There’s nobody like Kobe.
The latest twist on his story only serves to reaffirm that when Kobe Bryant moves, the ground is guaranteed to crack at his feet: Many immediately side with him, and plenty are wholly against him.
Before Bryant even comes back from his ruptured Achilles tendon to play Truth or Dare with the medical community, his $48.5 million contract extension has brought out unwavering opinions from both sides.
On one side, serious NBA analysts know for certain that Bryant is not worth the money and is preventing the Lakers from adding some more talent next to him. The other side—where I stand, despite fundamentally agreeing with the aforementioned statements—sees the bigger picture of the Lakers getting everything they need by propping up their ultimate icon, and top player, for the next two years while resetting their grandest plans for 2016.
A separate point from this is how Bryant still manages to be a polarizing figure in almost everything he does. His supporters are famously loyal after all the inspiration he has provided them; his critics can’t stand his self-absorption.
Let’s imagine for just a moment what would happen if Bryant said certain things to certain sides…
Kobe: “Your mama’s so ugly that…”
Kobe fan: “Ha-ha! Good one, Mamba!”
Kobe: “I haven’t even said the joke yet.”
Kobe fan: “I’m sorry! But the truth is I love you much more than I love my mom anyway. I love you! I love you! I love you!”
Kobe: “I’ve spent time with every child who has ever asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation to meet me.”
Kobe hater: “Yeah, because you’ve got no friends. And your wife is mean. And those sick kids are too weak to stop you from hogging the ball!”
In this case, there are cogent arguments on why Bryant should have taken less money. Those disbelieving of his worth aren’t necessarily the usual, blindly-biased crowd. In turn, Bryant has actually tried to address the matter via Twitter and Instagram and clarify what financial flexibility for trades and signings in the next two years the Lakers have gained.
But even Bryant is missing the underlying reality the Lakers are embracing here. In many ways, this extension isn’t really about him. (He’s self-absorbed, so of course he’s going to miss that point, right?)
The biggest statement here is the Lakers recalibrating to make their major strike in 2016. They see the low-percentage plays from now until then, free agents who might not run free and might not be worth running after. The contracts of LeBron James and Kevin Durant are unequivocally set to expire in 2016.
This is how the Lakers work, swinging for the fences when they think they might get their pitch. It’s what Jim Buss was scheming for way back in 2005, right after the Shaquille O’Neal era, as the Lakers structured their payroll so they could be ready to pounce if James, Yao Ming or Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t re-sign with their teams in 2007.
None of that came to pass, but in ’07, the Lakers flatly refused to part with their own star despite how disgruntled Bryant was and then seized the day with the Pau Gasol trade.
They then came up with the dream team of Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Gasol and Bryant that initially looked good but went very bad.
And even now, the Lakers stand at the ready, poised to make an offer whenever the one and only LeBron is ready to move on: this summer, next summer or 2016.
Over and over, the Lakers are about angling for the biggest, boldest and best—and without realistic opportunities to reach that goal, as originally scheduled via 2014 free-agent fishing, they’ve elected to postpone their splash. In the meantime, they will make sure they fully savor Bryant’s last ride.
Maybe between now and 2016, something will come up that is worth a deep dive. But odds are it won’t, and the Lakers will just do the best they can and wait—the way the uniquely driven yet patient Jerry Buss taught them to do.
That’s the funny thing about this Bryant contract extension that has left the sports world debating Kobe all over again: It’s not really even about him at all.