This is an unsteady time when there is precious little either side can bank on.
And contrary to what you might’ve heard, there isn’t much downside to this deal for Bryant and the Lakers.
The Lakers, after seeing their 320-game sellout streak end two weeks ago without him, aren’t nearly ready to deal with life after Bryant. They have no idea which non-LeBron top free agent might come and be worth the headaches they had to experience through the Dwight Howard debacle, and they know Bryant is a lock to keep them relevant in a larger sense while hopefully still being a top player.
For Bryant and his freakish mentality, he not only believes he can live up to being the highest-paid player in the league post-Achilles rupture, he feeds off it. He’s not modest Tim Duncan. He’s Kobe Bryant, and he is all about that maniacal mentality of always being the best.
The reason why this wholly logical contract extension signed Monday is being questioned is because of a faulty assumption that Bryant and the Lakers would both have been better off if he accepted less than the $23.5 million in 2014-15 and $25 million in 2015-16 (when LeBron James will make $20.6 million and $22.1 million) and saved it for some other player.
If Bryant leaves, let’s say, $8 million on the table, who's he preventing the Lakers from adding? A real difference-maker? Whomever you sign for that kind of money in today’s NBA isn’t nearly a sure thing, and then you’re most likely stuck with that guy on a long-term contract that inhibits the Lakers from having full flexibility to reset themselves in 2016.
And rest assured, James is a lot more likely to leave Miami in 2016, when his contract expires, than he is to opt out in ’15 or this summer. (Leave the Heat after a three-peat? No. Leave the Heat after losing and look disloyal again, just like with Cleveland and “The Decision”? No.)
So the Lakers are paying Bryant not only for what they hope will still be tremendous productivity given his track record of work ethic, fundamentals and immense pride, but also to maintain the fan interest with him. Note Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak’s statement in the press release that acknowledges first how right this feels to keep Bryant for two entire decades:
To play 20 years in the NBA, and to do so with the same team, is unprecedented, and quite an accomplishment. Most importantly, however, it assures us that one of the best players in the world will remain a Laker, bringing us excellent play and excitement for years to come.
Excitement is a part of the Lakers’ brand. It’s why Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig shows up at almost every Lakers home game while he's still not sure if basketball is played with five or six guys on each side.
In that broader scope of the Lakers with all their global greatness, Bryant has earned every penny of everything the Lakers could ever pay him—and that's why they were certain they wanted to pay him more than Amar’e Stoudemire’s $23.4 million next season and Joe Johnson’s $24.9 million the year after that.
And the Lakers still believe, after seeing him at 35 in practice as he nears his return from the Achilles rupture, that he'll be great going forward.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni referred to Bryant late Sunday night as “the best guy maybe ever” but also put a present-day context on it for this season.
“Add maybe the best player in the game,” D’Antoni said. “I think that’s a good problem to have.”
The Lakers can still sign James or Carmelo Anthony this summer, and Anthony becomes a much more likely sales job with his good friend Kobe locked in and able to tell him this is how the Lakers treat their greats when they can do the work.
They can save their salary-cap space for 2015 and maybe even squeeze in two top free agents to play with Bryant. Besides James maybe opting out then, Kevin Love could opt out before his contract expires in ’16. LaMarcus Aldridge becomes free in 2015. Kevin Durant becomes free in 2016.
There are also the usual possibilities of trading Pau Gasol or Steve Nash sooner to restock the cupboard for the future with someone with huge upside not fitting in somewhere else.
So what are the Lakers and Bryant losing out on by not paying him less? Probably signing a good player to a two-year contract this summer to help him chase another championship.
What do they have for sure? All the things Kobe gives them, including the goodwill of having done right by someone who deserves it and will continue to go for it.
What if the Lakers had played hardball with Bryant in the negotiation? And then after that no top free agent even wanted to come to the Lakers with the money they wouldn’t pay the ultimate Lakers legend? Lose-lose.
For all the dollars going out in this deal, the Lakers know the bottom line: In so many ways, Kobe Bryant is money in the bank.
Kevin Ding covers the Lakers and the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.
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