The Lake Show will have roughly $26 million in cap space this offseason to make a run at a few high-impact free agents, and Bryant will have to reach out to them if the Lakers are going to have any chance at signing an elite player.
The biggest name on the board belongs to LeBron James, and much like the rest of the league, the Lakers are interested. James has an early-termination clause in his contract that allows him to hit the open market this summer.
Granted, in the event the Miami Heat win the title again, it would be hard to envision James leaving South Beach. There are still other players who will be potentially available for the Lakers to bid on, and Carmelo Anthony is one of them.
The New York Knickerbocker is excited at the prospect of being the subject of a bidding war. He shared as much with Rafi Kohan of the New York Observer:
I think everybody in the NBA dreams to be a free agent at least one time in their career. It’s like you have an evaluation period, you know. It’s like if I’m in the gym and I have all the coaches, all the owners, all the GMs come into the gym and just evaluate everything I do. So yes, I want that experience.
It seems rather clear that Anthony wants to be wooed, and yet Bryant has no interest in partaking in the experience. When pressed on Anthony’s potential interest in the Purple and Gold by Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, here’s what Bryant offered:
All jokes aside, I think that players, when that time comes, will have to make the best decision for them and their families. I try not to think about it too much. If he wants to call me for advice later as a friend, I will be more than happy to give it to him.
The Lakers are one of the most glamorous franchises in basketball, which likely leads Bryant to believe the team sells itself. However, the biggest names in the league will need to know that Bryant wants them on board and that he is willing to cede the franchise over.
The Shine of Purple of Gold
Throughout history, the Lakers have always attracted or secured the best talent the league had to offer.
For instance, the Lakers drafted Jerry West and then traded for the services of Wilt Chamberlain eight seasons later. The duo was responsible for bringing the first NBA championship to the City of Angels in 1972.
Perhaps the biggest domino of all was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Abdul-Jabbar was the league’s premier center during the 1970s, and he had grown tired of the Milwaukee Bucks. The UCLA product was still under contract, but he arranged for the Bucks to trade him to L.A. Peter Vecsey of the New York Post has the details:
Before his sixth season the team franchise player/league centerfold politely informed management he was prepared to sign with the ABA Nets when his contract ran out later that year if he weren’t dealt to an NBA city of his choice.
Milwaukee negotiated with teams Abdul-Jabbar liked, and he was later traded to the Lakers. Abdul-Jabbar eventually teamed up with Magic Johnson and won five titles during the 1980s.
Whether accomplished via trade or free agency, the Lakers managed on two separate occasions to secure a once-in-a-generation center in his prime. What’s more, the front office paired their prizes with Hall of Fame guards.
Naturally, the franchise’s immense history is a huge selling point. Great players tend to collect rings with the Lakers because management does a fantastic job of mixing and matching talent.
Bryant has seen this firsthand.
After the Lakers traded away O’Neal in the 2004 summer, the team kept getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Bryant eventually had enough and wanted out. Instead of merely dealing him away, then-owner Jerry Buss massaged his ego and made Bryant realize what it meant to be part of the Lake Show according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
Looking back, Bryant isn't sure it would've mattered whether it was Detroit or Chicago, Dallas or New York. In that moment, in Buss' house in the hills, it washed over Bryant how much staying a Laker for life meant to him, how no matter how dire the state of the franchise seemed, that Buss had a history of restoring the Lakers to championship contention.
Buss rewarded that faith by acquiring Pau Gasol. The tandem went on to win two titles together. This is the life Bryant has known as a member of the organization, and it’s only normal for him to expect things to continue in the manner they always have.
Bryant might just be in for a rude awakening this time around, though.
Bryant’s sizable contract coupled with his Achilles tear and knee fracture make it fairly difficult for top-flight players to view Los Angeles as an attractive destination.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP might be completely broken for all we know, which means free agents are bound to be skeptical about joining Bryant.
In addition, the Lakers’ impressive track record at acquiring talent occurred under the watchful eye of two prominent figures who have come and gone: Jerry West (former general manager) and the late Jerry Buss.
Buss was regarded as the greatest owner in professional sports, according to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, while West was the envy of just about every executive given his knack for spotting talent. The tandem was responsible for drafting Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Bryant (technically acquired through a draft-day trade) to name a few.
In the late 1990s, West paired up Bryant and O’Neal, but the duo could not coexist. Buss and West then agreed to hire the best coach in the profession: Phil Jackson.
The track record of the Lakers under both individuals was incredibly stellar as evidenced by the championship banners. However, they are no longer with the team. Mitch Kupchak succeeded West, and his record is somewhat uneven.
Kupchak brought Gasol to L.A. and watched the Lakers make it to three straight NBA Finals. He also acquired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard through trades, in what should have been the coup of the century as far as transactions go.
Instead, the Purple and Gold imploded with Howard. Further exacerbating issues, Howard departed in free agency after his lone season in Los Angeles.
Nash broke his leg in his first year with the team and missed 32 games. This season, he has participated in 10 contests.
With Bryant unwilling to sell the Laker brand, it puts Kupchak in a position where he has to convince players to join the team.
The task is difficult enough as is given the roster at his disposal (Bryant, Nash and Robert Sacre are the only players with guaranteed deals for next season), but Bryant’s attitude makes it that much more complex.
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop has the details:
The second reason the Lakers may struggle to get a free agent is that Bryant has gained a reputation as a difficult teammate. The Lakers have been a fine destination of late for role players, but not for would-be stars such as Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O’Neal and Andrew Bynum, none of whom get the ball as much as they'd like, and all of whom, despite playing well, become targets for media scorn.
This challenge might be the toughest one to conquer, especially if Bryant is not willing to reach out to players and share the spotlight. Abbott adds: “I asked a third agent, who has a Lakers client right now, if he thought Bryant might be a sticking point for free agents. His immediate response: ‘Uh, duh. Yes.'"
Gladiator No More?
Bryant’s old-school attitude is reminiscent of a gladiator. It has helped the four-time All-Star Game MVP climb the NBA ranks and become arguably one of the best 20 players of all time.
However, it might be time for the wolf to let his guard down and look for help. To be fair, the last time Bryant publicly chased after a player, he watched Howard turn his back on the Lakers.
Howard joined the Houston Rockets largely because he wanted no part of the Kobe System, per Mark Heisler of Lakers Nation. Bryant retaliated by no longer following Howard on Twitter and posting a photo of himself and Pau Gasol on Instagram in what can be characterized as a show of brotherhood.
It seemed a little vindictive at the time, but Bryant reacted like most Lakers fans: The five-time champion felt burned and acted out. Bryant can turn fans against players, and that notion could potentially scare away free agents.
Thus, players may find it difficult to join Kobe Bean’s franchise without his blessing as well as Bryant’s recruitment pitch. On the flip side, if Bryant demonstrates a softer side and goes out of his way to make prospective superstars feel wanted, free agents might view the 2-guard as a partner.
Bryant's willingness to sell Los Angeles will go a long way toward building a relationship of trust with players, and they will likely view Bryant as a terrific teammate, a reality that has escaped him throughout his career.
Ultimately, Bryant could opt to remain silent in the offseason with the hope that Kupchak brings him an elite player in free agency, but there is an undeniable harsh reality that awaits if such is the path he takes: No superstar has ever attempted to sign with the Lakers (through free agency or sign-and-trade) post O’Neal.
One has to believe that trend will hold up unless Bryant changes his tune.
Salary and contract information courtesy of Sham Sports.