WASHINGTON – Between his signature on a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension and a cross-country flight to the East Coast on Monday, Kobe Bryant was left befuddled and bemused by those who declared him greedy and uncaring about chasing championships.
"This was easy," Bryant told Yahoo Sports on Monday night. "This wasn't a negotiation. The Lakers made their offer with cap and building a great team in mind while still taking care of me as a player.
"I simply agreed to the offer."
Until the hours before the Lakers' meeting with the Washington Wizards on Tuesday, that's all Bryant would say about the contract extension. He is 35 years old, working his way back from a torn Achilles and the Buss family is still betting Bryant is the best free-agent star available on the market, betting that Bryant can still drive ticket sales and TV ratings and make these Lakers relevant again.
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In this basketball universe, that's what a max player does for a big-market franchise. The late Lakers owner, Jerry Buss, was always brutally honest about the value of his superstar players – so much more so than his ownership peers. Once, Buss told Bryant he believed he was worth $60 million to $70 million a year to the Lakers.
With Bryant's deal – which will pay him $23.5 million and $25 million in 2015 and '16, respectively – the Lakers have room to recruit a max player this summer, and only Bryant's contract is still on the books for the summer of 2016.
Make no mistake: There's little chance a max player willing to change teams will be available to the Lakers this summer. LeBron James is never coming to the Lakers, and Carmelo Anthony is unlikely to turn down the $130 million available to him in New York. This might be a summer of signing less-than-superstar players, with next year turning into the Lakers' big play on the market.
In the end, NBA owners created the perfect system to underpay and turn the public against its greatest revenue-producing players. Nowhere else but the NBA do the best players have a limit on the salaries paid to them, and nowhere else but the NBA do the best players have such an impact on winning and TV deals and ticket sales.
The owners wanted this system and, truth be told, superstars would be foolhardy to let the NBA rig everything to make them take even less. Deposed NBPA executive director Billy Hunter gave back everything in collective bargaining over the years, and the stars driving the league are supposed to give back even more? It's the Lakers' job to work within the framework of the CBA now, take their massive revenue, their natural recruiting advantages in L.A., and rebuild this team again.
San Antonio's Tim Duncan did take a three-year, $30 million-plus deal late in his career, but he does play for the San Antonio Spurs. Different market, different revenue streams for Spurs owner Peter Holt. When Duncan made the choice to play his entire career in a small market, there were sacrifices he had to make. The Spurs were willing to pay him far more than the deal he accepted in 2012, but management showed him a specific plan to keep the group they had together and how his savings could help them bring on more players within the franchise's financial framework.
The Lakers had a vision for the future, too, and they sold Bryant on its execution with him remaining the highest-paid player in the NBA. That's a superstar's job: Work with the organization, partner in a plan and trust in the track record.
Rest assured, the Lakers are making the leap of faith on what kind of a player Bryant will be upon his return soon, but doctors have convinced them his Achilles is strong again, sturdy, and that Bryant will be Bryant again. The Lakers laid out a plan, made him his offer and Kobe Bryant was exactly right when he told Yahoo Sports on Monday night: "This was easy."