Moments after one Monday morning bombshell from Chicago, another major report came down from California — the Los Angeles Lakers have agreed to a two-year contract extension with star shooting guard Kobe Bryant, keeping the Black Mamba in forum blue and gold through the end of the 2015-16 season, which would be the 20th (and presumably final) year of his Hall-of-Fame NBA career.
“This is a very happy day for Lakers fans and for the Lakers organization,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a team statement. “We’ve said all along that our priority and hope was to have Kobe finish his career as a Laker, and this should ensure that that happens. To play 20 years in the NBA, and to do so with the same team, is unprecedented, and quite an accomplishment. Most importantly however, it assures us that one of the best players in the world will remain a Laker, bringing us excellent play and excitement for years to come.”
The Lakers didn't release terms of the agreement, but it's looking like Bryant's getting a pretty hefty payday:
Kobe Bryants contract will make him the highest paid player in the league the next two seasons
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) November 25, 2013
It'll have to be very close to the top end of that range, because the New York Knicks will pay Amar'e Stoudemire $23,410,988 in 2014-15 and the Brooklyn Nets will pay Joe Johnson $24,894,863 for the 2015-16 season, meaning the deal would have to be worth at least $48,305,851 to satisfy the "highest-paid player" criteria. Sure enough, Shelburne reports that the deal will be in the $48.5 million range, with Bryant's salary just edging the New York duo in each year.
Shortly after the details came out, Bryant shared his Kobe Hancock on Twitter:
Despite his prior protestations of the prospect, the extension does represent a fairly substantial pay cut for Bryant — it's a roughly 23 percent decrease from the $30,453,805 he's making this season, and about 27 percent less than the $32 million he could have made next year had he sought the maximum possible salary the Lakers could have paid him. It's not the kind of flexibility-ensuring extensions that fellow all-timers like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett inked, though, or the sort of everyone-takes-a-bit-less approach that allowed for the building of the Miami Heat's Big Three. It's also, obviously, an incredibly rich and obviously somewhat stunning signing, considering that Bryant's got 17 years and more than 54,000 NBA minutes on his legs ... and that, since we're speaking of legs, he's all of a week removed from being cleared to resume basketball activities after rupturing his left Achilles tendon seven months ago.
Bryant has only just reached the point where he can complete a full-speed practice and is coming back from an injury that has drastically changed the game and effectiveness of virtually every NBA player who has ever suffered it, and yet the Lakers have just rushed to pay him more than any other player in the game through the end of his age-37 season. Loyalty, history and marketing are all clearly important considerations here — the Lakers re-signed Kobe in part because of his importance as the sort of franchise totem and cultural touchstone you can't jettison even if it might make on-court sense — but that's still a staggering commitment to make without having seen Bryant take the floor for live game action after his injury.
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Heck, that would be a staggering commitment to make even if the Lakers knew that Bryant is sure to be fully healthy and 100 percent of the player he was before going down last year, because using about 37 percent of your salary-cap space (based on a projected 2014-15 cap line of $62.9 million) on a player who mitigates his prodigious offense with dangerous defense makes it incredibly difficult to field a true title-contending team. As it stands, the Lakers will now be paying Bryant, Steve Nash and Nick Young just over $34.4 million next year — add in cap holds to fill out the remainder of the roster, and L.A.'s available cap space this summer dips down to between $22.2 million and $28.5 million, according to salary cap wizard Larry Coon, depending on whether the Lakers decide to keep Nash around for the final year of his deal. (For his part, the injured point guard has said he does not plan to retire at the end of this season, and that he has every intention of coming back for the final year of the contract he signed in the summer of 2012.)
That's still enough room to add a max-level free agent, should the Lakers be able to woo one, but it would still leave plenty of question marks with respect to filling out the rest of the roster. For example, if two max players plus older veterans on minimum contracts/exceptions is L.A.'s chosen framework, is this essentially the end of the Laker line for Pau Gasol, who's in the final year of his contract and has mentioned a similar reluctance to take a pay cut? And on the max-free-agent front, will top prospective free-agent targets like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (who might not be all that interested in moving anyway) really jump at the chance to head west, not be the team's top-paid guy and serve as second banana to a 36- and 37-year-old Kobe? If not, given the dearth of draft picks in coming years thanks to several now-for-later trades, how will the Lakers add the sort of prime and likely-to-improve talent that will not only build the next generation of competitive L.A. teams, but also make the last couple of Kobe-led models into viable contenders for the NBA championship?
While the first two questions, and many others, won't be answered until next summer at the earliest, the most likely response to the third is, "They won't." It seems improbable that versions of the Los Angeles Lakers led by 36- and 37-year-old Kobe Bryant will be able to make legitimate and serious runs at an NBA title, especially if the version of Kobe that takes the Staples Center floor is severely hampered following his Achilles tear. Taken in that context, then, this move seems less about the start of the next chapter of Laker greatness and more about celebrating the setting of a defined endpoint for a bygone era. And there's value in that; as I wrote a couple of years back about a (pre-title) Dirk Nowitzki, transformational players are rare and should be appreciated, and the opportunity for Bryant to retire in a Lakers uniform (and take a long shot at the all-time scoring record) will give Lakers fans something to rally around, even if it isn't likely to translate into the grand prize of a Michael-equaling sixth ring.
Several months after Dwight Howard reportedly wanted to know when the Lakers planned to move on from Kobe, they've answered the question — two summers from now. Let the farewell tour begin. Just don't expect it to be a victory lap ... or, at least, not one that celebrates new victories.
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