In the days since Dwight Howard spurned the Los Angeles Lakers to join the Houston Rockets, fans of the NBA's most consistently successful franchise have looked toward next summer as the time for rebuilding and a return to championship contention. With big-name free agents like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James available, the Lakers will presumably attempt to parlay their history and market into a star who can carry them into the next era.
This plan depends partially on Kobe Bryant, also a free agent in 2014, taking a pay cut. Kobe, who turns 35 in August, can take approximately $32 million in salary per season under a new max-level contract. Although he has said he plans on playing only three or four seasons, a max deal for Kobe would be the largest in the league by a considerable margin and likely eat up more than half of the 2014-15 season's salary cap (the cap this season was just set at $58.7 million). That would severely limit the Lakers' ability to bring in another star and field a championship-level team.
The organization's efforts to improve would be helped considerably if Kobe decided to take less money. Yet, according to an interview with Serena Winters of the fan site Lakers Nation, Bryant will enter negotiations with the intention of getting as much money as he possibly can. Watch the video of the interview above, and join us after the jump for the key quote:
“I’m not taking any at all – that’s the negotiation that you have to have.” Kobe Bryant told Lakers Nation in an exclusive interview at his Kobe Basketball Academy on Wednesday. “For me to sit here and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just going to take a huge pay cut. Nah, I’m going to try to get as much as I possibly can.”
Well, that's probably not what Lakers fans want to hear. Of course, a lot can happen in the next year.
As ever, Kobe is a complicated person — he's at an age when most players are severely limited, if not retired, his scoring average still ranks near the top of the league. On top of that, his franchise icon status dictates that he's afforded more leeway than most players, including other All-Stars. In some ways, Kobe could take his salary as a sign of respect. To put it another way, not offering him a max-level contract could be taken as a statement that they no longer respect what he's done for the franchise.
Except Kobe's torn Achilles tendon could significantly change the circumstances of these next few seasons. Although Bryant claims to be progressing at a rapid rate — not surprising, given his work ethic — and hopes to ramp up his conditioning in August, a full recovery from this injury within the first few months of this season would be more or less unprecedented. He may want a max deal next July, but it's possible that there will be too many questions about his future to justify that sort of salary.
Perhaps Kobe will want one anyway for the issues of pride outlined above. However, the only thing Kobe needs more than respect may be relevance, the impression that he's still at the top of his profession. Throughout his career, Bryant has proven incredibly resilient and capable of maintaining his impact on conversations and arguments surrounding the NBA.
If his production drops off due to age and injury, the Lakers struggle accordingly, and the franchise clearly needs to add another star to return to even the level below contention, then Kobe may be forced to take a pay cut to stay at that point of relevance. (He could also jump ship, but the image of Kobe Bryant in another team's colors is almost too bizarre to consider.) In other words, Bryant might be committed to his maximum possible salary right now only because he hasn't stared total disappointment in the face just yet.
Kobe's been able to stay successful for many years in part because he's an expert at adjusting to circumstances and doing what's necessary to keep himself in prime position to win. Although he can be an intractable and demanding teammate, Kobe has proven himself willing to change his diet, add new wrinkles and abilities to his game, and adjust various other external, non-personality qualities to suit his aims. Under certain circumstances, taking a pay cut would be in keeping with that history. It could only be distasteful in July 2013 because he hasn't had to face the reality of July 2014.
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