NBA coaches' salaries are on the cusp of a financial revolution

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Thursday, August 24, 2023

MANILA, Philippines -- Depending on how you want to assume bonuses and incentives, the Team USA roster is celebrating more than $700 million in new contracts with NBA teams this summer.

In all, more than $1 billion combined in deals for the 12-man team. Everyone here is assured the pro basketball dream of generational wealth short of Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero and Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler, who just finished their first seasons. And for them, both promising young players, their day is coming.

While the discussion of money may go against the spirit of the FIBA World Cup, which is played and coached largely for free and designed to celebrate and grow the sport globally, it's unrealistic to ignore it. The reason this roster is here at the World Cup, which opens Friday, is, in a significant sense, because the players are stable contractually.

Except for one part of the team: the high-profile coaches.

If the coaching staff USA Basketball executive director Grant Hill and general manager Sean Ford have put together this summer isn't the most impressive in the history of the program, it's got to be in the conversation.

During timeouts, it's striking to see the reputation and decoration that enters those coaching huddles.

Between coach Steve Kerr and assistants Erik Spoelstra and Ty Lue, there are seven NBA titles and 13 Finals appearances. Gonzaga's Mark Few is right there with two Final Fours and a golden reputation as one of the greatest college program builders in NCAA history.

But when it comes to getting paid, the guys wearing the polos aren't quite as locked down as the men in the jerseys.

NBA coaching salaries are on the cusp of a financial revolution, and this Team USA staff may be the group that fully ushers it in.

Kerr is going into his final season under contract as coach of the Golden State Warriors, as is Spoelstra with the Miami Heat. Earlier this summer, the LA Clippers picked up an option in Lue's deal, leaving him with two years remaining.

For each of their teams, keeping them is vital. And doing so is going to be expensive. In June, the San Antonio Spurs announced a five-year contract extension with Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich. That the Spurs would acknowledge a new contract and announced the length was a change in protocol. Popovich's contract status had been locked down for decades.

A short time later, the value of the five-year deal became public as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported it at "more than $80 million." Popovich's salary, while long known to be the highest in the league, had never been so public.

"It's a gift and that's what has always been to all of us anyway," Lue told ESPN after a Team USA practice last week in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. "Pop's always been the one that showed everyone the way and he is always speaking up on everything. It's just good that he publicized it and he did it for the coaches."

It came on the heels of Monty Williams agreeing to a six-year, $78.5 million deal with the Detroit Pistons that ostensibly set the record for the highest contract ever given to a coach. Williams was wide open about the terms and how it affected his choice. With his wife, Lisa, having been diagnosed with breast cancer last spring, Williams had turned down a Pistons offer until they came back with such an increase that it changed his mind.

"That's something that people don't talk about; they say it wasn't the money. I always laugh at that. I think that's disrespectful," Williams said when he was hired in June. "When someone is that generous to pay me that kind of money, one that should be applauded, and two it should be talked about."

The Popovich and Williams contracts were certainly applauded by the league's coaches. Particularly Williams, a highly respected coach but not yet a highly decorated one.

It's hard to compare to Popovich, who also has long held the president of basketball operations title with the Spurs in addition to winning five titles and an Olympic gold medal.

"I was thrilled for [Popovich]," Kerr said about the new contract. "The great thing with Pop is that he loves it so much. He's got so much energy."

When it came to the rising tide of contracts and its effect on him, Kerr demurred.

"Yeah, potentially [good for coaches' salaries]," Kerr said. "We'll see."

Williams reached one NBA Finals as coach of the Phoenix Suns in 2021. His contract number is likely to create the biggest effect in the coming years. Kerr and Spoelstra both earn in the $8 million per year range, according to Wojnarowski. Kerr last signed an announced extension in 2018. The Heat last announced an extension with Spoelstra in 2019.

If both continue to coach past the upcoming season, their salaries are about to vastly increase and potentially reset the market.

Whether it is said out loud or not, it is true. And it is an underlying situation as they try to get Team USA to the gold at the World Cup.

"It's good for all the coaches," Lue said. "Including Steve and Spo."

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