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Forbes lists the NBA's top earners, starting with Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant leads Forbes' list of top NBA earners Kobe Bryant earns an estimated $32 million annually in endorsements. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

By Rob Mahoney

Life as an elite professional athlete in a major sport creates an ungodly earning potential that only begins with salary itself. From there, those with the glitziest games and most intriguing personalities can leverage their basketball-induced stardom into a more general celebrity, all of which serves to pile up income from endorsements and appearances. Although a select few are lucky enough to still grab endorsement deals once their playing days are over, for the most part NBA players (and pro athletes in general) land much of their fortunes during this very specific period of heightened abilities and peak public relevance.

Today's athletes are more aware of that fact than ever, and even in a league that has pared down player contracts through collective bargaining, most stars understand how to maximize their income and play the endorsement market to great effect. To put that in the proper context, Forbes tabulated the 10 highest-paid NBA players as measured by total on- and off-court earnings. The ranking is as follows:

1. Kobe Bryant

2. LeBron James

3. Derrick Rose

4. Dwyane Wade

5. Kevin Durant

6. Carmelo Anthony

7. Amar'e Stoudemire

8. Dwight Howard

9. Chris Paul

10. Pau Gasol

Head on over to Forbes for specific figures on each player, in addition to some background on their earnings in general. There are no big surprises, but a few select cases stand apart:

• There will undoubtedly be a tendency to point out the cluster of big-market glamour teams represented on this list, but each of those listed above is an elite player or a former superstar who scored a massive (and slightly inflated) contract. It's a happy coincidence that Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are represented, but not all that relevant.

• Gasol earns just $2.5 million in off-court income, but his place on this list is secure by way of a top-10 NBA salary ($19 million).

• There's a clear divide between Bryant ($59.8 million total) and James ($57.6 million total) and the rest of the pack (Rose, in third, comes in at just $32.4 million total). If that surprises you at all, you likely haven't been plugged in to NBA coverage over the last decade.

• Proportionally speaking, none of these earners top Derrick Rose, who essentially doubles his $16.4 million salary with $16 million in off-court earnings. The whale of those endorsements: Rose's 13-year, $185 million contract with Adidas.

• Timing means everything. If a player's endorsements could be restructured to reflect their current value, Stoudemire ($8 million in off-court earnings) would undoubtedly drop a bit and Durant ($13 million off the court) would likely earn a bit more. But once contracts are signed, that's really that -- and sponsors are left to pay out lesser players while some stars earn a bit less than they might command on an open endorsement market.

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