Frank Hughes
Tuesday April 27th, 2010

If one thing is clear after Oklahoma City's last two wins over the defending champion Lakers it's that the Thunder are the team of the future.

With age, speed and obvious chemistry on their side, the upstart team has handled the older and, supposedly, wiser Lakers. And so it's worth pondering: What the heck were the Lakers thinking when they gave Kobe Bryant a three-year, $83.5 million extension, thus locking him in for the next four years and $108.3 million?

This is not to disparage Bryant in any way. He clearly remains the second-best player in the NBA, behind only LeBron James, able to carry his team to the NBA Finals on the sheer strength of his will to win.

I have heard the stories from athletes who have been in the practice gym with him, seen him arrive before they do and leave after they have departed. I know the work ethic, the tenacity, the drive. I realize the competitive fire. I understand what he means to his team, his city, the NBA. I would not flinch for one moment if Bryant were to return the defending champions to the Finals despite their rather lackluster performances against the Thunder these past few games. He is that good, that talented, that determined -- and he did it last year after the Lakers struggled in the first round.

But 1,000-plus games have taken their toll. It's not just the fractured finger or the sore knee that stand out as signals of distress, though those injuries to Bryant, seemingly ignored for so long, are obvious enough that you can't dismiss them outright. It's that at 31, after 14 seasons in the league, five trips to the Finals and more summer games in international play, Bryant is worn down, no longer able to consistently dominate on the highest levels the way he once was, the way James does now.

Yes, you say, Bryant's reluctance to shoot in Game 4 against the Thunder may have been more psychological than physical, Bryant attempting via one of his occasional emotional snits to prove a point to the increasingly critical Phil Jackson, who as his coach dared question Bryant's decision-making regarding shot-taking in the postseason.

This perfectly sets up Bryant to be a gallant figure in Game 5 in Los Angeles -- one of the very things that Jackson in his tell-all book criticized Bryant of doing during his high school years outside Philadelphia, setting himself up to be the valiant hero against overwhelming odds.

But I instead would argue that Bryant's reticence to shoot in Game 4 is a part of a larger pattern of basketball players as they realize the unsavory experience of getting older. When players age in this league, it's not as if they all of a sudden can no longer play the way they once played. The reality is that they just can't play the way they once played for as many games as they previously could.

This year, of the 73 games in which Bryant played (the fewest number of games he has played in five years), about 1/3 of those could be considered poor performances, where his scoring either was down or his shooting percentage so poor that it offset his production. He also had eight games of at least 40 points, including two 44-point outbursts.

By comparison, in 2005-06, the season Bryant scored 81 points and I voted for him as MVP, he had about 15 poor games, with 27 games of at least 40 points, including a 62-pointer, two 51s, two 50s and, of course, the 81-pointer.

In 2009-10, Bryant's field goal attempts were up, his shooting percentages were down, his free throw attempts were down and his turnovers were increased. In these playoffs, his shooting percentage is significantly decreased and his scoring production is off by nearly six points a game from last season. Derek Fisher joked earlier this year about the way Bryant now shows up earlier and earlier to games to get ready to play.

"He does so much for us, it takes a lot out of him," Fisher told "So he has to come to the games earlier so that he can get his workouts in and get wrapped up for 7:30. But see that's also what happens when you get a little bit older. That's the part he won't necessarily give in to. That's the part he's not yet ready to admit. Got to get your body going a little bit earlier."

So why would a team with a history of sound decision-making financially lock itself into a player who's heading into his 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th seasons. Has any wing player in the history of the game enjoyed the highest levels of success with that much mileage on their odometers? None come to mind.

Yet, at a time that his game is in obvious decline because of age and mileage, the Lakers are going to be paying Bryant salaries of $24.8 million, $25.24 million, $27.89 million and then -- gulp! -- $30.45 million.

Worse, the Lakers have not only cemented their roster with excessive dollars going to Bryant, but they are committed to Pau Gasol and Ron Artest for the next four years for a combined total of $103 million; Luke Walton, who is signed for the next three years and $17 million; and Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, who are signed for the next two years, with a team option for a third year.

What happens if the Lakers don't advance to The Finals this year? What happens if they don't even get out of the first round? They are financially handcuffed to make many moves that will enable them to reconfigure their roster, and that gets only more difficult as the salaries expand over the life of the contracts.

Even if they were able to make some deals to restructure their roster, Bryant is not the type of player to play second-fiddle to anyone. The thing that makes him such a fantastic talent is that his confidence level is so high that he believes he can accomplish anything in the face of overwhelming odds. But it is that same hubris that will prevent him from becoming Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan, just as Jordan was unable to play that role during his years in Washington, when he clearly was no longer the player he once was.

Here is the kicker: If a team like Houston does not like Tracy McGrady, who made $23 million this year, it can trade him in the final year of his contract to a team seeking cap relief because in reality he has no allegiance to the Rockets and they have no loyalty toward him. But trading Bryant at any point during the life of his contract is tantamount to treason. It would be like trading Magic Johnson rather than giving him a five percent stake in the team for what he provided for Jerry Buss over the course of his career.

Bryant is no salary cap relief. He is right there with Jerry West and Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a touchstone to the franchise's history, somebody whom it trots out 30 years from now to honor in a half-time ceremony.

And so where does this leave the Lakers as they stare at a potentially forlorn future of their own making? Where does this put Bryant, whose baseline jumper blocked by willowy youngster Kevin Durant may have been the first warning shot of a battle against the inevitable.

Only time will tell. But time usually wins.

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