By now, every analyst, comment section maven, and message board maestro has weighed in on Kobe Bryant’s contract extension, and though there are some laughable holdouts, a general consensus seems to have been reached. You can’t ask Kobe Bryant to take a massive pay cut. The Lakers can afford it. The Lakers weren’t going to draw two or even one superstars this summer anyway as free agents, and the team is probably doomed to be just a tick above average for what is presumably the next two and a half seasons of Kobe Bryant’s career.
Of course, those who have weighed in with their keyboards thus far aren’t making the sort of millions NBA players make. They don’t relate to the strange duality of both trying to make as much money as has been offered, while chasing happiness alongside a title ring. These things often don’t walk hand in hand, and usually players are blameless (though Kobe, if we’re honest, is really pushing it) in choosing one over the other.
So what of these players? What would it take to get one of them to join Bryant, with the scraps of salary that the Lakers would have to work with should Pau Gasol return as a free agent in 2014 as well? Why not start with the man most frequently talked about by Lakers fans as a possible Ko-hort in 2014 and beyond, one Carmelo Anthony. From Sam Amick at USA Today:
When asked if free agents like himself would see Bryant as a star who is still worthy of joining in order to contend for a title, Anthony said, "I mean you'll have to see. It's hard to gauge at this point, not until he comes back (from his April Achilles tendon tear) and figures some things out. So I don't know. They might have some plans up their sleeve."
Kobe could return from his Achilles tear any day now, he’s working out religiously as he’s always done, and any “doubtful” status in regards to Kobe Bean Bryant should be as dubious as they come. This is Kobe Bryant we’re talking about. This is the guy that shot free throws with a torn Achilles.
He’s human, though, and the effects of that injury and his age (and all those regular season and playoff minutes, dating back to 1996) can’t help but influence his game, and eventual production. Bryant would have been wildly overpaid at this rate ($30.4 million this season, $23.5 million next season, $25 million in 2015-16) even if he hadn’t torn his Achilles because while his offense is pristine as ever, he’s a one-way player at this point working in his mid-30s. To add the career-altering bent of a torn Achilles to things can’t help but limit his brilliance somewhat.
Because this is the NBA, though, you’ll get to hear one former Bryant teammate talk about Kobe’s technical pay cut as if he decided to work pro bono next season. Via Sam Amick, here’s Metta World Peace:
"With (a max deal for Bryant), you wouldn't have had any room to give any (money) to anybody else," World Peace told USA TODAY Sports. "Him taking that little pay cut is going to help them get other players, which is very important, so it's good."
It’s true that Kobe took a pay cut, down nearly $7 million from this year to next, but let’s not overstate things. Yes, the Lakers can attempt to sign or trade for a major star with the cap space they have left over if Gasol leaves for no compensation; but the team would then have (at least) eight roster spots to fill with scraps and exceptions after that. That’s no way to build a winner.
Even the Miami Heat, working with three players at or just after their NBA primes, have struggled to make this sort of thing work – and that’s with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade taking less money to join the team. The Heat are two-time defending champions, and they’re rolling right now, but don’t forget that this is also the same team that lost the 2011 NBA Finals, barely got out of the Eastern Conference finals in 2012, and needed a seventh game in 2013 to win the title. It’s been hard, working with this top-heavy alignment, and it’s certainly no way to build a surefire champion.
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We get that the Buss family didn’t want to enter into uneasy negotiations with their beloved star, and we understand that there was always the (minor) threat that Bryant could have angrily bolted to another team this summer had he felt insulted, but let’s not get away from what we know – even if we understand why the Lakers made this move. Had Bryant taken less money, even the sort of money LeBron James is making this season, it would have gone a long way toward actually helping the Lakers go after that sixth ring that Bryant swears up and down he’ll do anything for.
Because, with one swipe of the pen, we know that Bryant doesn’t really want to do everything for that ring, y’know? Not when the Lakers are offering that much money.
On top of that, there’s no real guarantee that any superstar is headed Los Angeles’ way. There’s no way LeBron’s coming, and Bryant probably wouldn’t even encourage that sort of courtship if LBJ was interested. It would take the dissolution of the Heat franchise for Dwyane Wade to ever leave Miami (he’d probably retire before playing for another city), Chris Bosh won’t opt out of his contract to be yelled at by Kobe. Dirk Nowitzki isn't budging (but not fully committing to taking his own pay cut). Kevin Love isn’t a free agent until 2015, and it would be a huge shocker if Carmelo Anthony left ungodly amounts of money on the table to flee from the New York Knick front office, one that absolutely adores him to a ridiculous degree.
The wonderful thing here, for those of us that love watching Kobe Bryant play good basketball with good teammates, is that this is the best possible news for Bryant and the Lakers.
This means, with just Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre on the team’s books, general manager Mitch Kupchak can tinker, trade, and move with smaller pieces. With the cap room that is left he can build depth, utilize salary cap space in deals, pick up some draft picks to replace the ones Los Angeles sent to Orlando and Phoenix in the summer of 2012, and build a real team instead of a top-heavy looker.
And though a championship may not be in the offing, what’s wrong with having a little fun? While perhaps creating an aesthetic experience that rivals that of, say, the 2007-08 season – even before Pau Gasol became a Laker. That was just fun, free-flowing basketball with a deep team that was learning on its own how to win, with Kobe taking over when needed. No, the Lakers don’t have to go for broke like they did in 2012-13, but they can send their legendary shooting guard out with a smile on his face. Forget the millions of dollars, that’s what Kobe Bryant deserves.
Depends on the star, depends on the summer.
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