The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t done much to upgrade the team this offseason, and we can only point the finger in one direction to determine the source of L.A.’s slow free-agency dance.
While a club like the Orlando Magic added a quality talent like Channing Frye, the Lakers have literally done nothing in terms of player acquisition. Actually, the Lakers are watching other teams fetch guys who played for the Purple and Gold last season, while L.A. barely has anyone signed for the 2014-15 campaign.
If we’re being frank, the Lakers are losing this summer. They haven’t convinced anyone to take their free-agent money, and they still don’t have a freaking head coach.
I’m told teams typically need those to prepare game plans, figure out the rotations and what have you.
To be fair, the Lakers did meet with Carmelo Anthony and made quite a pitch. The sense is that management did just enough to get him thinking about leaving the New York Knicks in favor of L.A.’s bright lights.
But ask yourself this: Would Anthony be more inclined to join the Lakers if the franchise already had a series of moves lined up to make L.A. a title contender next year?
If your answer is yes (I know mine is), then someone has to be at fault here for the Lakers’ inability to field an attractive team.
Kobe Bryant’s Plight
Blaming Kobe Bryant is a tough call in this situation, but it’s not without merit.
Prior to outlining his role in Los Angeles’ uneventful offseason, it’s important to understand how we got here.
Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan helped carry the league after Michael Jordan retired, but Kobe Bryant became its marquee attraction. He captured the league with his dazzling offensive outbursts and championship parades (one, two, three, four, five of them!).
Along the way, the Lakers made outrageous sums of money because of Bryant. Of course, Bryant collected enormous paychecks, but nothing approaching what he did for the franchise.
In September 2011, Yahoo Sports’ Wojnarowski dropped some knowledge: “Privately, Jerry Buss [owner that has since passed] has told people that Bryant – who will make a league-high $25 million this season under his current contract terms – is worth perhaps $70 million a year to the Los Angeles Lakers.”
Talk about being underpaid.
Fans around the world proudly wear Bryant’s jersey and tune in at ungodly hours to watch him play for the Lakers. It’s created a situation where his brand may have surpassed that of the Lakers.
While all of this was happening, Bryant’s salary was artificially capped (it still is) because of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. Thus, Kobe’s never been paid at his true value.
Fast forward to the 2013-14 season, Kobe was in the final year of his contract and rehabbing from an Achilles tear. He signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension in a move that raised eyebrows around the league.
Bryant was 35 years old at the time, a clear indication that L.A. was paying him for past performances. Therein lies the dilemma: Bryant’s never been paid up to his actual value, and he likely wanted some form of compensation recognizing that, even though it’s debatable whether he will be worth that amount of money over the next two seasons.
Kobe only appeared in six games during the 2013-14 season because of the Achilles tear and a knee injury. That might be a sign of things to come as his career comes to a close.
Lakers fans may have wanted Bryant to take a pay cut for the sake of improving the roster, but that’s not actually his job.
He shared his thoughts on the matter with Yahoo Sports’ Wojnarowski in November: “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----.”
The Lakers gave Bryant a deal that captured what he meant to them, and he was certainly appreciative of that based on additional comments he served up to Wojnarowski:
Most players in this league don't have that. They get stuck in a predicament — probably intentionally done by the teams — to force them to take less money. Meanwhile, the value of the organization goes through the roof off the backs of their quote, unquote selfless players.
It’s the double standard that professional athletes have to deal with. Fans hope that players will give up a bit of money to help bolster the roster, but if they turn down earned maximum dollars, they are labeled as selfish.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe offered some insight on the topic:
The stars can’t win, in part because the NBA has created a system in which a player maximizing his individual income makes it harder for his team to build a competitive roster around him.
But are people — media, fans, GMs — overstating the difficulty of that challenge? Maybe the onus should be on teams to spend wisely enough so they can accommodate multiple star players without prodding those stars to “sacrifice” in pointed public comments.
Thus, it’s tough to just throw all of the blame at Kobe’s feet for wanting to be paid what he feels he’s earned after almost two decades of brilliant basketball at the pro level.
It All Makes Sense, But…
There’s no escaping the fact that Bryant’s contract is crippling. Combine his salary with his age and one can see why stars might be reluctant to join the Lakers. Kobe is one of the best players in league history, but the combination of injuries and seasoning undoubtedly lead to the conclusion that his best years are clearly behind him.
To be completely fair, ownership and management must take a part of the blame as well. After all, those factions green lit Bryant's extension and arranged for the team to be in its current position. Still, those decisions were made with Kobe in mind. Building a team around a stubborn and aging 2-guard isn't exactly an easy proposition.
Also, it’s probably fair to assume he will retire after the 2015-16 season when his contract expires. Thus, joining Kobe is basically a two-year project. Keep in mind, even if the Lakers were to get someone such as Carmelo Anthony this summer, it’s difficult to see what other quality players L.A. will bring on board.
With nearly half of the league trafficking cap space, the moment Anthony and some random guy named LeBron James are off the market, teams will be overpaying for whatever second-tiered players are left to bid on.
In turn, that means the Lakers will likely have to make due with third-rate players and maybe Gasol if they’re lucky.
Call it the Kobe Conundrum (trademark pending).
Granted, there is another side to the coin. It’s possible that Kobe’s deal will make prospective players such as Anthony realize the Lakers take care of their own.
USA Today’s Sam Amick explains: “But the Lakers' history — as reinforced by Bryant's deal — might persuade Anthony that the team wouldn't get cheap on him when he was a free agent again at the age of 34 or earlier if his contract had opt-outs.”
It’s certainly an interesting take, but it’s difficult to state if that actually appeals to Anthony. The New York Daily News’ Frank Isola relayed Anthony’s comments in February:
As far as the money, it don’t really matter to me. If I go somewhere else, I get paid. If I stay in New York, I get paid. As far as the money goes, it’s not my concern. My concern is to be able to compete on a high level, a championship level, coming in this last stretch of my career. I want to compete at that level.
That certainly appears to contradict Amick’s take. Furthermore, Anthony shed additional light on his line of thinking in a June interview with Vice Sports:
The average person sees the opportunity to say, "Melo should go here, Melo should go there, he should do this, I think he should do that."
They don’t take in consideration the family aspect of it. Where are you going to be living at? Do you want your kids to grow up in that place or that city? Do I want to stay the rest of my career in that situation and city? All that stuff comes into play.
Fair or not, the allure of playing with Kobe and no one else simply wasn’t enough to get Anthony to bypass some of the things that mean a lot to him. According to the New York Daily News’ Isola, Carmelo will re-sign with the Knicks "barring a last-second change of heart."
The Lakers’ offseason is only going to get seemingly worse from here on out, and fans can blame Kobe for it.
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