Can the Lakers improve with Kobe Bryant making $30 million?

With the Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs in the second round for the second consecutive season, many fans and analysts have considered how to fix the team's problems given their complicated financial situation. Most people have suggested that they should trade very talented but often marginalized big man Pau Gasol for new players, but even that deal wouldn't give them many options. The fact of the matter is that their cap situation is just not very palatable over the next few seasons.

Due to those issues, some think the franchise should take more drastic measures. Kobe Bryant is set to make more than $58 million over the next two seasons, topping out at $30.4 million in the 2013-14 season — making him the highest-paid player in the league by a wide margin. At that time, Kobe will be 35 years old. And while he's still a superstar, it's hard to imagine any perimeter player that age being worth that kind of money under a restrictive collective bargaining agreement.

So, as difficult as it is to imagine the Lakers without Bryant, Beckley Mason of TrueHoop writes that it might be in their best interest to part ways with Bryant:

Whether or not they knew league-wide austerity measures were in the offing in 2010, when they gave Bryant his last big extension, there's no debate that, in basketball terms, the Lakers drastically overvalued their star wing. He is now a volume scorer who is still an excellent player, but the fact is that players better than him -- like Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul -- are paid way less. Even supposing that, despite his age, Bryant's game somehow remains at its current level, the market price for a superstar has fallen precipitously since his last contract.

By the time Kobe's current contract nears expiration, it will be one of the worst in the NBA -- not because he will have deteriorated beyond recognition, but because the outrageous sum will have such a limiting effect on the Lakers' options. [...]

Is he worth destroying the most formidable frontline in the NBA?

Because, as everyone seems to tacitly acknowledge, that's how much Kobe Bryant costs.

There's a certain logic to this proposal, which was also floated by TrueHoop supreme leader Henry Abbott last August. Kobe will make a pretty ridiculous amount of money relative to the NBA salary cap, and even the best players in league history get worse as they become older. While he might have earned that salary based just on what he's done in the past, it does in fact limit whom the Lakers can pursue and whom they can keep on the roster.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it's logical only in a very narrow on-court sense. Kobe won't be worth $30 million, but his importance to the Lakers as a public figure and cultural touchstone is incalculable after 16 seasons in uniform. He's the most popular man in Los Angeles, synonymous with the franchise, and the driving force behind everything they do on the court. The roles of everyone involved in the franchise are in some way predicated on Bryant's involvement. So while ditching Kobe might help the team rebuild for the future, the public relations hit would be devastating to the franchise and likely inspire a fan revolt. That's to say nothing of the fact that amnestying the most popular athlete in Los Angeles since Magic Johnson might not convince other superstars that this is the place for them.

It's tempting to think that salary cap considerations and a team's on-court situation should determine all decisions, but the emotional effect of cutting ties with Kobe wouldn't just make a bunch of people sad — it would also hurt the Lakers' reputation and have deleterious effects on their ability to compete. It's very easy to argue that no player should have that sort of importance in a franchise, especially if he eats up so much of their payroll. But the Lakers devoted themselves to Kobe years ago, and it's long past the time when it would've been possible to say goodbye. For better or worse, they're stuck together until retirement do them part.

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