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Kobe Bryant’s most recent, and perhaps final, contract extension will remain one of the more polarizing NBA topics to chew over for a long time. Just about everyone outside of the Bryant and Buss family can agree that, in terms of pure basketball production, Kobe Bryant isn’t giving the Lakers $48.5 million worth of contributions both this year and next. Just about everyone can agree that the Lakers can more than afford the contract, and that this is their (well, now it’s Kobe’s) money and that they’re allowed to do whatever they want with it, as long as it is within NBA rules.
What we can’t agree on is whether or not they should have done that with $48.5 million, and if Kobe Bryant (as he chases down another title before retirement) should have taken it. Many think Kobe should have taken less in order to encourage free agents to come to the Lakers, but just as many will point out that the Lakers had plenty of free agent money to spend last summer, and will have even more this summer. Kobe’s role in either luring in or chasing away potential superstar teammates is also up for just as much conjecture.
What we can all agree on is the fact that both Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have taken less money over the last few offseasons in order to help their teams stay active and flexible on the free agent market. Dirk signed a three-year, $25 million deal last summer, while Tim signed a three-year, $30 million deal in 2012 that remains one of the NBA’s great bargains even if Duncan is playing fewer than 30 minutes a night.
With the Lakers and Spurs set to face off on Friday, does Kobe have any regrets about making nearly as much as Duncan’s entire three-year contract in just the 2015-16 season alone?
Yeah, right. From Sam Amick at USA Today:
"It's a different market, man," Bryant said. "San Antonio's not doing $2 billion TV deals – or $5 billion – so it's a different market. Even with my deal, you have a significant amount of cap space available. But I think the advantage that they've had, and that (Duncan) has had and been very fortunate with, is they've had the same guys since he's been there. That really helps.
"You've got Manu there. You've got Tony there. Those guys have been through the ups and downs and they have that familiarity, and then they build with pieces around that. The same coach. The same system. Here, I've had to go through so many different coaches, so many different systems, it's crazy. But I love watching (Duncan). What they've been able to do is something else."
Kobe’s been well-compensated and he does have plenty of championship memories to soothe himself with, so we’re tempted to not bust out the sad violin, but it has been a real hoop crime of the highest order to see how the Lakers have fallen with Kobe still around.
The team should have competed better in the 2011 playoffs, it shouldn’t have ever hired Mike Brown, the genius-at-the-time moves to acquire Dwight Howard and Steve Nash didn’t pan out, they shouldn’t have hired Mike D’Antoni, Kobe destroyed his Achilles in 2013 and then his overcompensating other leg last season, they shouldn’t have hired Byron Scott, Carlos Boozer shouldn’t be trusted anywhere near a pick and roll defensively, and the Lakers are 1-7 and playing terrible basketball.
This isn’t a defense of Kobe Bryant’s contract, but Manu Ginobili was drafted by the Spurs in 1999, and he’s been with the team since 2002. Tony Parker showed up the year before that, and Tiago Splitter was drafted in 2007. Tim Duncan’s contract extension (and the resulting small’ish extensions Ginobili and Parker took on afterward) had absolutely nothing to do with the core that could send the Spurs back to the Finals for the third straight year this June. It had nothing to do with the Spurs dealing for Kawhi Leonard, or finding Boris Diaw and Patty Mills on the waiver wire.
Tim Duncan’s contract extension has helped keep the Spurs away from the luxury tax, which is important, but absolutely none of San Antonio’s championship-saving moves stemmed from Tim Duncan taking less money.
So, Kobe Bryant has that going for him. At least he’s got one thing on his side.
Kobe Bryant won’t be worth the money he’ll make in basketball terms from 2014 through 2016, but he was probably worth more than the maximum contracts he worked on during his prime, and this is a bit of a payback. Toss in the unbelievable amounts of money the Lakers make on their television deal, and the payback seems just. Taking a Dirk or Duncan-sized pay cut would have added to Los Angeles’ cap space last summer and next year, but there is a genuine question as to why any boffo free agent would want to play alongside Kobe even with that extra space in hand. Not just because he’s leading the league in shot attempts, but because the Laker cupboard is so bare.
The Spurs are in the position they’re in because of a combination of 18 years’ worth of smart hires, great scouting, and good luck. The Lakers have been bereft of all three since winning a title in 2010. That difference is as wide as the chasm that exists between Los Angeles’ market draw, and San Antonio’s.
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