Is it normal that someone like Harrison Barnes and Lebron James get the same salary?
Actually, Harrison Barnes and LeBron James don’t get the same salary. Barnes is slated to make roughly $22 million for the 2016–2017 NBA season, while LeBron is slated to make roughly $31 million.
While both Barnes and LeBron are “max salary” players, there are actually three different tiers of max salaries, determined by how many years of service a player has in the NBA. Barnes, being a player with less than 7 years in the NBA before his most current contract, was eligible for the lowest tranche of maximum salaries; a salary that takes up roughly 25% of the salary cap. LeBron, being a player with 10 or more years in the NBA before his most recent contract, was eligible for the highest tranche of maximum salaries: a salary that takes up roughly 35% of the salary cap.
Why is it this way? I am sure the cap was installed to make sure the best players don’t get exorbitant salaries….
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This is generally correct. The NBA owners and the NBA Players Association collectively bargain how the core financials of the NBA work. As part of that, the whole structure of the NBA’s salary cap system is instituted. The salary cap was instituted to protect owners, while the minimum/maximum salary system was instituted to protect the majority of players.
The maximum-salary system, however, wasn’t as much intended to prevent the best players from getting exorbitant salaries (the salary cap does that already), as much as it was to prevent a few players getting most of the already capped money. In a salary-capped system, having a maximum salary hurts a player like LeBron James, but helps a player like Kyle Korver by ensuring that a large percentage of the money spent on player salaries isn’t devoted to a small number of players.
…but couldn’t they have thought of a way of smoothing out the salary distribution for the rest?
The issue here is that a player’s skills are quantifiable: a player does things that lead to wins and a win is worth “X” in salary. Let’s, for the moment, say that a win is worth $2.4 million; if Harrison Barnes does things that are worth about 9 wins, he’s worth the $22 million that is his maximum salary. That LeBron James does things that are worth more than the 13 wins his salary suggest he should be providing is simply a consequence of a capped system; players at the top don’t get adequately compensated for what they do, while players at the bottom might make more than they should. It is also important to note that sometimes NBA teams make bad decisions; that Harrison Barnes makes $22 million is not to say that he is worth $22 million, just that he was believed to be worth $22 million to the Mavericks under those particular circumstances.
 There are, of course, some addenda to this that make it more complex (e.g. the “Rose Rule” and the mandated 105% maximum increase for a new contract), but this simple version will suffice.
 I mean, I’m sure there are “better” ways, but they would be needlessly more complex and decidedly player-unfriendly.
 Though, in a system that is, in effect, doubly capped (first by what players, overall, can earn, and then by what a single player can earn), this has the effect of allowing most players to be compensated in a “more correct” fashion.