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Nets ‘Big Three’ all in top 10 of endorsements; Kevin Durant highest paid Olympian

2021 USA Basketball Training Camp: All-Access Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Bottom line: Big talent brings big bucks for “Big Three.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise, but the Nets Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving all rank in the top 10 of NBA players endorsements in 2021. And of the 11,000 athletes headed to Tokyo next week for the Olympics, KD is the highest paid. That’s all according to two reports out Sunday.

The three players’ popularity is unmatched by any other trio in the NBA, as evidenced by their jersey sales. Earlier this week, the NBA revealed they finished third (Durant), eighth (Irving) and ninth (Harden) in online sales for the second half of the season. And that’s just North America. All the income from those sales go into NBA coffers rather than to individual players.

In its ranking of NBA players making the most money off endorsements in 2021, Hoopshype has Durant second to LeBron James with an estimated $48 million, about 55 percent of his annual income. Harden ranked seventh at $18 million, 30.3 percent of his annual income while Irving was just behind him in eighth with $17 million and 33.6 percent. (Extending the list further, Blake Griffin finished 24th, at $3 million, in endorsements, 10 percent of his earnings.) The data is based on Sportico’s ranking of the top 100 highest paid athletes, which in turn is based on estimates of all manner of athletes’ income including salaries.

The “Big Three,” of course, are also among the highest paid players in the league. KD will earn $42 million in salary, Harden $44 million and Irving $35 million this coming season.

It’s entirely possible that the Hoopshype/Sportico totals are conservative. ProPublica, the investigative news site, last week reported that James earned a total of $124 million in 2018, based on tax returns it somehow acquired (paying out $44 million to the IRS). The Hoopshype/Sportico data published Sunday suggests that LeBron’s total take from salary, endorsements and investments reached $101.8 million in 2021. It’s hard to imagine James’ income has dropped in the last three years.

Since these are estimates, there are also differences among those who tally up the numbers. Forbes, in its estimates of Olympians’ income also out Sunday, has Durant at $75 million, $5.1 million less than Hoopshype/Sportico.

Here’s Forbes’ take on Durant’s take.

Brooklyn Nets star forward Kevin Durant, who already has two Olympic gold medals under his belt, has seen his investments off the court rival his prolific play on it. The two-time NBA champion is the league’s latest multimedia mogul with breakout media network Boardroom, a stake in MLS’s Philadelphia Union and his own venture capital firm, Thirty Five Ventures. This is Durant’s second time leading Team USA without LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, who last went to the Olympics in 2012. It’s Durant’s third Olympic appearance in all as he hopes to lead Team USA to a fourth consecutive gold with several first-time Olympians on the roster.

Second on the list is Naomi Osaka of Japan, the tennis star. Forbes estimates she is earning $60 million. Rounding out the top five are Damian Lillard ($40.5 million) of Team USA; Novak Djokovic, the world’s top ranked tennis player from Serbia ($34.5 million) and Rory McIlroy, the Northern Irish golfer ($30.5). In all, five of the top 10 Olympic earners are NBA players.

What’s it all mean? Other than prurient interest generated by the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the tallies suggest that the earning power of world-class athletes continues to pick up speed — yet another indicator of player empowerment. While their on-court and on-field earnings are the engine that power their endorsements and other investments, players have other sources of income and generational wealth, giving them a lot more independence.