How Far Should LA Lakers Go to Keep Kobe Bryant in Purple and Gold Forever?

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How Far Should LA Lakers Go to Keep Kobe Bryant in Purple and Gold Forever?
Lakers Nation

It's tough to imagine Kobe Bryant wearing anything but the purple and gold of the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA game. Apparently, 17 years full of memorable moments, jaw-dropping performances, All-Star appearances, All-NBA and All-Defensive selections, MVP trophies, and championship triumphs will do that for a player, especially one whose resume resonates alongside those of the all-time greats.

But change isn't out of the ordinary for aging superstars in any sport, much less in basketball. Michael Jordan's last buckets came as a member of the Washington Wizards. Jordan spent his second NBA season next to George Gervin, whose scoring exploits had long been synonymous with the San Antonio Spurs.

Two of Kobe's own foes (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) ended up as his teammates a decade ago. Two others (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) changed addresses this past summer.

Bryant will have his own opportunity to try on some different duds come July 1st, 2014, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. All indications currently point to the Lakers and their franchise face working diligently to get a deal done when the time comes to do so.

The consummation of that contract may not be as foregone of a conclusion as you might think, though. As Mike Bresnahan noted in The Los Angeles Times, Kobe and the Lakers have yet to open up negotiations and aren't expected to until after the upcoming campaign.

This is hardly Earth-shattering news in itself. The Lakers would be foolish to bind their future to Bryant's in any significant capacity until they've gotten a good, long look at his present ability. Likewise, Kobe is smart enough to understand that trying to hammer out a new deal now would undercut his own earning potential, since the Lakers' assumption of risk would, in all likelihood, have to exact a toll on his potential salary.

Bryant, for his part, has already made clear his intention to avoid willfully undercutting his own ability to bargain. As he told Serena Winters of Lakers Nation this past July, his goal will be to squeeze as much money as he possibly can out of his long-time employer:

 

Or, at least, that's going to be his mindset when he and his representatives sit down with Kupchak and company—and rightfully so. With his service to the franchise, Kobe's more than justified in taking this approach, even if his age (35) and recent injury history suggest he's not worth the investment.

To be clear, this doesn't mean that Bryant is beyond compromise, that he's unwilling to play for less than the maximum in his case. Rather, it's Kobe putting on the hat to which he alludes in the video above. It's a negotiating ploy, pure and simple. Nothing malicious, nothing personal and nothing that can't be bent one way or another under the proper circumstances.

Of course, this also doesn't mean that Bryant is going to back down once he and the higher-ups get down to brass tacks. Kobe's a competitor, first and foremost. He believes he's the best and that he deserves the best, whether or not his view of the situation is an accurate representation of the circumstances at hand.

From a fan's perspective, it makes all the sense in the world for the Mamba to sacrifice some of his own earning power for the greater good, from which he would also benefit. He's already taken home nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in on-court earnings alone. What does he need more money for anyway?

USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers, on the other hand, are due to be flush with cap space next summer, perhaps even enough to construct a new contender on the fly. Assuming Nick Young opts into the second year of his deal (which is no guarantee), the Lakers will have just under $12 million in salary commitments for 2014-15 before free agency gets underway. The salary cap for that season is estimated to settle around $62.5 million, which means the Lakers could have upwards of $50 million to spend on free agents.

In theory, anyway. In reality, LA's finances might not be so flexible.

As Jared Dubin detailed for Grantland this past July, the Lakers' potential cap space windfall will be undermined, to some extent, by what are known as cap holds. What's a cap hold, you ask? Here's how Dubin explained it:

A cap hold, according to Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ, is a placeholder for players the team is expected to sign. Cap holds are added to the books as a percentage of the previous salary of every free agent not renounced, and if a team has fewer than 12 players under contract, an incomplete-roster charge cap hold in the amount of the rookie minimum salary is added for each open roster spot under 12.

According to ShamSports, Kobe's cap hold is slated to be a shade under $32 million. Pau Gasol's is currently set at $20.25 million. Re-signing those two at their full value would put the Lakers back over the cap.

