There are a lot of perks that come with playing for the Los Angeles Lakers: the Southern California sunshine fills most days (current week excepted); the Pacific Ocean is a short drive from the team’s practice facility; and Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington and the rest of the who’s-who crowd of Hollywood fill the Staples Center courtside seats. And then there are the Lakers themselves – from George Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain, from Jerry West to Magic Johnson, from Kareem to Shaq, the franchise has long ranked among the most storied in all of sports.
Kobe Bryant(notes) knows this. He also knows he now plays alongside a power forward who ranks among the league’s best, a 22-year-old center with the potential to become one of the game’s top big men, a bruising stopper who relieves some of the nightly defensive duties from his own shoulders and another long, versatile forward who can be a matchup terror for opponents. His coach has won more NBA titles than any coach ever.
So ask Kobe to compare his situation to that of LeBron James(notes) or Dwyane Wade(notes) or any other NBA star, and he’ll simply grin as if you’ve discovered his personal little secret. Yes, these days, even in spite of his numerous injuries, in spite of the Lakers’ inconsistency, Kobe has it good.
“I’m set up to have a good run here,” Bryant said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I went through seven years of hell. Management decided that it was time to spend the money to bring in the players here.”
Bryant’s point is clear: A little more than two years ago, he was ready to move on. After complaining about the team’s lack of talent, Bryant asked the Lakers to trade him. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak instead set about assembling a better roster around his star, culminating with the trade that brought Pau Gasol(notes) to L.A.
The Lakers recently signed Gasol to a three-year extension that will keep him under contract through the 2013-14 season. Ron Artest’s(notes) contract runs the same length, provided he doesn’t opt out a season early, and the deals of Andrew Bynum(notes) and Lamar Odom(notes) can last through 2012-13. The Lakers have a solid core which should contend for championships over the next few years.
The only piece missing is Kobe himself.
Bryant can opt out his contract at the end of the season, and though he announced during the summer his intention to sign an extension with the Lakers, he has yet to do so. Is there a chance he’ll now join LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) in this summer’s heralded free-agent class?
Not likely. Though neither the Lakers or Bryant or his agent, Rob Pelinka, would comment on negotiations, all indications are Kobe could have his extension signed by the All-Star break, provided a few issues are resolved.
Bryant knows no other franchise could give him the type of supporting cast he has in L.A. The biggest question going forward is whether Phil Jackson will return after this season to continue coaching them.
“It set us up nicely,” Bryant said. “Everyone is pretty much locked in. Now, it’s a matter of just staying focused and staying the course.”
The Lakers have weathered a few bumps of late, not to mention the various finger and elbow injuries Bryant has suffered, which have affected his shot. But regardless of whether they win or lose Monday’s NBA Finals reunion with the Orlando Magic, the Lakers will still reach the midpoint of their schedule with the league’s best record. If they can keep their core players healthy – and, so far, that’s been a tenuous if – then another title seems well within their grasp.
While it’s uncertain what James, Wade, Bosh – and possibly Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) and Dirk Nowitzki(notes) – will do this upcoming summer in free agency, the Lakers still figure to be sitting pretty next season. It’s not much of a stretch to envision them winning another couple titles by the middle of the decade to match the Boston Celtics’ record 17.
“We do feel like the team can compete for a championship for the foreseeable future,” Kupchak said. “There is no guarantee that we get to the Finals. You [also] need … luck and health. But we’re hoping with this group that we can contend for the Finals.”
The next step is getting Bryant’s signature on a contract extension.
“It sends a positive [message] for him to re-sign with the team and continue to build on the group that we have,” Gasol said. “The window is pretty big. We have to make sure we take advantage of it. The organization is doing what it needs to keep the main pieces together, so we have a chance to win championships for a few years. How many years remains to be seen, but we’ve given ourselves a chance.”
Said Odom: “Kobe sets his goals really high. Hopefully, he has the confidence in us and his teammates around him to achieve those goals.”
With four NBA titles in hand, Bryant is now one away from tying Magic. And if he passes Magic? He could stake a claim to being the greatest Laker of all time.
“His legacy will always be there no matter what happens,” Shaquille O’Neal(notes) said. “If I was [naming] the top 10 Lakers, he’s up there. He’s probably the most exciting Laker, probably next to Magic.”
Said Bryant: “Just to be mentioned in the same breath … you’re talking about the greatest Lakers that ever played. I’m happy with that. … But it would be nice to have as many rings as Magic though.”
Bryant is focused on the here and now, but he also can see far enough into the future to know he has a good thing going.
Laker for life?
It has a nice ring to it.