What is the average starter salary?

Over the weekend, I got this email from a reader named Jesse Pittsley:

“I’m currently listening to Dunc’d On’s annual Rookie Mock extension pod and Nate has dropped the phrase ‘average starter money’ several times.  Off the cuff, he attached the value of $10 million.

I’m curious, do you happen to know what are the mean and median salaries for starters across the league? Do you think it varies by position?”

Editor’s note: Nate’s actual value he used on the podcast was $17 million for an average starter, not $10 million, but the question remains a good one.

My initial reaction was that $10 million was a little light; I had used $10 million for average starter salary in the pre-2016 years, before the cap went through the roof that summer. These days, I had used $15 million as a general baseline, but never really thought about breaking it out by position or looking into it to see if my $15 million assumption was even accurate. And if $15 million was accurate in 2016, it probably isn’t anymore; the cap has risen another 16 percent in the last few seasons to north of $109 million this year.

Another figure I’ve heard is to use 15 percent of that year’s salary cap, which would put the average starter at around $17.4 million for 2019-20, based on the $109.14 million cap. Again, though, there wasn’t a whole lot behind that number, just a general guideline.

One of the biggest issues with looking into an empirical answer to this question is defining a starter in the first place. The CBA defines a starter (for the qualifying offer starter criteria) as a player who played at least 2,000 minutes or started 41 games, so we’ll use that in the beginning, before taking into account CBA conditions and drilling down into the details to help further filter starters from stars or superstars. Using 2,000 minutes or 41 starts is just one way to define a starter; there are lots of other ways, but we have to create a definition before we can move forward with anything else.

149 players played at least 2,000 minutes or started 41 games last season, which works to almost exactly five players per team. The average salary for these 149 players last season was $12.7 million, so we’re done, right? $12.7 million isn’t quite as high as I would have expected, but my expectation wasn’t really based on anything specific.

The issue with this list and defining average salary across the entire league is that there are players who are wildly underpaid who bring down this average considerably. I’m not talking about players I think are good and should be paid more, because that’s not something that’s provable in any way. Rather, I’m talking about players on their first contracts.

Players on their first contracts are split into two categories: first-round picks and everyone else. First-round picks are slotted in at specific salaries based on where they were picked in the draft, with little wiggle room for negotiation. The end result is that these players, even with the new CBA dictating heavier raises for draft picks over the previous system, are underpaid to a significant degree, but can’t get what they deserve on the market until they hit their second contracts. Not every player on a rookie scale contract is underpaid, but if they play 2,000 minutes or start 41 games, then it’s a pretty safe assumption that they could get more on the open market than they’re making on their rookie scale deal.

The same goes for second-round picks and undrafted free agents. Although there isn’t a specific scale to which these players are tied, the first contracts for these players are usually at the minimum or very close to it. If a player pops and becomes someone upon which their team can rely, then he’ll make the starter criteria but doesn’t get the raise that comes with it until he hits his second contract.

Throwing out players on their first contracts better defines the answer to the question we’re actually asking: what are teams willing to pay on the open market for starter-level talent? Players with pre-defined salaries (or close to it) aren’t on an open market, but everybody else is. Or, at least, they’re on as open a market as the NBA allows, given that max salaries and restricted free agency exists.

Players on maximum contracts have a similar problem to first-round picks; they’re underpaid due to the restrictions the CBA places on their salaries. LeBron James and his fellow superstars would certainly make a hell of a lot more money if they were negotiating in a truly open market, but both the players association and clubs have decided to keep a maximum salary intact1. There’s a strong argument for taking these players out of the dataset as well, but given that those max deals are what the market pays them and they have to have actually earned that max contract through their work in the NBA, including them makes more sense than not doing so.

What we’re left with is a group of 104 players from last season; 45 players were eliminated from our original 149-player list because they’re on their first contracts. The average of this better-defined group of 104 players: $16.6 million.

This number is a lot closer to my hypothesized value of $15 million or 15 percent of the salary cap (15 percent of the 2018-19 cap is $15.3 million) and even overshoots it slightly.

Diving deeper into these numbers brings up some interesting findings. Breaking the players into Guards, Forwards, and Bigs helps to show the general trend over the last few years, both in terms of volume of money and personnel becoming skewed toward perimeter players and away from Bigs.

2018-19 All Starters Second+ Contract Starters
Position Average Salary Average Salary
Guards                          12,897,651                          18,115,373
Forwards                          11,554,489                          15,358,366
Bigs                          14,249,622                          16,914,810
All                          12,701,697                          16,632,562
Position Count Count
Guards                                           47                                           30
Forwards                                           62                                           42
Bigs                                           40                                           32
All                                         149                                         104

For all starters, the average for Bigs was actually higher than Guards and Forwards, which is slightly unexpected when you think about where the NBA is going and the conversations surrounding player value we’ve had over the last year or two. As we move into the 2020s, I imagine that number will fall, particularly after the 2016 contracts come off the books and all those players who signed four-year deals are back on the market.

Once we control for first-contract players, things even out a lot more, as Guards are the highest-paid position in this new filtered group. It’s also interesting to see how the counts of each position fall when the first-contract players are taken out of the data: Guards lost 17 of their 47 players, Forwards lose 20 out of 62, and Bigs lose just 8 out of 40. This shows us something that we intuitively already know (and could see by looking at the last few drafts): teams are more focused on perimeter players in the draft and are willing to give starter minutes to those players early in their careers.

Once players hit free agency, how does the average starter salary change? 54 players who were free agents this summer hit the starter criteria in 2018-19 and their average 2019-20 salaries follow the conventional wisdom of perimeter-first, bigs-last:

2019-20 Free Agents All Starters
Position Average Salary
Guards                          16,373,345
Forwards                          15,137,637
Bigs                          12,763,428
All                          14,955,087
Position Count
Guards                                           17
Forwards                                           24
Bigs                                           13
All                                           54

Not only are the averages higher for perimeter players, but the counts of starters signed from those positions are much higher.

Another question that arose from my emails with Jesse regards how much teams are paying to non-star starters. By including all non-first-contract players in this data, we’re not necessarily talking specifically about starters, but instead talking about anybody who is starter-quality or better. To narrow the market to just starter-level players (to eliminate players who are worse AND players who are better than that level), we can take away players who have made more than one All-Star Game in their careers. These starter-level contributors averaged $13.3 million in 2018-19, with all three position groupings within a few hundred thousand dollars of that overall average. That group includes 77 players, eliminating 27 players from the previous 104-player set.

This entire exercise is a very long-winded way of saying that the average salary for a starter-level player isn’t quite as high as $15 million, but casting a wider net to include all players who are starter-level or better elevates the average to $16.6 million. As teams and players enter negotiations, whether in free agency or in rookie scale extensions, it’s important for each side to understand where the player fits in the grand scheme of the league and the market as a whole. Of course, there are thousands of other variables that go into every contract, but having a general idea of what an average “starter-level” player makes can help give teams a baseline of how to think about potential signees or their own extension-eligible players.

  1. Maximum salaries benefit both the players and owners, so they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

    The very best players aren’t making as much as they could otherwise, but that money is still being spent, as the players are owed 50 percent of BRI; if that money isn’t going to the superstars, it’s supporting the robust middle class of players who earn far more than they would if there was no max salary for the top guys. While the best players can wield a massive amount of influence and occasionally can change the rules to benefit themselves, such as raising the Over-36 Rule to Over-38 or instituting the Rose Rule and supermax contracts, the idea of a max salary is still very beneficial to the players as a whole, as there are a lot more middle class players than high-end stars.