Not that LA will hamstring itself to that extent. Gasol might not return, after getting dangled on the trade market over the past few years like a piece of meat over a pit full of hungry bears. If Pau does come back, the Lakers may well look to slice his salary in half, if not by more.

If Kobe re-ups at a rate in the range of the $10 million per year that Tim Duncan is currently earning and the $12 million per year that Kevin Garnett is due, the Lakers would be left with about $36 million to spend on free agents, after factoring in minimum-salary cap holds and without Gasol coming back.

Harry How/Getty Images

That might be enough to entice one full-priced superstar and another, second-tier star. However, getting two superstars to take significant pay cuts to come to LA is probably too much to ask.

This is all assuming, too, that the market will be flush with premier players to begin with. The current collection of potential free agents for 2014 is littered with as many big names as caveats for each case.

What are the odds that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh leave the Miami Heat if they extend their current run to a three-peat? Would Carmelo Anthony really leave behind a starring role with his hometown New York Knicks to play second-fiddle to Kobe? Would Dirk Nowitzki or Paul Pierce consider joining forces with one of their shared arch nemeses? Realistically, are productive players like Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay going to leave money on the table by opting out of their deals?

The list goes on, but the point is, for just about every recognizable name on a free-agent watch list, there's a corresponding reason to believe he wouldn't ditch his current digs, wouldn't come to LA and/or wouldn't fit the profile of the sort of future-securing star for which the Lakers will undoubtedly be searching.

In that case, why wouldn't Kobe lobby for more money? He'd have all the leverage in the world if he turned out to be the only player with box-office appeal in the Lakers' wheelhouse. The Buss family (and Kupchak) would have no choice but to pony up for Bryant, lest they be left without a star worth watching during what otherwise will likely be a rebuilding period for the league's marquee franchise.

But just as Bryant is sharp enough to understand how to approach contract negotiations, so, too, should he be keenly aware of what's at stake for him, beyond dollars and cents, in this scenario. He's long held that his chief desire is to win another ring, if only to match Michael Jordan's six in the history books. Clogging up half of the Lakers' cap sheet on his own would put Bryant's employers in a tight spot when attempting to construct a championship edifice around him.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A pay cut for Kobe might not be enough on its own to lure another superstar to LA, given all of the other factors at play beyond the Lakers' control. But that money could just as easily be spent on occasional All-Stars like Luol Deng and potential ones like restricted free agents Greg Monroe and DeMarcus Cousins, in addition to other quality role players.

What if Kobe doesn't budge? What if, toward the end of negotiations next summer, the Lakers are left with an ultimatum: pay Bryant half the cap or risk losing him to free agency? Should LA cave, or should the team let Kobe walk and hope for better returns from the free-agent market?

The answer, it seems, is to do what pleases Kobe. Give him his money, whether it's the full amount for which he'll be angling or some percentage of that based on various concessions.

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As discussed above, there probably won't be a queue of superstars lined up around the block from the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo next July. There certainly won't be without at least one incumbent with the requisite pull amongst his peers to bring others on board.

Losing Bryant would all but signal the beginning of a long, slow and painful rebuilding process. The same could hold true even if Kobe does come back, though at least the Lakers would still be a top draw, if only for those hoping to catch one last glimpse of the Mamba before he calls it quits.

Because if Bryant doesn't do his farewell tour while decked out in Purple and Gold, you can bet he'll be wearing someone else's colors instead. If there's anything we've learned about Kobe over the course of his career, it's that he's not about to bow out on anyone's terms other than his own.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Letting Kobe do that would be a bad look for the Lakers, whose fans would be hit with the double whammy of having to stand by a subpar squad while watching one of their idols wrap up his career in another team's threads. If Jeanie Buss' recent revelations about the hiring of Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson are any indication, the team's brain trust would be ill-equipped and ill-prepared to handle whatever public backlash would result from Bryant's departure.

And, really, it'd just be weird and unfortunate, for everyone involved, for Kobe to go out like so many Hall of Famers before him, to follow in Jordan's footsteps to the bitter end. 

To wrap up his career while wearing anything but the very colors for whose renaissance he's largely responsible.

 

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