Kobe Bryant’s bloated contract with the Los Angeles Lakers seems like a mistake now that he’s been declared out for the season, and his body seems too broken for him to play through much of the next two, either. But it's still, ultimately, with its reason.
The Lakers may be in pain now and in the short term future, but the team is willing to wait as they design something more lasting than what the current day's options allow for. And Bryant's outsized contract is an essential, if prickly, part of their longview strategy.
Many thought it was a bad choice even before Bryant’s body gave way so evidently to old age. For skeptics of the decision, Bryant’s injury only compounded the folly of his deal. And their point isn’t hard to see: at $48.5 million over two seasons, Kobe might be making as much as a million dollars per game if his health continues to restrict his availability. Maybe more.
From Grantland's Zach Lowe:
Making Bryant the highest-paid player in the NBA over the next two seasons is, objectively, not a smart thing. He’s 35 years old, and he has not played a single minute of in-game basketball after suffering a traumatic injury that has devastated nearly every player who has suffered it and managed to stay in the league.
This is not to mention how much that figure hampers the Lakers as they try to attract free agents or make trades for quality players. Bryant’s pay, alone, makes up more than a third of the NBA’s hard $58.679 million salary cap.
His hit on the team's salary load is a rare holdover from the league's previous CBA—the Lakers haven't adjusted to a changing NBA financial context, preferring to pay Bryant a figure commensurate with his older days. And it's taking up room that could be offered to other superstars—as it stands the Lakers only have room to bring in one more max contract; not two.
But, still—Kobe’s is a contract worth defending.
Consider it a necessary gesture, made in the effort to extend the good will and capital of Dr. Jerry Buss’ reign in L.A. Recently deceased, Buss was the mastermind behind one of the most successful franchises in the history of sports. Mixing the basketball lore of the Lakers with the glitz and entertainment value of Hollywood, Buss created an indelible brand that made his team a superstar magnet for decades.
Shaquille O’Neal, Phil Jackson and Pau Gasol only scratch the surface of NBA legends who’ve been convinced to come to the Lakers, leaving legacies with other organizations behind them to win titles in L.A.
But Buss’ brand is in jeopardy now that he’s passed and handed it down to his daughter Jeanie and son Jim. The team needs to send a signal to a new generation of superstars. Upcoming free agents like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony need to see that the Lakers still respect the stars and take care of their own. Kobe’s contract says just that.
"Kobe, by signing that deal, will have played 20 years for one organization," Jeanie Buss told Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times. "I guarantee that won't happen again. ... We don't draft players at 17 anymore. To have the kind of longevity that he's had, makes it extremely special and I think that Lakers fans understand that."
The contract is a payment toward the glamour that makes the Lakers known across the world.
Admittedly, the move is still quite the gamble—the price of prestige is expensive, but does it have to be this expensive?
Consider, however, the historical alternative of the Chicago Bulls’ handling of their own crumbling dynasty, and you may think differently.
The Bulls famously tore the band-aid off following their sixth and final Michael Jordan-led championship in 1998. Effectively running Jordan, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen and all but Toni Kukoc and Bill Wennington out of town, the Bulls’ front office was convinced their historically great streak was not just dumb luck and that they had the know-how to build another winner.
The Bulls, of course, were wrong. They didn’t make the playoffs again until the 2004-05 season and couldn’t crack the second round until 2006-07.
More importantly, the team lost its power on the market. By not lauding Jordan, Jackson and Pippen in the perhaps excessive fashion that the Lakers now demonstrate with Bryant, they became an unpalatable destination for free agents. Jordan is now all but disassociated from the Bulls, a fact that will stick in the craw of the team's fanbase forever.
And Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade only begin the list of stars to deny the Bulls their services since then. The Bulls have only been able to rebuild by drafting and developing well—a long haul that Lakers fans likely won’t tolerate.
It’s hard to see a similar fate befalling the Lakers. By crowning Kobe the king of their nostalgic basketball empire, they’ve done a lot to preserve the brand Buss left them. Jeanie and Jim might have made a lot of mistakes in his absence—they’ve had to pay Mike Brown quite a lot not to coach the team—but they were at least smart enough not to alienate one of the most beloved characters in Lakers history.
The team's calculated patience allows for them to lose another season to pay the royal tax that is Kobe's contract. It can be costly to be at the top—it might even mean the Lakers losing another season, a price they seem willing to pay.
It might be a brave new NBA, beset with different financial realities than the ones of the Showtime era. But not enough has changed to undo star power as the deciding factor in who does and doesn’t win titles in this league—and my money is on the Lakers to reboot with prime-time players anew, and to become title contenders again within a few years.
Kobe’s outrageous deal is an investment in that direction, and a smart one at that.