Kobe Bryant will never be traded.
Never be traded again, we mean, as our grandparents will tell us tale of the Charlotte Hornets dealing a 17-year old Kobester for something called a “Vlade Divac” just hours after he was drafted in the summer of 1996, but Bryant will not be traded again. Not only does he have a no-trade clause that he’d have to waive in any such maneuver, but the Los Angeles Lakers kind of like their arena the way it is. Full of fans and not under constant threat of siege by Laker Nation.
They also kind of like Kobe, and for good reason. He’s been an integral part of five championships, he’s been a proud Laker and compelling television watch, and despite some backhanded free agent visits in 2004 and 2007 trade demands, his relationship with the team’s front office and ownership has been relatively calm. He’ll be well compensated – at $23.5 million this season and $25 million the next – to finish his career as a Laker, even if the team is more or less out of playoff contention in the loaded Western conference.
Still … what if the team attempted to trade Bryant, and what if Kobe complied? It’s August, so we’re allowed to wonder about such things.
Would any team deal for Bryant?
“Nah,” says the NBA. “Nah.”
His confidence is as admirable as it is predictable. And yet on paper the Lakers look an awful lot like a lottery team that is overly reliant on one aging star. There is not much hope on the horizon, either. Seven months after he ruptured his left Achilles tendon—and three weeks before he fractured his left kneecap—Bryant signed a $48.5 million, two-year deal. The contract, widely derided as the worst in the game, makes Bryant nearly impossible to move, even were the Lakers to try. Asked about Kobe’s value on the market, one GM answers definitively: “Zero. Look at that number. Who takes him?”
This is by design, of course. It ensures that Bryant accomplishes something very few pro athletes have: playing an entire career with one team. Bryant’s plan is to retire in two years, though he says he reserves the right to change his mind. Thus one of the game’s greatest players and one of its two fiercest competitors—Michael Jordan being the other—will likely exit the league laboring for an undermanned squad in a stacked conference. It seems wrong. Never the type for farewell tours, Bryant bristles at the idea of parading from arena to arena, receiving parting gifts and teary-eyed salutes. “No, no, no, no, I’m good,” he says, waving his hands. “If you booed me for 18, 19 years, boo me for the 20th. That’s the game, man.”
That’s the borderline psychotic [stuff] that has kept Kobe Bryant going for years. Nobody, outside of Sacramento, Portland, Utah and (rightfully) Denver outright boos Kobe. There are bandwagon Laker freaks in every city, though the numbers on that bandwagon have dimmed a bit since the Lakers’ last championship in 2010 – I wonder which version of Cavalier jersey they bought this summer? If anything, Kobe doesn’t want the free motorcycle or specialized plaque before a road game because he wants to glare at whatever half-baked free agent Mitch Kupchak is able to sign in the summer of 2015 during the pregame huddle.
The idea of a Jordan comparison? The undermanned squad? The undignified entrance? Yeah, it’s all there.
Jordan was playing for a million a year in his final two seasons with Washington, with all of that money going to charity, so the financials don’t exactly line up. What does (sadly) align well is the idea that Bryant and Jordan’s winter years – with all the locker room bluster, in-practice shoutfests, and pump-faking attempts at ending it right – will end in a blaze of mediocrity.
Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers, in something that seemed like the right idea at the time, pushed all of their chips into the table during the summer of 2012 as it dealt draft picks and cap space away for Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Then, in realizing that no real 20-something free agent star was probably going to pair with Kobe (after all, Howard just left millions on the table to play with James freakin’ Harden), the team decided that the next few seasons were going to act as one highly paid farewell tour. Even if Kobe doesn’t want the halftime ceremony, and prefers the boos to anything else.
Los Angeles, if this were 2005, has some assets in place. In the form of Jordan Hill, Steve Nash, and Jeremy Lin, the team has over $21.2 million expiring contracts to work with in trades during this upcoming season. Hill is technically a team option for 2015-16, and as such he’d have to agree to a trade, but why wouldn’t he agree to a deal that would send him to a contending team that could use his services beyond this wasted season? On top of that, while Hill has his faults, if he blossoms in a Mike D’Antoni-less system, he may very well be worth the $9 million (in that team option) he can make in 2015-16.
Lin’s technical (non-salary cap) $15 million payout will be mostly picked up by the Lakers by February, which could make him more attractive. A deal involving Nash would be borderline cruel, but that’s how this business works sometimes. The Lakers could (kinda, maybe) put something together for 2015-16 or beyond.
They probably won’t be able to, though. Expiring contracts aren’t worth nearly as much anymore, and with Kevin Love (wink wink, under the table under the table) likely already sticking with Cleveland beyond 2015, the pickings aren’t great. The Lakers may have received a first-rounder from Houston in the Lin deal, but if certain won/loss record aspects build up against them they may not be able to trade their own first-round pick until 2020. There’s not a lot here.
Outside of Bryant. And nobody wants Kobe, at least at that price.
Kobe Bryant should be fine, in his final two seasons. The leg fracture from last year is a worry, there isn’t much NBA precedent for incurring or returning from that injury, but even if the Achilles tear mixes with age to render him 80 percent of what he was in the spring of 2013 (a reasonable expectation), he’ll still be pretty darn good. His team can’t expect to be, that roster is just too miserable defensively (Nash, Boozer, Kobe, no center, Nick Young) to rely on anything consistent to come to fruition.
No, what the Lakers have signed up for is the Kobe Bryant Farewell Show. With options, of course, in the form of those expiring deals and cap room next summer. By and large, though, this is an entertainment division with a general manager that realized that his back was up against it, paying Kobe money from 2014 through 2016 to augment what he should have made years ago in the NBA’s private and collectively bargained league.
Bryant understands as much, regarding the supposed “maximum” salaries of superstars:
Bryant believes that players like himself and LeBron James are underpaid, compared to what they would be worth on the free market (he told friends he thinks James would be worth roughly $75 million on an open market). With his last contract, he felt it was important to demonstrate to younger players that you should never take less than you’re worth. When I asked if he was taking a stand of sorts, this was his response:
“If you’re talking just from a business perspective, yeah,” Bryant said. “Because the NBA is a obviously a big business and teams generate a lot of revenue, and even more because of the new contracts they have in place since the last lockout.”
Similarly, Bryant bristles at the idea that NBA players should accept less than fair value in order to have a better chance of winning.
“As athletes, especially as public figures, you get the pressure of playing for the love of the game, they always throw that around all the time,” said Bryant. “Of course you play for the love of the game! But do owners buy teams for the love of the game?”
Bryant is correct. The Lakers’ current local television deal is based mostly around the fact that Kobe Bryant will have played for the Los Angeles Lakers between 1996 and 2016. He was never – and even, in his final two relatively “eh, pretty good”-seasons – paid what he has been worth to the Buss family after all other accounts are settled.
With that in place, don’t tell me how you’re all about winning when you decide to take $25 million in 2015-16 just to top Joe Johnson’s salary. Just come clean with things, because we genuinely understand why you would agree to a deal like that.
The NBA is not a completely free and open market, though. It is a collectively bargained private league that limits salaries in an attempt to distribute revenue somewhat equally to teams that may have made terrible mistakes in all realms – whether those realms include personnel hiring, revenue development, or just about endless other factors.
As a result, you have Kobe Bryant – one of the greatest players of all time – not making anywhere near what he’s worth for the duration of his career.
And, as a result, you have Kobe Bryant – one of the greatest players of all time – as an absolute non-starter in any trade discussions.
What a weird league.
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