of the Big Three's first two seasons together, winning it all last year. The Heat are currently the top team in the Eastern Conference, and many expect them to return to the Finals this spring.
Recent league developments suggest that even at their discounted price tags, the Big Three may not be able to stay together for long. Under terms of the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement that take effect next season, teams will be penalized more harshly for exceeding the salary cap than they were in the past, and repeat offenders will have it even worse.
This partly compelled the Oklahoma City Thunder to trade James Harden to Houston just before the season started (rather than sign him to a pricey contract extension). It was also a major driver for a trades that sent Rudy Gay and valuable bench players out of Memphis in recent weeks.
All three Miami stars can opt out of their contracts after the 2013-14 season. Speculation has been rampant that the Cavaliers, James' former team, might be interested in signing him, as would the Los Angeles Lakers.
But James says he's not in it for the money (easy to say when endorsement deals with Nike, Samsung, and other companies net him significant supplemental income).
"It's not all about money. It's about winning. I know that and I don't mind," James said. "It doesn't bother me because I'm OK, I'm financially stable and my family is OK."
Miami fans will hope that the allure of winning will be enough to keep James, Wade, and Bosh together in South Florida. The new collective bargaining agreement makes it very difficult to keep this kind of core together for very long, and the Big Three's loyalties will be tested sooner than anyone in South Florida would like.