Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak has been the most vocal amongst the team’s brain trust about 2015-16 possibly being Kobe Bryant’s last year in the NBA. Bryant’s two-year, $48.5 million contract extension is up at the end of 2016, at the same time that the NBA’s salary cap rises and the team can offer huge heaps of money to free agents to help the Laker franchise turn it over.
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Co-owners and business and basketball chief operators Jeannie and Jim Buss haven’t been as direct. In fact, if anything, Jim Buss was as direct as he could be in a recent interview in pointing out that Bryant’s 2016 retirement isn’t a fait accompli.
From a talk with Eric Pincus at the Los Angeles Times, when asked if this was Kobe Bryant’s final season:
"We're going to approach it like it is, but that doesn't mean it is," Buss said of Bryant. "I'm not going to sit there and say, 'This is it, Kobe, you're done,' because it's not my decision, it's his decision."
So is this Bryant's final year with the team? "My arms are like this," Buss said, holding his arms wide open, about Bryant's future.
"He just has to know, at that age, and that many miles on you, what is your role? We'll explain the role, and if he still wants to do that and that's how he wants to go out, that's fine with me."
The hedging at the end is important.
Had Kobe Bryant played enough games to qualify, his usage rate would have ranked second in the NBA last season, only to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. Westbrook kept his oft-injured teams in games by dominating the ball, while Kobe hamstrung his (admittedly, stinko) supporting cast by firing 20.4 times per game despite shooting just 37.3 percent. He took over five three-pointers, but made just 29 percent of them. He was terrible, and he made an awful team even worse than it should have been.
For Buss to say that a return in 2016-17 (and possibly beyond) is “[Bryant’s] decision” is something new. It’s what goes into the decision that he’ll have to make, however, that has yet to be sussed out.
Even if Kobe sees his campaign cut short with injury (he’s sat out the end of his last three seasons and has played just 41 games over the last two years), the Lakers will be better this season. The addition of Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass and Lou Williams alongside a promising rookie in D’Angelo Russell and an just-about rookie in Julius Randle will make the Lakers a competent group in some areas. A healthy return to All-Star form from Kobe won’t put the Lakers in the playoffs, but they won’t look as miserable.
That’s fine. The Lakers discovered during the summer of 2014 that no big free agent was keen to ride out Bryant’s last two years, even if it meant taking over the Lakers eventually, so they punted 2015-16 all the way back then.
The question, here, is “his decision”
Does it mean, “we’re going to leave yet another massive contract on the table for you, no worries mate, fire away!”
Or does it mean, “Tim Duncan just agreed to play for $5 million, and he’s way, way, way better than you right now. We know the cap is rising and we’re going to offer you a deal that won’t embarrass you, but it will stand as a pay cut, we’re not going to make a point to make you the game’s highest-paid player, and on top of that you are going to have to temper your role, and learn how to act your age.”
The latter decision is the one the Lakers should be presenting Kobe Bryant with. Because Jim Buss is in charge, however, you can’t count on him making the sound basketball move in this instance.
Consider, in this interview, his defiant take on the $48.5 million extension for Kobe:
"The man has done so much for the Lakers and the fans of the Laker nation, he deserves the money," Buss said. "I don't understand anybody trying to break down what I did for him. Let's break down what he did for us, then say, what is he worth? To me, he's worth that."
Fine, he’s meant a lot for the team, your city, and Laker Nation. In offering him that contract (and in Kobe signing that contract, well aware it would cripple the Lakers’ cap sheet), you virtually guaranteed that Laker Nation would watch two terrible years of basketball, all while crossing their fingers that they wouldn’t end up giving a lottery pick as a result of 2012’s Steve Nash trade. The pick, which now belongs to Philadelphia (as all picks do), will most certainly go to the 76ers in 2016.
Fish like water, plants love sunlight, and Laker fans love Kobe. His return under these terms (“do your thing, Kobester, wasn’t 2002 great?!?!”), for big money that can be explained away by the Laker TV deal and the rising cap, alongside the loss a lottery pick after a lottery season would be the worst case scenario.
Best case scenario? Kobe realizes just how much he stunk last season, he actually acts like a facilitator and mentor in 2015-16, the Lakers buck the lottery odds and keep their pick, and Kobe comes back at a majorly reduced rate to take to his farewell tour (which he says he doesn’t want, but come on …) with the understanding that he’s not allowed to chuck away. What we all, Laker fans or not, wouldn’t give to see that.
That sort of plan flies in the face of everything that Kobe Bryant has ever done and said, however. And everything that Jim Buss has ever done and said, even if it is the best way for him to keep the job he says he’ll walk away from (though we know he’s never doing that) if the Lakers aren’t contenders by 2017 or 2018.
With that in place, do understand that Jim Buss is putting in the hours:
"I could care less if Mitch gets all the credit for it, he's the GM. He's the center point. When it came to blame, you'd think it'd be the same kind of thing but people look at me as kind of a privileged kid."
He continued: "Nobody knows how hard I've worked this entire time. ... My personality is to not to take credit for my work. It doesn't bother me because it's self-satisfaction that I know I've done a good job, I know I work hard, and that's all I needed to know."
(Buss meant “could not care less.” We hope.)
You’re allowed to roll your eyes at a statement like that, because that’s essentially Jim Buss’ way of saying “I’m very humble.” To point out that it supposedly isn’t your “personality” to take credit for your work is a backhanded – hell, “fronthanded” – way of asking for credit for one’s work. Work that remains, heretofore, un-cited.
It’s true that we don’t know the extent of both Buss’ work ethic and his influence, outside of rumors that he was the biggest voice behind drafting and, despite trade rumors, developing Andrew Bynum. That’s not a shot – don’t forget that, for a while there, Bynum was a major force. He isn’t a self-promoter and he rarely gives interviews.
What we do have is the litany of decisions, though. Russell and Randle look like the exact perfect draft picks for their slots, everyone lauded the Nash and Dwight Howard deals when they were made, and it makes sense to punt a few years with Kobe making an obscene amount of money. To a small extent, and we know we’re reaching here, Kobe’s extension can be (maybe, kind of, god we’re stupid) justified. That’s why the franchise, and Jim Buss, can’t be dismissed just yet.
The same goes for Kobe Bryant, both this season and – hopefully – the one after that. There’s still a chance to end this the right way.
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