LeBron Drama Offers Lakers Chance to Appreciate Value of Kobe's Expensive Stay

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LeBron Drama Offers Lakers Chance to Appreciate Value of Kobe's Expensive Stay
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LOS ANGELES — If Carmelo Anthony has come around to accept his richest offer from the New York Knicks—and the very real wisdom being offered by two guys Kobe Bryant has never won a title without, Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher—it is not the worst-case scenario for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The worst possibility was eliminated back in late November, no matter the masses of critics who've assailed the Lakers for Bryant's $48.5 million contract extension.

No LeBron James, no Carmelo—and no Kobe. Now that'd be true calamity in Lakerland.

As James and Anthony continued to hold NBA free agency hostage Thursday morning, consider just how much more panic-stricken the Lakers could've been if someone else was out there on the open market: Bryant having meetings, contemplating salary sacrifice, tempted by contenders' creative ways to hand him that Michael Jordan-tying sixth NBA championship.

It speaks to the resilient optimism of human nature that we second-guess people's decisions because we imagine what more they could've done or received. Bryant could have taken less money, and more than the one-third pay cut he accepted would've opened some more doors for the Lakers' immediate spending capability. (The Lakers' intent to preserve future years of salary-cap space for superstars only, however, mitigates what kind of incoming talent it can really cost them, to be honest.)

A few days ago, I mentioned how the Lakers could have had room for max salaries of $20-plus million for both James and Anthony to team with Bryant on the Lakers if he had cut his salary to, say, $7-9 million instead of $23.5 million. That's just being factual about the numbers. Yet it's fundamentally ludicrous that Bryant's will to win should be subjected to that kind of suggestionaside from the low-percentage chance the Lakers could land both James and Anthony.

It's so easy for all of us righteously to tell richer people that they don't need so much money. And it's so wrong. Even more so in this case with NBA superstars.

It's downright un-American to look at someone who has worked his butt off to become the best of the best in his field and, in addition to working in a marketplace that limits his maximum salary because of the league's collective bargaining agreement, expect him to sacrifice money if he's serious about pursuing a title.

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Carmelo Anthony's friendship with Kobe Bryant has prompted the Knicks star to consider joining the Lakers this summer.

The last lockout solidified in Bryant's mind that top players should not take salary cuts. Enough with the owners' glee, went Bryant's thinking, in raking in easy money while smiling in the shadows amid ongoing fan demands that players sacrifice salary to win.

James is working from the same template now in finally standing up to collect his max salary. And for as comically emotional Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert might appear to everyone, bear in mind, as Bryant just affirmed his faith in Jeanie and Jim Buss on Wednesday, how James must now be wondering about Miami Heat owner Micky Arison's various cost-cutting measures.

It was laid out to Bryant in late November that he could get his deal and also have a max slot for a superstar to join him this summer. Anthony's interest in filling that void has validated the viability of that happening now or next year.

A shorter-term variation on it might still be in the cards with Lance Stephenson, Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe or Luol Deng. But if the Lakers come up empty now and don't compromise with more than one-year contracts to other lesser free agents, it's possible the Lakers could squeeze in two top free agents to join Bryant a year from now even with him making $25 million in 2015-16.

The very premise Bryant believed in signing his extension, that the Lakers could pay him top dollar and build a winner around him in the LA spotlight, is what they were selling to Anthony—and sold pretty well. It has helped, not hurt, that Bryant is in the Lakers family as part of the sales pitch.

No way would Anthony come to the Lakers without Bryant. Getting both James and Anthony without Bryant? That would've required the Lakers to renounce their rights to Bryant, a sequence of words that'd be impossible for the Lakers' public relations department to dance around on a press release—beyond the greater issue that James and Anthony would have to wonder how the Lakers treat their superstars if that's how they handled Bryant.

It's easy to say now that Bryant was always planning to be a Laker for life, so the club could have at least played some hardball in negotiations on his extension. Maybe you don't think Bryant would really leave.

Let me share 10 words from Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak as he spoke two weeks ago:

"First of all, you can't direct Kobe what to do."

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers sold Kobe Bryant on the possibility that the team could add another superstar even if Bryant accepted a max salary.

That sums up how well Kupchak and the Lakers have learned Bryant's strong will can take him in different directions.

He isn't Tim Duncan; he isn't Dirk Nowitzki. He's Kobe, with the Kobe will, the Kobe ego, the Kobe passion.

The Lakers began last season 7-7 without him, Bryant was revving up for his much-ballyhooed return from the Achilles tear and he was riding all the good vibrations when he signed his extension. He said he was inspired to run through a wall for the franchise.

Knowing how important keeping Bryant was to the team's bottom line beyond basketball, the Lakers offered to keep him the league's highest-paid player while promising they could still afford to add significant help. He was thrilled. And even with the prospect of an unsuccessful shopping trip in this free-agency period, Bryant on Wednesday was "extremely proud" of the Lakers' rebuilding efforts.

While you can rightly wonder whether there are more Kobe fans than Lakers fans on the planet right now, you don't have to, because they're still together.

The happy marriage with Bryant is the one thing the Lakers can smile about—and brag about to both fans and free agents. At a time when Miami is sweating LeBron's departure despite ties not running anywhere close to as deep as Bryant's with the Lakers, this remaining stability is something to cherish.

Happy marriages don't get headlines, and sometimes the masses need magnifying glasses to notice them. We don't appreciate marriage until it's on the rocks—or over.

Whereas Mark Cuban suggested amnestying Bryant to end his massive contract earlier, the Lakers instead doubled down on him with a lavish recommitment ceremony.

It's so easy to complain.

Too lavish. Self-glorifying. Overdone.

Let's just bear in mind the ultimate unpleasantness of another option: divorce.

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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