The Los Angeles Lakers, of all teams, should've known better than to give Kobe Bryant a king's ransom to play until the age of 37. One needn't flash back far through the space-time continuum to understand why.
Last season, the Lakers saw the promise of their star-studded squad consumed by the disappointment of injury after injury. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash both registered new career highs in games missed—the former on account of knee and foot problems, the latter in the aftermath of a fractured fibula suffered on Halloween. Dwight Howard missed only six games, but was hardly himself on account of a bum shoulder and a surgically repaired back.
Bryant, though, was brilliant throughout. The Black Mamba spent much of the campaign in the mix for the scoring title and, during one two-week stretch, averaged an astounding 45.5 minutes per game.
That stretch ended with Kobe tearing his Achilles tendon against the Golden State Warriors. The injury cost him the rest of the Lakers' short-lived season, along with the first five weeks of 2013-14.
And yet, before Bryant so much as tested his foot in an NBA game, L.A.'s front office had rewarded its signature superstar with a two-year, $48.5 million extension. According to Kobe, there were no negotiations; just an offer that satisfied his fiscal ambitions.
Which, with Kobe's latest setback in his left knee, leaves the Lakers anything but content and may well continue to do so until his contract is through.
The facts and figures of the extension came as a shock to many, though in some ways, they made sense.
Lost amidst the criticism concerning Kobe's reluctance to take a pay cut was the reality that he actually would be. Bryant will earn nearly $7 million fewer next season than the roughly $30.5 million he'll have taken home by the time spring comes and goes this year. That disparity doesn't account for the raise that the Lakers could've granted Bryant, who was eligible to see his salary skyrocket past $30 million.
Chances are, the Lakers didn't actually expect Bryant's on-court contributions to match whatever salary he'd be due, be it the one he'll take home or anything significantly higher (more than $30 million) or lower (in the $16-18 million range?). As great as Kobe is, he's (ostensibly) human, especially after 17 seasons in the Association and coming off a career-threatening injury.
But, in the minds of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, the calculus probably focused more on gate receipts, TV ratings and jersey sales than on points, rebounds, assists or even wins. Kobe in any form, hobbled or otherwise, is bound to put butts in seats, attract eyeballs to screens and keep cash flowing through the team store.
According to information shared with Bleacher Report by Q Scores, Bryant is easily the most recognizable athlete in the NBA's employ, with an awareness level of 80 percent among the general population. In laymen's terms, that means that, on average, four out of every five people in America know who Kobe is.
For the sake of comparison, LeBron James ranks second at 75 percent, with Derrick Rose among the leaders of the next group down the ladder at 40 percent.
With Kobe around, the Lakers wouldn't have to worry quite as much about the effects of a rebuild on the business end. Unlike most franchises, the Lakers are practically obligated to operate at a profit, since the Buss family, which has owned the team for nearly 35 years, doesn't have the sort of cash flow from ancillary enterprises that most of the NBA's ownership groups do to fund potential debt.
Pay to Play
Still, the Lakers aren't going to see the benefit of having Bryant around if he's not in uniform. A sizable share of fans isn't going to pay a premium or take time out of its collective schedule to watch a scrub-laden squad while Kobe sits on the sideline in street clothes.
It's no wonder, then, that the team saw its lengthy sellout streak at Staples Center snapped earlier this season, before Bryant's first comeback. Kobe played in just six games upon his return in December before succumbing to a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The good news, per Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, is that Kobe could be back (again) in late January or early February. The Lakers' training staff plans to re-evaluate Bryant and Steve Nash upon the team's return from its annual Grammys road trip, which will take L.A. to seven cities in the span of 12 days.
By then, the Lakers could be substantially more removed from the playoff picture than they already are. As of the afternoon of Jan. 10, L.A. was six games back of the eighth-place Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference, with four other fringe teams to leapfrog first. It's entirely feasible that the Lakers, who currently sit just two-and-a-half games ahead of the Utah Jazz, will own the worst record in the West by the time they return to the City of Angels at the end of the month.
But suppose the basketball gods smile upon this franchise for the umpteenth time and Kobe is cleared to play on Jan. 28. Who's to say he won't fall victim to yet another debilitating injury soon after he takes the court?
Remember, we're talking about a guy who's logged well over 50,000 minutes as a pro between the regular season and the playoffs, a guy who's slogged through a litany of injuries over the years—particularly ones affecting different parts of his legs (i.e. knees, ankles, feet).
