Right out of the gate, let’s be clear: The odds that Kobe Bryant will opt out of his contract this offseason are slim.
He’s got two years and nearly $48 million left on the max contract he signed before the 2004-2005 season. He’s got a title-caliber team around him and the city of Los Angeles at his feet.
In other words, he’s got a good thing going as is. And as we examined here, it's not like anyone has the money to pay him as a free agent this summer, anyway.
But Kobe didn’t structure his contract to include the opt-out clause for kicks. He at least wants the Lakers to think he might entertain the possibility of killing the deal early.
And while everything seems hunky-dory right now, remember that two short years ago, Kobe was dropping f-bombs on Andrew Bynum in a parking lot and demanding to be traded on the grounds that Laker management lied to him about the team’s rebuilding plan.
If he gets a similar urge this summer, he won’t have to ask—he can simply pack his bags and waltz out the door.
There are plenty of good reasons why that’s unlikely to happen. But let’s examine a few scenarios that could prompt Bryant to think long and hard about exercising the “see ya” clause in his contract after the season ends.
1. He’s Concerned That a Sharp Drop in the 2010 Salary Cap Will Hurt His Ability to Land a Big Deal
When it comes to contract decisions, money almost always talks. And the biggest factor that might push Kobe toward opting out this summer might be a look into the crystal ball that portends a stormy financial future for the league.
A drop in the salary cap wouldn’t impact Kobe’s earning power directly—as a 10-year veteran, he’s eligible to earn 105 percent of his previous salary, regardless of the league’s maximum established salary. So he doesn’t have to worry about a pay cut.
He might have to worry about how much teams will be willing to pay him, though. Kobe’s current salary already eats up nearly 40 percent of the salary cap. If the cap falls to $55 million or so in 2010, as some expect, then the biggest contract Kobe would be eligible for at the time—about $26 million—would take up a whopping 47 percent of the cap.
That's an enormous piece of the pie, and few teams—if any—will be willing to commit to it for a 33-year-old who'll have 15 years on his knees. With that in mind, Kobe might opt to secure a long-term contract sooner rather than later.
He still seems more likely to opt out next summer (which he can) than to do so this year. But remember that the current CBA expires after the 2010-2011 season. If the league isn't in better shape by then, the next agreement could look drastically different (or involve an ugly lockout).
If Kobe thinks his best bet in that scenario would be to get grandfathered in with an exisiting contract, that'd be another reason to opt out now.
2. He Doesn't Win a Title This Year and Doesn't Think He Can With L.A.
That next ring isn't Kobe's top priority right now—it's his only priority.
Count me among those who think he'll get it in a couple of weeks.
But if he doesn't, he might start to sour on the notion that the Lakers give him the best chance to do so. After all, a loss in these Finals would be his second in two years, and third straight under Phil Jackson.
And a loss in which Sasha Vujacic bricks a bunch of threes, Lamar Odom disappears for long stretches at a time, and Andrew Bynum gets bowled over by Dwight Howard could leave Kobe with a grim outlook on L.A.'s prospects of breaking through.
There are a few hurdles to clear in this scenario.
First, unless Kobe doesn't mind a huge drop in salary, he'll have to force a sign-and-trade, which would weaken whichever team lands him. It's possible, but complicated.
If he's so serious about a title that he's willing to sign for (a lot) less than he can get with L.A., he still needs to find a team that gives him a better chance to win.
It would be an unprecedented move. It's not easy for an athlete to beat down that ego and sign for less than market value in the pursuit of a title. But Kobe doesn't need the money, and if a title is all that really matters to him, he might be better off elsewhere.
To that end, he has a handful of options. Houston might be the best fit—and he'd make the Rockets a title favorite—but he'd also have to settle for the mid-level. The Spurs are in the same boat. The Blazers could pay him a bit more than that, but that might be too much of a lateral move.
And if he wants to turn the basketball world upside down, he can always talk to Orlando or Cleveland.
3. He Does Win a Title and Jackson Retires
This would be akin to the breakup of the Bulls following the 1998 Finals: Jackson gets his record-setting 10th ring and calls it quits, Odom walks in free agency, Derek Fisher hangs it up, and Kobe moves on.
I have a hard time believing that Jackson would walk away from a championship team, but how long does the Zen Master—bum hip and all—plan to keep this up? And could the Lakers find a replacement who commands Kobe's respect?
Remember that not even Rudy Tomjanovich, who owns two rings himself, could make the Lakers tick in Jackson's absence. If Bryant doesn't think the team will be a contender under a new regime—or doesn't want to suit up for whomever the front office has in mind—he's in a position to seek alternatives elsewhere.
4. He Restructures His Deal to Give L.A. More Financial Flexibility
Of all the long-shot scenarios laid out here, this may be the most far-fetched yet. Kobe volunteering to do the front office a solid and leave some money on the table? Good luck with that.
But Bryant doesn't have to slash his paycheck to help the team make key personnel moves. Even opting out and resigning for $20 million instead of $23 million would help L.A. re-sign Odom and Ariza while dodging the luxury tax—or help the Lakers seek a trade to bolster the roster.
The tax certainly isn't Kobe's problem to solve—and of all the reasons he would play for less money than he's scheduled to make next year, saving the team money is the least likely.
But if he wins it all this June and enters the offseason in love with the current makeup of the team, even a small salary concession could prevent crucial cogs from walking away.
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