Of course, Los Angeles Lakers President Jeanie Buss is going to defend Kobe Bryant’s contract extension and the direction of her team. Unlike general manager Mitch Kupchak and (to a far greater extent) president of basketball operations Jim Buss, Jeanie actually engages with media and fans in order to drive interest in the team her father bought over three decades ago, keeping a cheery visage in the wake of the toughest year and a half in Los Angeles Lakers history.
You’ll recall that, in the months since the Lakers reported to training camp in the fall of 2012, they’ve fired a coach, lost both Bryant and Steve Nash (among many other players) to significant injury, lost Dwight Howard to free agency, watched as the team’s TV ratings sunk like a stone, watched as former All-Star Pau Gasol and coach Mike D’Antoni endlessly feuded, all while driving toward the Western Conference’s worst record in 2013-14, with Jeanie Buss fiancée and former coach Phil Jackson being feted in New York.
Worst of all, on levels that are no way comparable to the list noted above, was the passing of the beloved Dr. Jerry Buss. The loss of the Laker owner meant the franchise is now run by Jeanie and Jim, with the former handling the business end of things and Jim taking on the final say on basketball moves despite an NBA GM-relative lack of a scouting, management or playing background.
Dr. Jerry Buss always wanted to promote an entertaining show more than anything else, and sometimes that understandable bent worked hand in hand with sound basketball maneuvers; like featuring Magic Johnson as the team’s go-to star or signing Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of 1996. Because of Magic’s early retirements in 1991 and 1996 due to his HIV diagnosis and O’Neal’s unhappy divorce and subsequent trade from the Lakers in 2004, neither was given a proper year-long sendoff during their final seasons as a Laker.
Jeanie Buss is determined that Kobe Bryant get that deserved treatment, in what could be his final year in 2015-16. From Eric Pincus at the Los Angeles Times:
"We never got an opportunity to do the farewell tour for Magic Johnson," Buss said on "Access SportsNet" via Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
Early in the season, Bryant agreed to a two-year, $48.5-million contract extension.
"Kobe, by signing that deal, will have played 20 years for one organization," said Buss. "I guarantee that won't happen again. ... We don't draft players at 17 anymore. To have the kind of longevity that he's had, makes it extremely special, and I think that Lakers fans understand that."
There definitely is value to both celebrating Bryant’s unique turn as the rare star that both came to the NBA directly out of college, while spending his entire career with one team. Michael Jordan played for two different ballclubs, as did Karl Malone. John Stockton and Reggie Miller played their entire careers for one team, but they came into the league nearly fully formed at age 22. Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal are Kobe’s contemporaries in terms of age and jumping straight from the prep scene, but they have a combined 10 different team uniforms to their NBA credit.
Kobe’s different in so many ways, and it’s hard to comprehend a league without him. Even if we’ll enter 2014-15 with Bryant having played just six games between April 2013 and the start of the next season.
That “next season” will see Bryant receive a $23.5 million payout from the Lakers, a definite pay cut from the $30.4 million he’s earning this year, but a shocking amount of money for someone his age, regardless of the two major injuries he’s endured over the past 11 months. Bryant is the rare player who will actually see his salary go up as he jumps from age 36 to 37, as he’ll make $25 million in 2015-16. Bryant clearly wanted to end his final two seasons as the NBA’s highest-paid player, and the Buss family can certainly afford these terms.
Can the team’s playoff and possible championship hopes afford these terms? That remains to be seen. And this is where the criticism comes from. Because the Lakers were never in any danger of losing Kobe Bryant as a free agent, yet they paid as if that was a concern.
Kobe did take a pay cut for next season, and the Lakers will have cap space even if they bring Steve Nash back and sign free agent Pau Gasol to reasonable terms. The Lakers could have had way, way more cap space had Bryant signed in November for what he’s probably worth as a score-first shooting guard who doesn’t defend anymore, returning from a major Achilles tear. Both Bryant and the Lakers decided to potentially hamstring the Lakers’ free agent future in order to satisfy -- and there’s no way around it -- Kobe’s ego regarding his status as the league’s highest-paid player.
He can talk up wanting to win first all he wants, but the Lakers would have a far easier time surrounding him with championship-level teammates had he decided to help the team clear its books further. Don’t blame him for taking what was offered, but you are allowed to criticize when he attempts to have his cake and eat it too; and also find me a center and small forward.
Jeanie Buss doesn’t think this is a problem. Kind of, because she somewhat contradicts herself. Something you have to do, I suppose, when you’re the only Laker exec with the guts to represent the franchise and go on record. From the Times:
"Too much attention is being paid to salary cap and all that kind of stuff, which is important," said Buss. "Why can't we just talk about the players ... and how a basketball team comes together and not focus on slotting and cap space?"
Because you build winners with salary-cap space, whether it’s via a free-agent deal or trade. There’s a reason (Shaq) Jerry West sent Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to the Vancouver Grizzlies for second-round picks in 1996, and there’s a reason (LeBron) Pat Riley traded Michael Beasley for a second-round pick in 2010 just two years after drafting him second overall. The Lakers will have salary-cap space this summer, but they’ll have a far tougher time giving Bryant teammates he’ll enjoy because his massive contract will hamstring things.
This isn’t to say the Lakers can’t still turn this around. They’ll have a high lottery pick, I don’t doubt in the slightest Bryant will return to near-All-Star form should he come back healthy at age 36 next season, and there still will be cap space and options for Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss to work with. It’s going to be tougher, though, with one aging player making well over one-third of the salary cap.
Of course, Jeanie Buss knows all this. She’s an intelligent executive who knows the game, and she knows how to play her particular game. This is a Los Angeles Lakers low point, coming on the heels of months after months after months of low points after low points. Jeanie Buss has to get out in front of the cameras, something Jim Buss won’t do, and point out how loyal the Lakers are, how things will turn around at some point, and how a lack of maximum cap space shouldn’t preclude her team from coming together.
Even with Bryant’s biggie on the books, the Lakers will have a chance to sort it all out, potentially starting with letting coach D’Antoni go …
… and possibly constructing signings and trades as the Kobester sees fit. As with all things Laker-y, this particular season excluded, it’ll be fascinating to watch.
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