Is it at all safe to bet on Bryant playing through 2016 without another significant setback?
The answer would seem to be a resounding "NO!" With the way younger guards—Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Deron Williams and Eric Bledsoe, to name a handful—are dropping like flies these days, why should anyone have confidence in the notion of a 30-something future Hall-of-Famer ducking the injury bug and giving the Lakers a proper return on their hefty investment?
Because he's Kobe? Because he's some sort of mythical figure?
Maybe that's the problem here. Part of the rationalization for Bryant's extension centered on the Lakers' desire to send a signal to elite players everywhere that L.A. values star power more than any other team in the league (supposedly). If you're a franchise talent who's due to hit free agency in the next few years, why wouldn't you come to L.A. to play for the Lakers, who are slated to have cap space to burn over the coming summers?
Particularly once Bryant's contract comes off the books in 2016.
Carmelo Anthony could bite this summer, but probably won't. Kevin Love might in 2015, with another Kevin (Kevin Durant) set to hit the market the offseason after that.
That being said, the notion of the Lakers being a magnet for marquee free agents from other teams is somewhat unfounded. While it makes sense that stars would want to live in southern California and wear the Purple and Gold, only one such player has done so in the last two decades.
Of course, that one (Shaquille O'Neal) was largely responsible for three of the team's 16 championships. Shaq, though, wouldn't have taken the Lakers back to the top without Bryant, who was acquired not as a mid-to-late-20s free agent, but rather as a teenager in the 1996 NBA draft.
The fact is, great players rarely change teams via free agency. More often than not, they either stick with their current squads or they demand trades. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard are more the exceptions that prove the rule, and Howard's move only came after he'd forced his way out of Orlando.
Bryant won his two post-O'Neal titles not with great players signed outright, but rather with two versatile bigs (Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol) who were added by way of blockbuster trades. Gasol, in particular, wouldn't have become a Laker in 2008 without a bevy of picks and prospects—the sorts of assets of which the franchise currently has so few.
A free-agent-centric strategy largely ignores the value (if not the importance) of building a team with young players and smart contracts for their more experienced counterparts in today's NBA. No longer can the richest clubs simply outspend their competitors without fiscal consequence. The hardening of the salary cap, by way of a more punitive luxury tax, has put a premium on inexpensive talent while implicitly penalizing those that lean too heavily on aging free agents to carry the mantle.
Old School, Older Players
Constructing a championship contender in the way the Lakers seem keen to is rife with risks. If they intend to keep reloading with players in their respective primes, the Lakers will have to prepare themselves to either hang onto twilight-bound stars or turn over the roster with greater frequency.
Moreover, tying up the vast majority of their cap space in one or two heavily used veterans—rather than trying to glean and groom a star from the draft and disburse the rest of their salary allotment across a deeper roster—will leave the Lakers susceptible to quick collapse should the injury bug bite once again.
As it has so frequently over the last season-and-a-half. Surely, L.A. would be in a much different place right now with Bryant and Nash both healthy, and with a supporting cast that wasn't scooped up off the scrapheap. Likewise, the Lakers would've found themselves much closer to title contention in 2012-13 had staying healthy not been such a struggle.
Unfortunately, that's the reality of basketball in the modern day—or any day, for that matter. The game is a breeding ground for injuries, contact and non-contact alike, due to the physical demands that it places on the human body. Oftentimes, those injuries are difficult, if not impossible, to predict.
Unless, of course, you're talking about someone of Kobe Bryant's age, with his mileage and medical rap sheet. Bryant may be one of the grittiest people to ever play in the NBA, but there's only so much he can do to fend off Father Time and Mother Nature, even with every tool of modern medicine not far from his grasp.
The Lakers, on the other hand, weren't so helpless. They could've proposed a lower number, negotiated with Kobe's camp as needed and retained the face of their franchise in a more cost-effective manner. That would've left them with more financial flexibility, perhaps to the extent that they could've revamped the roster to give Kobe a legitimate shot at his sixth ring.
Instead, they'll have to hope and pray that Bryant gets well and stays well. If he doesn't, the Lakers will find themselves waiting for more stars to become available, as the team already is, with little more than a losing collection of castoffs to keep their fans occupied in the interim.
Hindsight's 20/20 on Twitter, too, you know.