Did Kobe Bryant Choose His Worth over a 6th Ring?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 26:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers talks with the media during a news conference before the start of the Lakers and Washington Wizards game at Verizon Center on November 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Since inking his new, two-year, $48 million deal Kobe Bryant has come under considerable criticism. Many, including Bryant himself, have defended the contract.

Those defenses have holes, though. Some of them have substantive issues, and some have logical fallacies.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing he’s overpaid. I’m arguing that he was confronted with a choice—more money or a better chance to win another title—and he chose the former over the latter.


Defense 1: He’s Worth It

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Kobe Bryant #24  of the Los Angeles Lakers laughs as he holds two NBA Finals Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy's as he poses for a photograph with teammates Pau Gasol #16 and Derek Fisher #2 during Media Day at the Toyota C
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Let’s start off by just agreeing to agree that he is worth every bit of the $48 million and more. In fact, if you were to pay Bryant what he’s worth, he could eat up the entire cap himself.

So why is there a debate here? The reason is there is more than one discussion going on.

One discussion is about his worth. The other is about whether the deal improves the chances of the Lakers winning a championship.

He is undeniably worth what he was paid. We agree on that. No matter how much you argue he’s worth it, I’ll still agree with you.

At the same time, the Lakers, by rule, can only spend so much money next season. It’s called a salary cap, and not a salary suggestion, for a reason.

The Lakers now have less cap space than they did. And even the little AT&T girl can tell you that more is better than less because more is more. They had more cap space. Now they have less.

Defense 2: They Offered the Deal to Him

Yes, they offered him the contract. Semantically, that changes nothing. 

That doesn't mean he had to take it. He has a mouth. He could have said, “No, I prefer that money to be spent on my teammates so I can win another ring. Give me Duncan’s deal.” He didn't. He had the freedom to, but he wasn't obligated to accept the deal.

And no, I’m not saying he did something wrong either. Again, I’m saying he made a choice.

As far as the cap is concerned, it makes no difference whether the Lakers offered him the money or he asked for the money. The same amount is left for free agency. Either way, he still chose to receive more money over receiving better teammates.

If we’re debating whether he did something morally wrong by getting this contract, it’s a perfectly valid point that they offered it to him. However, that’s not the debate. The debate is over whether he hurt his team’s chances of winning by accepting the deal, and he did.

Defense 3: But They Have $25 Million in Cap Space Next Year! They Can Still Get Another Star!

Some argue the Lakers have $25 million in cap space next year, but they aren't really looking at the whole picture when they come up with that figure.

They have $35 million in guaranteed salaries next year. Assuming a cap in the range of $60-62 million, that would leave them with $25-$27 million.

That doesn’t mean that they automatically have that much to spend. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) doesn't allow for that. Nor can teams just use cap space and then re-sign their own players.

There are "cap holds," which mandate money is set aside to ensure each team has a 12-man roster.

Cap holds include things like re-signing your own players (190 percent of the previous salary is held back) and your draft picks (mandated by draft position and round). There is also a mandatory minimum salary, equivalent to the salary for an undrafted rookie (about $500,000) called an incomplete roster charge, which is applied to all remaining roster spots.

All of this must be set aside by the team before acquiring free agents.

Teams can renounce their own free agents, freeing them up from the cap hold, but in doing so they lose their rights to that free agent.

Assuming the Lakers let everyone but Jordan Hill (the free agent they are most likely to keep) walk, they’d have about $9.6 million in holds to deal with. That includes $6.6 million for Hill, $1.5 million for three incomplete roster charges and another $1.5 million for their own rookie.

When you factor that in, the Lakers are left with around $13-15 million in cap space, depending on what the cap ends up being. And, that’s if they let Steve Blake and Pau Gasol walk.

Nov 7, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Blake (5) celebrates hitting a game-winning three point shot with center Pau Gasol (16) against the Houston Rockets during the second half at Toyota Center. The Lakers won 99-98. Mandator
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how you look at it, the math doesn't change. You can argue the Lakers don't need a max player, but they still have less money. You can argue, "Let everyone walk and just get the best deals available."

But no matter how you spin it, they have $25 million to spend on eight players. That’s an average of just over $3 million per player. That's what happens when one player occupies 40 percent of the cap. 

Are the Lakers really going to replace Gasol and Blake at $3 million a pop? That's highly unlikely. 

The point is, it’s very difficult for the Lakers to improve via free agency now. They can use up all their cap space re-signing their own players, but that’s about the best they can do.

Bryant can yell about familiarizing yourself with the business all he wants, but that doesn't make the math any different. The Lakers don’t have enough money to sign a max player and more. In fact, they don't really have enough to improve.

That’s a fact, not an opinion.

Defense 4: They’re Still the Lakers; They Can Spend As Much As They Want

Yes, they are still the Lakers, and yes, they can afford to spend as much as they want. That doesn't mean they can actually spend as much as they want.

Going over the cap is complicated. A team can’t just decide to do so.

The CBA contains exceptions which allow teams to spend money over the cap. Those exceptions include things like the Bird exception, mid-level exception, biannual exception and others.

However, there are a limited number of those available to a team under the cap. There is the mini-mid-level exception, and there's the minimum veteran’s exception.

At most, they'll be able to get a few million over the cap.

Teams like Brooklyn (or typically the Lakers) get massively over the cap by piling up exceptions over a number of years. It simply can't be done in a single season.

Nor can they combine an exception with a free signing.

