There's so much at play here—between his legendary contributions to the franchise, his age, his fitness coming off a devastating Achilles injury, and his chance to make history by surpassing John Stockton's record for seasons with the same team (19) and challenging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record.
And, of course, there is Bryant's desire to match Michael Jordan's sixth championship with a six-pack of his own.
Bryant's decision to ditch the "precedent" set by Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett—two future Hall of Famers who took pay cuts to around $10 million per year in their mid-30s to allow their respective squads to reload—won't make the task of earning that sixth ring any easier.
Not for Bryant, not for his Lakers teammates and certainly not for the brain trust of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss.
But as straightforward as it may be to criticize the Black Mamba for seemingly putting the continued expansion of his own fortune ahead of his stated desire to win another team title, it's far too early to assume that him putting pen to paper in this manner means he'll be marooned between mediocrity and "meh" in LA until the day he retires.
First of all, let's remember that Bryant could've wound up clogging up more of the payroll more than he actually will. According to CBS Sports' Ken Berger, Bryant was eligible for a 7.5-percent raise, thereby pegging his potential max at approximately $32.8 million. From that angle, Bryant is giving up nearly $10 million per year in earning potential to make sure that his colors don't go the way of Paul Pierce's green.
It's not as though the Lakers can't win big anyway with a player making upwards of $23 million a year. According to ShamSports, Bryant earned just over $23 million in 2009-10, when he last led LA to a title.
Granted, the Lakers' payroll that year ballooned past $91 million, a figure that only the Brooklyn Nets have bested for this season. To put together a roster at that expense under the current collective bargaining agreement would require some rather crafty cap manipulation and the acquisition of more than a few terrible contracts on the Lakers' part.
Nowadays, the combination of luxury tax penalties and personnel restrictions placed on teams well into that kind of tax territory would make it exceedingly difficult for the Lakers to rack up a bill of that magnitude, even if they tried.
So too would the depressed salaries of players outside the ranks of All-Stars and franchise cornerstones. If you threw the likes of Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Derek Fisher and Adam Morrison—all circa 2009-10—onto the open market under today's conditions, do you think any of them would take home close to $5 million, which is about what those four players made on average back then? What about a league-average salary of $4.25 million, or even a median salary of $2.4 million—both per Basketball Reference?
Would any of them be able to convince any team, much less the Lakers, that they're worth even the $1.1 million veteran's minimum that Nick Young's taking home in 2013-14?
The point being that role players are much more affordable than they used to be. These days, the Lakers wouldn't need to break the bank to put together a supporting cast on par with the one that paraded down Figueroa Street three Junes ago.
In that case, LA might not need whatever cap flexibility that a smaller contract for Bryant would've otherwise afforded.
Suppose Kobe's on-court value checks in closer to, say, $17 or $18 million, as opposed to the $23.5 million he'll pocket next season, or the $25 million he'd garner the season after. That extra money might allow the Lakers to afford some slightly better (and more expensive) role players on the margins, but nobody so much better as to bump LA into the NBA's upper echelon.
An extra $7 or 8 million in cap space isn't nearly enough to lure another superstar to LA, in addition to whomever the Lakers target this summer (Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, etc.) or the summer thereafter (Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo).
As enticing as it may be for Lakers fans to dream of 'Melo and LeBron teaming up in LA, or one of those two coming to town and dragging another big-name free agent into the fold in the years that follow, the circumstances surrounding the potential superstar opt-outs are such that putting all the team's eggs in those baskets would be foolish.
Are any of the Miami Heat's Big Three really going to test free agency if they three-peat this season? Would 'Melo really ditch the New York Knicks now that the team has seemingly given him his run of the asylum?
Maybe. That sort of power didn't stop LeBron and Dwight Howard from doing what they did.
As it stands, the Lakers should have the room to attract at least one max-level player if they so choose. According to cap guru Larry Coon, the Lakers figure to have around $22 million in cap flexibility with which to play, even with minimum holds on most of their roster slots and without waiving Steve Nash's now-onerous salary.
Of course, doing so would require that the Lakers renounce their rights to all of their impending free agents, including Jordan Hill, who has averaged 15.8 points and 11.7 rebounds in six starts this season, and Pau Gasol, who's turned in three 20-10 efforts in his last five outings.
That's not to say, though, that Gasol won't accept a cut from his current salary of $19.3 million, or that there aren't big, live bodies like Hill's out there who could replicate his production.
Or that the Lakers must make a play for a someone of 'Melo's stature and expense next summer. Nobody's saying the Lakers are about to contend for a title or will be ready to do so next season. The West is too stacked with quality teams for the Lakers to think that they can mess with the best.
Certainly not with their reliance on an ersatz supporting cast comprised of bargain-basement deals and pickups off the scrap heap, that is.
But some cap flexibility—perhaps $12 million-14 million, depending on how much the Lakers would offer Gasol—could be enough to entice some more dependable mid-tier free agents to take the places of Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Chris Kaman. Bryant's deal also allows the Lakers to enter the summer of 2016, when Kevin Durant and LeBron could headline the free-agent class, with ample room to pursue a more permanent replacement for Bryant.
