The Los Angeles Lakers are poised to undergo abundant changes this summer as a means of overhauling the roster. Whether future Hall of Fame shooting guard Kobe Bryant is ready to accept those modifications remains to be seen.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher—who won five titles as Bryant’s teammate with the Lakers—said “The Black Mamba” wants to win another championship before retiring.
“There’s a lot more to it than just him coming back from the injury that is impacting him psychologically,” Fisher said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “At this point in his career, he’s also thinking about having an opportunity to win a championship again before retiring.”
Kobe Bryant: "Winning championships it’s the most important thing. You have to win titles to sit at that same lunch table as Magic & Jordan"— Doctor NBA (@DoctorNBA) February 16, 2013
Bryant’s desire to win another title in the twilight of his career has been well-established, but his actions to this point don’t fervently echo that stance.
Pay Cut? 'Nah'
Some wondered whether the 35-year-old would take a pay cut to ensure the front office could put a championship-caliber supporting cast around him.
That turned out not to be the case, as Bryant told Serena Winters of Lakers Nation in an interview last summer:
“I’m not taking any (pay cut) at all—that’s the negotiation that you have to have. For me to sit here and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just going to take a huge pay cut.’ Nah, I’m going to try to get as much as I possibly can.”
Fast forward to November, and the Lakers star inked a two-year, $48.5 million extension without even hitting the court. That prompted varying levels of criticism from media members.
Bryant, however, defended his hefty new contract, per Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.
“Most of us have aspirations for being businessmen when our playing careers are over,” Bryant said. “But that starts now. You have to be able to wear both hats. You can’t sit up there and say, ‘Well I’m going to take substantially less because there’s public pressure,' because all of a sudden, if you don’t take less, you don’t give a crap about winning. That’s total bull----.”
Since that time, it’s been revealed by Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen that Bryant earned $34 million in endorsements during the 2013 calendar year—which is more than his 2013-14 league-leading salary of more than $30.4 million. So if anyone in the NBA could afford a pay cut to help his organization win, it’s Bryant.
Instead, the Laker legend stuck to his plan “to get as much as I possibly can.”
Resistance to Change
Bryant is clearly one of the most marketable stars in the NBA today, even as a 35-year-old hobbled veteran. From that standpoint, he’s worth the $78.9 million price tag he’s set to earn through this season and the next two.
With that said, the two-time scoring champion has been resistant to change in Lakerland.
Despite Pau Gasol’s on-court decline in recent years—leading to more trade rumors than anyone has the patience to count—Bryant has remained in his teammate’s corner as one of his firmest backers.
“How much more am I supposed to support a guy, besides making a Pau flag and riding in there on a horse with Spanish-colored paint on my face like I’m the Spaniard Williams Wallace or something,” Bryant quipped in January, per Greg Beacham of the Associated Press. “I don’t know what else to do.”
Gasol somehow stayed put through the Feb. 20 NBA trade deadline, but the same can’t be said for teammate Steve Blake, who was dealt to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.
Bryant was not pleased with the decision from higher-ups to move the 33-year-old point guard, and he voiced his opinion on the matter via Twitter:
The move accomplished cutting only $2 million from the cap, which didn’t even get the Lakers under the luxury tax threshold. Bazemore and/or Brooks may thrive under head coach Mike D’Antoni as Blake did, but each of their contracts are set to expire at season’s end regardless.
As a result, this deal was a bit of a head-scratcher for the Lakers since more moves to cut salary didn’t follow.
Bryant’s staunch attitude to stand up for longtime Lakers is either admirable or an attempt to posture as a good teammate—he has been known to call out colleagues through the media in the past.
In any case, it’s clear that Bryant has been defiant in the face of an ever-changing roster.
No Free Agency Input?
Bryant may have shot himself in the foot through recent statements about his involvement with the front office.
According to Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports Pro Basketball Talk, Bryant doesn’t want to be informed of potential offseason moves and acquisitions this summer.
“In all honesty, I don’t want it,” he said.
Kobe not in GM biz: "I don’t know about scouting players and doing things of that nature, so I’ll let them (Mitch, JBuss) do their job.”— janis carr (@janiscarr) February 17, 2014
Bryant has said he wants to lay low and let Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and owner Jim Buss do their jobs. Despite that fact, the only move the front office decided to make at the deadline was met with impassioned frustration from Bryant.
Given how personally the Lakers star took the Blake trade, it’s logical for him to include himself in the franchise’s offseason planning. But he doesn't want to do so.
Per Pollakoff, Bryant went on to say:
For people who don’t have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck. Because I’m going to drag you into the gym every single day. If you need to be drug in, that’s what I’m going to do.
But for players that have that level of commitment, it’s very, very easy. And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level. But if we don’t have that commitment, man, I’ll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with. No question about it.
Admittedly, the 16-time All-Star is putting an exorbitant amount of pressure on Kupchak’s shoulders. He didn’t support the Blake trade (openly denouncing it), supports Pau (who Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding believes will be gone this summer via free agency) and claims he’ll “absolutely be very, very tough to get along with” if his cohorts don’t display the same competitiveness and work ethic.
Unless Kupchak makes a plethora of savvy signings this summer, he’ll have an ornery star on his hands—which is never a good recipe.
Where Do Lakers Go Now?
As currently constructed, the Lakers have only three players guaranteed to be on the 2014-15 roster: Bryant ($23.5 million), Steve Nash ($9.701 million) and Robert Sacre ($915,243).
That number could jump to a total of six if Nick Young picks up his player option (worth slightly more than $1.2 million), Kendall Marshall’s nonguaranteed contract becomes guaranteed and Ryan Kelly gets retained via qualifying offer.
It doesn’t take an NBA analyst to realize that squad isn’t going to compete for a championship.
Due to that, the Lakers not only need to make marquee signings to bolster the talent level, but they must also fill out the 12-man roster with viable role players who can contribute on any given night.
Changes are on the horizon in Lakerland, and another one few people are talking about is Bryant’s role.
With injury troubles, age and diminishing skills, Bryant is still the highest-paid player on the roster and in the entire league. But is he willing to surrender the alpha dog role moving forward if it enhances LA’s title odds?
Can Bryant do the same if surrounded by the correct supporting cast? Only he, and his ego, can decide that.
All salary information courtesy of ShamSports.