Balancing Loyalty to Kobe Bryant and Weighing Future Is Lakers' Biggest Task
According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Bryant and the Lakers haven't begun to negotiate the terms of a contract extension, leaving the futures of player and team totally up in the air.
It's unclear whether Bryant, the guy most responsible for the Lakers' success in the recent past, has a place in their future. And at present, L.A. is facing an unenviable choice about what to do with its iconic star.
Option 1: Re-Sign Him
Bryant is on the final year of his deal and will collect more than $30 million during the 2013-14 season.
That's a lot of money for any player, but it's a particularly huge sum for a guy who may or may not be ready to contribute for the first part of the year.
So if the Lakers decide to offer him an extension anytime soon, they'll do so without a whole lot of proof that Bryant is going to hold up for another two or three seasons. That uncertainty makes an already complicated calculus even more difficult.
How much should the Lakers offer Bryant if they decide they want to retain his services beyond this season? Eat your heart out, LeBron; that's a decision within a decision.
Bryant's not worth what he'll make this year, and from a raw production perspective, he might not be worth half that going forward. Frankly, it's impossible to know what a fair price might be.
But let's just say the Lakers and Bryant agree on a deal that pays him about $15 million annually for the next two or three seasons.
In that scenario, L.A. would probably want to re-sign Pau Gasol at a similarly reduced rate and pursue another free agent on the loaded 2014 market. The Lakers could theoretically pursue a max-salary prospect, but even in the unlikely event that they landed one, they'd have to fill out the rest of the roster with minimum-wage employees and maybe a mid-level veteran.
And if one of the huge names on the market doesn't see the Lakers as an appealing option, L.A. might be stuck with a core of Bryant, Gasol, Nash and someone like Rudy Gay.
Given that the Lakers' principals are only getting older, that's a worse collection of talent than the one that flamed out in 2012-13.
If the Lakers wind up paying Bryant more than the hypothetical $15 million in the preceding example, things get even uglier.
So let's pretend he agrees to return at the minimum. As an aside, we all need to mutually agree that this will never happen. Bryant is too proud and the Lakers are too smart to insult him by starting negotiations with the lowest of low-ball offers.
But just for the sake of argument, let's pretend No. 24 signs on for a couple of minimum-salary years.
Even then, the Lakers would struggle to move forward. They'd have to contend with Bryant's personality dominating the team and find a star (or two) on the market who was willing to take on the challenge of playing alongside him. Remember, Kobe has clashed with every top-end talent he's ever played with.
Guys like Gasol, who are mature enough to turn the other cheek, are few and far between.
If someone like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony (like Kobe taking a minimum salary, not happening) were ever to agree to terms with the Lakers, they'd do so with the understanding that they'd be in control of the team. That's not possible with Bryant on the roster.
Nobody shines brighter in L.A. than Kobe. And even if his skills decline, he's still going to be the star in some sense.
Not only would the potential locker room friction be problematic, but the Lakers would also have to find a way to transition into a system that didn't feature Bryant as an on-court alpha dog. So far, they haven't been able to do that.
And now that he'll be out to prove he can still dominate after coming back from a devastating injury, it might be harder than ever to get Kobe to take on a secondary role.
Financially, a "fair-market deal" for Bryant could leave the Lakers with much less flexibility than they'd like as they move forward. Worse than that, it's going to be almost impossible for the franchise to move into the future with the specter of the team's past—personified by a still-present Bryant—hanging over them.
Option 2: Cut Ties
We hear it all the time: Basketball is a business.
If the Lakers simply refused to re-sign Bryant, we'd see that saying exemplified more ruthlessly than ever.
The mere thought of L.A. telling its Hall of Fame star "Thanks, but no thanks" is a stomach-turner. Any Lakers fans reading this are probably pounding the Pepto Bismol as it is.
But from a totally detached, emotionless perspective, cutting ties with Bryant after this season makes the most sense.
The logic behind that cold truth isn't new. In fact, it was the same thinking that led Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to suggest that a use of the amnesty provision on Bryant was something the Lakers should consider.
As we've already discussed, the Lakers can't move on with him in the picture.
But L.A. can't approach its decision on Bryant so heartlessly. It knows that fans love Bryant as much as they love the franchise, and even though everyone is rooting for laundry in the end, there would be immense backlash if the Lakers unceremoniously dumped No. 24.
The franchise owes Bryant a lot.
In addition, the Lakers' image would take a major hit among potential free agents if they shoved Bryant overboard. Potential signees would have to ask themselves whether they wanted to be part of an organization that would treat its greatest stars with such detachment.
They'd wonder: "If the Lakers can't be loyal to Kobe, why should I expect them to be loyal to me?"
At the same time, there might also be a contingent of forward-looking Lakers fans who'd revolt against keeping Bryant around. His ongoing presence would signal another couple of years in NBA limbo, and you can bet there'd be some backlash against that decision as well.
Basically, L.A. can't win.
The Best Option: Do Nothing
The Lakers are stuck choosing between a pair of bad options. They can retain Bryant and assure themselves of two or three more mediocre seasons, or set off a firestorm of bad PR by cruelly pushing him out the door.
Of course, there's also a third tack to take: The Lakers can let the situation play out, hoping Bryant winds up making the difficult decision for them.
Perhaps Bryant won't fully recover from his torn Achilles and will struggle to regain his dominant form. Everyone seems to think that because he's been such a singularly great competitor throughout his career, he'll somehow fight his way back to elite status at age 35.
That's a possibility, but the odds are hardly in his favor.
We know Bryant has said in the past that he doesn't want to hang around in the twilight of his career if he can't be a star-quality player. So if his injury prevents him from returning to that level, there's a chance he'll call it quits himself.
The Lakers should be praying that things shake out that way.
Maybe that sounds harsh, but in a way, Bryant's failure to stay a star will lead to the most merciful of all outcomes. He can decide to retire, sparing the Lakers from the nasty business of turning their backs on him—or worse, keeping him around for the sake of sentimentality.
He'd get to go out honorably. The decision to end his Lakers tenure would be his—not the team's.
Maybe they'll have to face the same conundrum at the end of the season, but the Lakers should give themselves—and Bryant—every opportunity to let the situation solve itself.
Faced with nothing but bad choices, the Lakers should choose to do nothing.
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