In short, there are no exceptions which allow the Lakers to land players of consequence or significantly go over the cap. In theory, I have no objection to the idea that the Lakers would be willing to spend the money, or that they have the money to spend. The problem is that they have no means to spend it because of the CBA. 

Defense 5: This Is the Owners' Way of Forcing Players to Take Less

The CBA is the owners' way of forcing the players to take less! That’s the essence of Bryant's diatribe, but it’s a bit of a misleading one.

In fact, it’s a big, fat red herring.

As reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Bryant said,  

Most of us have aspirations for being businessmen when our playing careers are over. 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 [expletive].

I'm very fortunate to be with an organization that understands how to take care of its players, and put a great team out on the floor. They've figured out how to do both.

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 most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

Bryant is arguing that the Lakers guffawed at the new convention of superstars taking less so that their teams can win more and eschewed the notion that he should be held accountable and forced to take less. 

All that's true if we're talking about his "business" decision. He can't be faulted for being a good businessman. But the fact remains that the Lakers do have less money to spend on free agents and are less able to be competitive because of it.

Once again, this is about which discussion we're having. No matter how angry Bryant gets with the press, it doesn't add more cap space to the Lakers next offseason.

Put it this way. Regardless of how much Bryant gets, the Lakers are spending the same amount of money. It's just how that money gets distributed.

This really isn't about how much stars make versus what ownership spends; it’s about how much he makes versus how much his teammates make.

Furthermore, the collective bargaining agreement was worked out in negotiations between the players and the owners. Players like Bryant, the true superstars of the league, are the ones who profit the most from it. By the league consenting to more revenue sharing, and with max contracts being tied to revenue, the real superstars of the league can make more money. 

Most importantly, it's an agreement for which Bryant voted.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 10:  Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs looks for a pass around Andrea Bargnani #77 of the New York Knicks during the first half at Madison Square Garden on November 10, 2013 in New York City. The Spurs defeat the Knicks 120-8
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The players like Bryant can make more money, but they aren't required to. Other players, like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James, have taken less money to surround themselves with better teammates and have a shot at a title.

Again, that's not a moral question of which is right. It's a value choice. Which did Bryant hold in higher priority? Winning or getting paid?

It’s purely disingenuous for him to make this argument about the CBA. He’s left less money for his teammates, plain and simple.

All of the rest is just a distraction. He’s asking his teammates to take less so that he won’t have to.

The other problem I have with this argument is that while the NBA is a business, basketball is a sport, and a team sport at that.

Bryant wants to make it sound like he's trying to wear both hats. He only has one head, and he can only wear one hat. He chose the businessman's bowler over the champion's cap.

Defense 6: He Did Take a Pay Cut

The problem here is that it depends on how you define "pay cut."

If you define it as him taking less than he makes this year, he did. If you take it to mean taking less than he could have gotten elsewhere, he did not.

The fallacy in this argument is that it assumes he could have gone somewhere else and been paid more. That's not true. Because other teams wouldn't have his Bird rights, the most he could have made anywhere else, by rule, is $21.7 million.

No one else could give him that deal, even if they wanted to, and even that's debatable.

Let's bear in mind that part of Bryant's value to the Lakers is his legacy, which is unquestionably among the all-time greatest. It's not just what he will do for them that gives him value; it's what he's done. Lakers fans come out to see him because of all he's accomplished with the franchise.

In fact, the franchise paid him so much because of what he's done for the franchise. Again, I'm not arguing his worth to them. He's worth every nickel.

However, that legacy doesn't go with him to another team. Whichever team took him in free agency would only get who he is as a 36-year-old shooting guard who already has the 12th-most minutes in league history and who will be coming off Achilles surgery.

Other teams with that much money to spend are likely to spend it on healthier players in their prime, not Bryant. That's good business for them.

So technically he is making less money than last year, but he wasn't getting more anywhere else. In the sense that he could have been paid more if he turned down the deal, he did not take a pay cut. 

Defense 7: Any Argument Related to His Money

There has been a litany of arguments related to his money. They range from California tax rates to "a crazy person would have to turn it down." This is a catch-all in relation to those discussions. 

There are two problems with money-related arguments.

First, they all point back to his worth. Yes, he is worth more. But sacrifice means actually losing something. It means giving up one thing to gain something else. That’s the very nature of it. We sacrifice the lower priority to gain the higher priority.

He sacrificed winning to get more money instead of sacrificing more money to win.

Second, the man is worth $250 million. Eric Pincus of the LA Times, via WealthX.com, reported that in July.

This contract isn't even “real” money in a sense. I mean of course it's "real" in that it's actual money, but in terms of impact on his livelihood, it's meaningless.

It’s not like me or you turning down a $48 million deal.We aren't set for life. Nor is it like a player who takes his first or even second max deal. Bryant is set for life. In fact, unless they're completely irresponsible, Bryant's children and grandchildren are set for life too.

He has a quarter of a billion dollars of net worth. We don't. Getting yours is fine, but once you've got it, it just becomes about ego.

That's fine; he's earned every penny.

I'm not saying that's wrong. I'm just not going to look at it and call it something other than what it is.

In effect, Bryant will never spend that $48 million. That's what I mean by it's not real. He could play for the veteran’s minimum and it would have the exact same financial impact on the rest of his life, which is none.

He’s not going to be able to buy a nicer house or drive a fancier car because of this deal. He’s just going to have a different crooked number in his checking account.

That means it really is just about his pride and vanity. He didn’t just choose money over his teammates. He chose a different crooked number over his teammates.

His true colors were represented here, and they weren’t purple and gold. They were just green.