Are NBA’s biggest stars underpaid? Actually, yes.

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Is Kobe Bryant underpaid at $25 million next season? What about LeBron James at $16 million? Dirk Nowitzki at $19 million? Dwayne Wade at $15.5 million?

Yes, actually they are.

A bunch of teachers, firemen, nurses and other hardworking people just cursed my name. If I were on a stage tomatoes would come flying out of the crowd at me. I don’t blame them. And if you want to make the argument that as a society we over-value entertainers (that’s what NBA players really are) and under pay the people who are truly important, I’ll be the first one in line behind you. That argument is spot on.

It’s also moot. In our capitalistic society as presently constructed, you get paid based on how much money you generate.

And in the NBA, the big stars generate far more for teams than they are paid. That was really what the owners wanted out of the 1998 NBA lockout — to put a cap on maximum salaries so that the Kevin Garnetts and Shaquille O’Neals of that time would not break the bank. The owners won that battle (and at the time the entire labor deal was seen as a win for ownership).

Adrian Wojnarowski touches on this topic in a Yahoo column and has some great quotes from Dwyane Wade.

Let owners bid on the true value the elite stars bring to a franchise, to the league, and Wade was asked where he believes the bidding would rise per season?

“I’m sure it would get to $50 million,” Wade told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday afternoon….

Privately, (Lakers owner) Jerry Buss has told people that Bryant – who will make a league-high $25 million this season under his current contract terms – is worth perhaps $70 million a year to the Los Angeles Lakers.

In the NBA, the handful of big stars is what really drives revenue. Buildings fill up to see Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Durant. Those guys and a handful of others are the ones sponsors try to attach themselves to. They make the owners money.

It’s not so much the bad contracts that hurt owners as it is a high-priced middle class —Lamar Odom making $8.9 million, Jason Terry making more than $10 million next season and Brendan Haywood making $7.6 million, and the list goes on and on through every team. Those are good players but they do not generate the revenue, still they are well compensated.

Some agents (and owners) would love to see a split where the handful of true elite players would make upwards of $30 million a season, but everyone else would make far, far less. Something more akin to the NFL, where a majority of players make the league minimum. In the labor talks, the NBA players union is fighting to keep the middle class alive.

But to do that, the stars have to sacrifice and be underpaid. Call it for the good of the game if you want, but that is the reality.