The NBA-watching world was taken by surprise when news broke back in November that the Los Angeles Lakers had agreed to terms on a two-year contract extension with superstar guard Kobe Bryant. When the specific numbers on the deal came out, the most common immediate reaction was shock that the Lakers would rush to commit $48.5 million to a player who had yet to return to the court after rupturing his left Achilles tendon seven months earlier, keeping Bryant in place as the league's highest-paid player through the end of his age-37 season with no idea whether he'd be able to get anywhere near the level of play he'd managed before going down last April.
It's a big risk, a big financial commitment and, even two months after Kobe signed on the dotted line, a big topic of conversation. During an interview broadcast Thursday evening on NBA TV, analyst and ex-Bryant teammate Rick Fox asked former Lakers head coach Phil Jackson — who just keeps managing to find time for interviews, doesn't he? — if he would have signed off on signing Bryant for two more years coming off his Achilles injury were he back in the Lakers' fold.
"Yeah, I would have," Jackson answered quickly, before briefly pausing and adding: "They paid him more than I would have gone for."
That said, Jackson explained, he gets why the L.A. braintrust backed up the Brinks truck for Bryant, with whom Jackson won five of his 11 NBA championships.
"But what he's given to this organization, what he gives back — he brings a certain sense of, 'We are going to win,'" Jackson said. "You've got to have a guy on the team that doesn't settle for second. That's one of the areas where the value of Kobe, even at this age, is terrific."
Jackson's comments on the value Bryant brings beyond his on-court contributions dovetail with many of the counter-arguments and challenges to prevailing roster-construction wisdom that cropped up in late November in opposition to the initial round of head-scratching reviews of the extension.
The broad strokes of such arguments: Bryant has been an incalculable cash cow for the Lakers franchise for the better part of two decades, during which he has never been able to receive a salary commensurate with his actual value due to the restrictions on players' maximum salaries imposed by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. By offering Bryant a $48.5 million token of their appreciation, the Lakers were acknowledging the immeasurable boon he has been for the organization, giving fans something to rally around (and someone to pay to see) over what might wind up being a couple more noncompetitive years, and ensuring that one of the truly iconic players in Laker lore remains inextricably linked to the franchise; essentially, the Busses, Mitch Kupchak and company were paying a premium to underscore that loyalty and history still matter to the Lakers.
There's truth and reason to all of that. Kobe's still overpaid, though. Our responses to these things can contain multitudes, and the Zen Master's surely does.
Fox also asked Jackson if he thought Bryant would be a productive player when he comes back from his left knee fracture and returns to the Laker lineup, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:
Bryant has only averaged 13.8 points on 42.5 percent shooting, 6.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds in six games this season. Yet, Jackson predicted Bryant “is going to be still a scorer,” and then lauded his moves on post-ups, screen-and-rolls and outside shooting.
But Jackson suggested that his heavy playing time contributed to his season-ending left Achilles injury, which then related to his latest injury in the form of a fractured knee. The Lakers have argued otherwise.
“Kobe’s minutes he’s played, the time he’s been on the floor, the duress and the way he’s played has taken a toll, obviously,” Jackson said. “And his injury, I think, was part of the chain of events that happened because of his Achilles tendon. Unfortunately, it set him back and now he’s got a knee injury.”
Jackson also graciously accepted Fox's invitation to suggest that Dwight Howard would still be a Laker if L.A. had hired him as head coach rather than choosing Mike D'Antoni to replace Mike Brown: "There’s a good chance that would have happened. Dwight gave up a little bit early on the Lakers, but maybe it wasn’t for him. Maybe he just didn’t find the culture exactly what he needed to benefit and blossom from the game."
That's nicely done by Jackson, a sound finish of a nice alley-oop feed from Fox, but it's (kind of) a moot point, because Phil's still (kind of) saying he's done with coaching (kind of):
“My stock answer has been I have no intention of coaching again,” Jackson said. “That’s been my stock answer for the last two years. Physically I have to reconcile the fact that I’m in a position where after five operations in three years, four years (coaching would be hard). Recovering from operations is difficult enough. When you’re a kid you can do it relatively easily as we did when we were players, but at my age it takes a little bit more to recover from it and then health becomes the priority.”
“Traveling, late nights, being up and down the court, which is really something that’s important to me as a coach — I coached my last year from a bench at midcourt because I couldn’t get up and down the court and I knew it was time to leave. So, there’s some of the reasons why I sit here and say I have no intention of coaching. But who knows? Maybe I’ll have regenerative tissue that will get me back at it.”
Or, better yet, maybe you should take a trip over to Germany, Phil. When you get back, you'll feel right as rain, and you might change that "no intention" tune you've been dancing to for the past year. With any luck, you can get overpaid, too!
Hat-tip to SLAM.
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