Even short of that, the Lakers have found ways to succeed and can do the same going forward. They're currently sitting at 7-7, despite a tough early-schedule, inconsistent play from Gasol and the prolonged absences of Bryant and Nash.
Much of the credit for that belongs to Mike D'Antoni. Long the master of getting the most out of fringe players, D'Antoni is back at it this year, adding Hill, Henry and Johnson (among others) to the cast of reclamation projects and previously unpolished gems (i.e. Jeremy Lin, Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, etc.) for which he's been responsible over the years.
If Kobe's extension means the Lakers have to dip back into the bargain basement to fill gaps in their roster next year, you can bet D'Antoni will use the opportunity to make some surprisingly tasty lemonade out of some new lemons.
In that case, there's something to be said for what D'Antoni's building at the Staples Center and what it could mean for the Lakers' future, Kobe's cap number be damned. He's instilled a certain camaraderie and chemistry in this bunch that was undeniably absent from last year's morass of big names and even bigger disappointments. As D'Antoni recently told Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding:
Although they’re all free agents…they’ve got the right values in the sense that they like their teammates, they like the Lakers and we’re trying to win as a team.
That's the sort of atmosphere, the sort of all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality, that can yield the hardware for which the Lakers have long been known with more time and more talent.
(Yes, I'm well aware that no D'Antoni team has yet won a championship, but keep in mind how close his Phoenix Suns came to cracking the NBA Finals in 2006, and how unlucky they were to get knocked out in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007.)
It's possible that Bryant's return will upset that hard-earned chemistry. There's no telling the extent to which Kobe will want the ball in his hands when he gets back, nor how much—if at all—his proclivities will disrupt the flow of D'Antoni's offense.
Not to mention what Bryant's willingness to play honest-to-goodness defense, or lack thereof, will do to a unit that, surprisingly enough, has held its last four opponents under 100 points.
That being said, it's tough to imagine Kobe rocking the boat at this point if he sees D'Antoni's machinations working as well as—if not better than—anticipated. Bryant may be blinded by his fierce competitiveness from time to time, but the guy's well aware of his own basketball mortality. He has spent the last seven-and-a-half months rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles—at the age of 35 no less, when shooting guards typically fall off a cliff—and has learned from that experience that tomorrow is never guaranteed, as noted by Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding):
“A much greater appreciation, ‘cause you understand the mortality that comes along with it. Kind of being on that doorstep, y’know? So it’s always a sense of enjoyment when you actually come back.”
He's not about to spoil that comeback with any high-level hijinx. Nor is D'Antoni, a bright basketball mind in his own right, likely to take Bryant's mere presence for granted or use his superstar in such a way that isn't advantageous to the team.
And if you thought the Lakers were playing hard before, just imagine what it'll be like for them to have Kobe cracking the whip, raising the bar every time out and serving reminders, wherever and whenever possible, that there's something bigger at stake here.
Truth be told, to say that the Lakers won't be that much worse off by designating such a large share of their cap for Bryant sounds somewhat like appeasement. Just because the picture painted is relatively palatable doesn't mean the facts are any better.
But it's not as though locking down Bryant now, even before he's had a chance to show what he has left in the tank during a live NBA game, is without merit—championship or otherwise. No longer do the Lakers need to worry about Kobe's "lame duck" status disrupting the progress made by the team in the early going. No longer will Kupchak and Jim Buss have to worry about Bryant's cap hold, which would've been well north of $30 million, precluding them from considering other moves come July 1.
If there's anything the Lakers' front office has earned over the years, it's the benefit of the doubt. Kupchak (and, yes, Jim Buss) turned the ugliness of the post-Shaquille O'Neal era into reaching the NBA Finals in just three years. With some creative maneuvers and opportunistic guile, the powers-that-be in El Segundo, Calif., had parlayed the pieces of a playoff also-ran into a pair of blockbuster deals that, in name alone, had the Lakers looking like championship favorites when the 2012-13 season first tipped off.
It seems cliche to say that the Lakers will be back sooner rather than later because they're the Lakers, because they play in LA and because so many of the NBA's best reside here during the offseason. But just because something is cliche doesn't make it untrue.
If anything, it's a time-tested notion that, to this point, only Dwight Howard seems to have defied, albeit amid the rubble of a season whose tumult was remarkable, even for a franchise as accustomed to drama as the Lakers.
It seems the bigger question at hand isn't "Can you win a championship with today's Kobe Bryant taking home upwards of $23 million?" Rather, it's "Can you win a championship with today's Kobe Bryant as your best (or second-best) player?"
We won't know the answer until Kobe gets back on the court and shows the world what he can, and can't, do now. As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out, there's little precedent for a player coming back from a torn Achilles tendon at the age of 35, much less performing like an All-Star once he does.
As such, there's every reason to believe that Bryant won't be the same guy and, in turn, that the Lakers shouldn't have acquiesced to his demands too quickly, regardless of whatever ill will such a delay would've engendered.
Would the Lakers have been better off giving Bryant less money? Perhaps, though we don't know exactly how the negotiations between Kupchak, Buss and Kobe's agent Rob Pelinka went down.
More importantly, does LA's offer, ripe for nitpicking as it may be, put the Lakers at such a disadvantage that the Kobe Bryant era is guaranteed to end in disappointment and regret?
Not by a long shot.
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