The 35-year-old is still working his way back from the torn Achilles that prematurely ended his 2012-13 campaign. His 2013-14 season, whenever it starts, will be the final contracted year on his current deal with the franchise.
Depending on your source, Bryant's either definitely headed for free agency or he'll never come close to getting there.
T.J. Simers of the Orange County Register reported that Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss plans on allowing Bryant to hit the market. Yet just one day later, ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne reported that she heard the exact opposite from Buss and offered the following quote from the executive himself:
I want to put an end to any speculation that we would allow Kobe to become a free agent. That's not going to happen. Kobe is a top priority for us. He's a Laker legend and always will be. I don't think we're done winning championships with him yet.
Clear as mud, isn't it?
In a season that was already full of so many unknowns for the Lakers, Bryant's expiring contract is the biggest of all.
Would the Lakers actually consider letting the five-time champion wade out into the free-agent waters next summer? With this many leaks springing from the roster, can L.A. afford not to?
Kobe Isn't Leaving
The final chapter of Bryant's basketball story is nothing more than blank pages at this point. The 15-time All-Star told Simers he still doesn't know if he's headed for "a happy ending, or does it end in a tragedy?"
I can't fill in those pages for you (or for him), but I can at least construct the setting for this conclusion. It'll be underneath those same sunny skies he's enjoyed for the last 17 seasons, with the same franchise he's already given 1,239 regular-season games and 220 playoff efforts.
Whether he inks his deal now or waits for next summer is irrelevant, at least as far as location is concerned. He might not have his next contract yet, but it sure sounds like it's coming at some point:
Kupchak: "Kobe's made it clear that he intends to retire (as a Laker) and we feel same way."— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 25, 2013
That doesn't mean these will be drama-free negotiations, though.
Expect Bryant's agent Rob Pelinka to plant his client's massive portfolio right in the center of the table. Those five championship rings are a given. A sighting of the Mamba's two NBA Finals MVP awards or one regular-season MVP would be far from surprising.
They'll enter these sessions hoping to secure a monetized lifetime achievement award.
The Lakers have next to nothing committed to next season's payroll—$10.6 million to Steve Nash and Robert Sacre, while Nick Young has a $1.2 million player option, via Hoopsworld.com. Bryant told Serena Winters of LakersNation.com he's hoping for a sizable piece of that cap space:
I’m not taking any [pay cut] at all – that’s the negotiation that you have to have. For me to sit here and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just going to take a huge pay cut.' Nah, I’m going to try to get as much as I possibly can.
Don't look for Bryant's stance to change, but whatever number he has in his head could come down if he doesn't get back close to his pre-injury level.
Maybe his explosiveness just won't be the same, and his offensive production will suffer. Or maybe his body won't be able to stand anything close to the 38.6 minutes per game he logged in 2012-13. If he's a part-time player, or worse, a part-time producer in full-time minutes, his salary should surely reflect that status change.
Clearly, that's what the Lakers are waiting to find out.
No numbers (dollars or years) have been leaked from these talks. Figures, even ballpark ones, might not have been exchanged yet.
The Lakers need to see where Bryant's body is, and that won't happen for some time. L.A. has until next summer to decide his future. It doesn't have to rush.
If Bryant eventually hits the open market, does anyone really think he'll be donning anything other than purple and gold in 2014-15?
Patience is key, but it doesn't come without some risk attached.
The Nightmare Isn't Over?
This team was painful to watch last season, Lakers fan or not.
Seeing Pau Gasol banished to the perimeter as a miscast stretch 4 was tragic. My body ached as I watched Steve Nash challenged the bruised and battered limits of his. The Kobe-Dwight Howard relationship looked like an unmitigated disaster and was apparently just as bad as it seemed from the outside.
Nick Young (13.1 points per game) and Xavier Henry (11.9) have been two of L.A.'s most consistent weapons this preseason. Just give that last sentence a minute to soak in.
Learning from the best. pic.twitter.com/xxevfmDm70— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) October 26, 2013
The mighty Lakers—and their $76.6 million payroll—need a perfect combination of health and chemistry just to scratch out one of the final playoff berths in a loaded Western Conference. Scrapping the roster and starting over isn't an option; L.A. doesn't have the attractive assets needed to kick-start a rebuild.
Fans might want to embrace a tank, but that won't happen. Not with so many players, along with coach Mike D'Antoni, having so much to prove this season. It's a contract year for almost every player on the team.
The last thing L.A. needs is another distraction. The players will already be peppered with questions about Bryant's health for as long as he's missing in action; they don't need a new series of questions about his contract status when he does return.
I might be in the minority here, but I just don't see Bryant's pay grade fluctuating this season. This is the same guy who tallied 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game at age 34 last season. Typical physical limitations just don't seem to apply to him.
So, if he's going to wind up with the same salary down the road that he currently commands, why not lock him in and remove the suspense? Whatever perceived problems Bryant's presence will add to negotiations with next summer's top free agents will exist until the day he's either joined a different organization or retired from basketball.
Bryant told Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times earlier this summer that he's "ready to go for at least another three" seasons, so the retirement thing is out. Those previous loyalty comments, from both Bryant and the Lakers, similarly rule out the chance that he'll seek out a new basketball home.
So, would the fact that he doesn't officially have a contract really give the Lakers any more bargaining power in their chase for a top-flight player? Are those same questions of a power struggle that Howard faced really something that this franchise wants to endure again?
So, What's the Right Move?
Neither option is going to be particularly comfortable.
Locking up Bryant now is a gamble. It's essentially a payment for past production with the hope that his future figures will fall somewhere in line.
It brings a degree of certainty to the locker room, but also the risk of an unfortunate reality. Maybe he'll never be the same player again. Maybe he will, but his final seasons will be wasted due to an underwhelming supporting cast.
Should the Lakers let Bryant hit free agency next summer?
If the Lakers wait, then tension will be mounting all season. L.A. might be lacking in the excitement department, but this won't be the kind it wants.
Barring some unforeseen turn of events, it ultimately doesn't force Bryant out the door. But if the Lakers aren't inclined to put some faith behind his recovery now, Bryant might be a little more demanding when the two sides do decide to talk contract.
If forced to choose, I'd say securing his services now is the preferable plan.
Don't get crazy with his salary, but give him enough to keep him happy. That should leave enough wiggle room to chase one premier free agent next summer, and pairing that star with a happy, engaged Bryant could create a decent splash for his twilight years.
The last thing the Lakers want to do is back Bryant into a corner. He's been known to hold some serious grudges in his days, and making him prove his value after all these years could elicit some venom from the Mamba.