Is Kobe Bryant's Contract Helping or Hurting the Los Angeles Lakers' Future?

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Is Kobe Bryant's Contract Helping or Hurting the Los Angeles Lakers' Future?
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

If you needed another indication that Kobe Bryant and his $48.5 million contract affect everything about the Los Angeles Lakers, all you have to do is consult the team's most recent transaction: a post-amnesty signing of Carlos Boozer.

Per ESPN's Marc Stein, LA landed the former Chicago Bulls big man on Thursday:

We can examine the Boozer signing independent of Bryant and his deal. We can say it's an affordable price for a guy whose hefty contract (Boozer will collect over $16 million this year, most of which will be be paid by Chicago) probably made him an unfair target for critics.

He's basically an average NBA player these days, something his 14.4 player efficiency rating from last year, per Basketball-Reference.com, corroborates. Boozer is far removed from his days of 20-10 studliness and All-Star invites as a member of the Utah Jazz.

Now, he's a horrible paint-protector whose offensive efficiency fell through the floor in 2013-14.

But hey, he came cheap!

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

That's one way to look at the Lakers' latest move, but it feels incomplete.

When we introduce the complicating factors of Bryant and his massive extension, we get an explanation as to why LA would bring in a nearly washed-up veteran who'll block the development of the team's two most promising young pieces: Julius Randle and Ed Davis.

The Lakers simply can't rebuild around their youth because Bryant won't stand for it.

“I’ve never had patience. I’m not going to start now," Bryant said to reporters at a press conference this week, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding.

And back in March, he told ESPN's Darren Rovell: "We might have had the worst season ever, or could have the worst season ever for a Lakers team. But now let's have the greatest comeback that the league has ever seen."

Bryant wants to compete now, and whether that desire merely aligns with management's stance or is the primary influencer of it, the Lakers are going about business seeking instant contention while trying to preserve flexibility all at once. As we're seeing now, those competing purposes make developing future assets much more difficult.

Bryant's massive contract touches everything about the Lakers and their future, and that might not be such a good thing.

 

How It Helps

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Bryant's big deal shows prospective free agents that the Lakers take care of their own. They gave Kobe two years of superstar money before he'd even returned from a torn Achilles—a decision that looked even bolder after Bryant's 2013-14 return lasted just six games.

We use this explanation often—that, somehow, overpaying aging stars makes other players want to be a part of a certain franchise. But if we're objectively critical of that logic, there's not actually much evidence to support it being true.

Yes, Chandler Parsons just taught the Houston Rockets that when players get treated like afterthoughts, there's sometimes a price to pay. But the Cleveland Cavaliers couldn't have disrespected LeBron James more, or shown him less loyalty in 2010, and he went back.

Lori Shepler/Associated Press

Those aren't perfect parallels, but they at least point to the countervailing arguments that make the Lakers' loyalty play seem pretty limp.

By and large, players want to win. They know teams that don't waste star money on non-stars are more likely to win than those that do. It's a relatively simple calculus.

Maybe I'm missing something, but it sure doesn't seem like we've seen many examples of a franchise attracting free-agent talent based on previous exhibitions of loyalty. Having good players who make fair salaries tends to be more attractive.

Still, the notion that loyalty matters has long been a pillar of the Lakers' approach, per Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com:

But it was important to the Buss family to send a message to both Bryant and the Lakers' fan base that loyalty to iconic players like Bryant is still going to be one the hallmarks of the organization. Remember when Dr. Buss himself gave Magic Johnson that 25-year, $25 million contract?

It was never about the money. It was about the statement that contract made to Johnson and every future free agent who considered the Lakers.

At the very least, Bryant's deal proves the Lakers are willing to spend money irresponsibly. For some players, maybe that's a big draw.

 

How It Hurts

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

As alluded to earlier, Bryant's contract kills the Lakers' chances of being competitive this year or next. You can cite the opportunistic acquisition of Jeremy Lin and the cheap Davis signing all you want, but the fact is the Lakers no longer have Pau Gasol and have no idea if Bryant will ever be an impactful player again.

And even if Kobe inexplicably returns to the peak form of years past, he'll still be surrounded by one of the worst supporting casts in the league.

NBA players aren't league historians, and when free agency rolls around, they don't have long memories. If the Lakers are terrible for the next two years, that's what free agents around the league will think about when fielding offers from Mitch Kupchak.

Yes, the Lakers will always have the draw of their home city and the media opportunities that come with it, but that's not the issue here. We're talking about how Kobe's deal, specifically, affects Los Angeles' future.

The other attractive elements of the Lakers don't factor into this narrow discussion.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

To drive home the damage of Bryant's contract, try to imagine a free agent in 2016 looking at the Lakers' roster and checking off reasons he might want to sign.

Maybe he'll consider the lottery picks LA is sure to amass over the next couple of years. He'll probably also factor in the weather, glamor and prestige of life in Los Angeles. He might even look at the franchise's legacy of success, but he'll have to do that while also considering the fact that the architect of that success, Jerry Buss, is no longer in charge.

At any point in that internal conversation, do you really think that free agent is going to say to himself, "You know, this roster is garbage, ownership is unpredictable and the coach is a .500 retread, but they overpaid Kobe two years ago in a show of loyalty. Screw it, I'm in!"

Please.

 

Verdict: It Hurts

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

You can say Bryant's contract will help the Lakers in the distant future, but only if you truly believe free agents care about tradition and loyalty more than practicalities like roster quality and a real chance to contend.

I would submit there's very little evidence to support that belief.

What we do have evidence of, though, is Bryant's contract costing the Lakers any real chance of competing in their immediate future. Given the shakiness of the whole "loyalty pays off in the long run" concept, I'm not sure that's a sensible exchange.

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