Give and Go: Sizing up Kobe Bryant's new extension with the Lakers
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Sizing up all aspects of Kobe Bryant's new two-year contract extension with the Lakers.
1. Who won the negotiation when it comes to the terms (two years, $48.5 million)?
Ben Golliver: Kobe Bryant by a mile. Lakers executive Jim Buss looks like a hapless defender who can only watch as Bryant knocks down the game-winning turnaround jumper in his face. Remember, Bryant had no desire to go anywhere else, making this a straightforward one-party negotiation. Who rushes to pay a rehabbing 35-year-old the highest salary in the league without any pressure from outside bidders? That's a rhetorical question, but the answer is an executive who didn't have a functional back-up plan in place to deal with Dwight Howard's departure and who wasn't prepared to envision a nuclear scenario where Bryant decided to leave too.
Striking early was a brilliant play by Bryant's side, as it's unlikely his play this season (no matter how amazing) would be able to outpace the terms of this deal. He might have sacrificed slightly relative to his current contract, but the terms here are well above market for a player his age. For comparison's sake, the Spurs are paying a 37-year-old Tim Duncan $10.3 million this season. Yes, Bryant is worth far more to the Lakers off the court than Duncan is to the Spurs, but most of that value comes from Bryant's ability to compete for and win NBA championships.
By making such a vast commitment, the Lakers will be hard-pressed to assemble a roster that's capable of contending. The timing and size of this deal makes it look far more like "We couldn't imagine life without Kobe" rather than "Keeping Kobe is the centerpiece of our title vision." Overpaying to watch Bryant play out his final seasons isn't a mistake by the Lakers -- it will still be great entertainment and a profitable enterprise, of course -- but it just can't be viewed as a victory unless he is playing meaningful basketball in May and June.
Rob Mahoney: Bryant, unequivocally. Kobe carried through on his intention to strive for every dollar possible on his next deal, and as a result will remain the NBA's highest-paid player through the life of this deal. He also signed for the longest term possible due to the Over-36 Rule, as outlined by Larry Coon. It's hard to see that as anything but a clear win for Bryant, as he'll draw significantly more than most every other aging star in the league and likely gets to finish his career as a member of the Lakers. It's profit wrapped in a shroud of loyalty, which plays as well in Los Angeles as it does in his bank account.
On the other side of the table, it's a bit curious that the Lakers would consent to such a deal. They'll benefit from the gravitational draw that a star like Bryant provides, and with that secure their ability to sell out Staples Center and move merchandise. But this is an incredible amount of money to commit to a 35-year-old star still recovering from a career-altering injury, not to mention a considerable investment for a team badly in need of an overhaul. Signing Bryant to this extension doesn't preclude the Lakers from making use of their still ample cap space, though it's a millstone at the center of a roster that should probably be going through a more deliberate rebuild.
In avoiding that, the Lakers have set themselves up for a two-year diversion of Bryant tributes and semi-competitive play. Their brand now has its caretaker, which is crucial for the Lakers to continue making the kind of financial return they're accustomed to. Yet in basketball terms, it's hard to spin how Bryant making so much money could possibly be helpful to L.A.'s efforts to construct a new title contender.
2. Should the Lakers have waited to see how Bryant looks in game action following his Achilles injury before committing to this extension?
Mahoney: Of course. Even if Bryant truly can make an unprecedented comeback from his Achilles tear, the only way to verify that would be to see him back in game action. Yet rather than wait for even the slightest proof, the Lakers have made a blind bet worth $48.5 million over the next two seasons. As much as I understand the narrative warnings in doubting Bryant's resolve, that's a lot to bank on what an aging star has been doing at half-speed in practice over a week's time. He's done remarkably well in dealing with injury in the past, and I have no doubt that he'll be a useful basketball player over the next few seasons. I just don't think it likely that he'll live up to this kind of contract in terms of his on-court contributions, if only because so few could given the crazy amount of money involved.
Additionally, by extending Bryant rather than re-signing him, the Lakers have also extended the life of Bryant's no-trade clause. As clarified by ESPN.com's Marc Stein, such supplementary terms cannot be altered in the process of contract extension -- thus leaving Bryant as one of the few players in the league with a formal, written no-trade clause. That leaves the Lakers even less maneuverability from here on out; unless Bryant really wants to be elsewhere, his massive salary will clog up L.A.'s cap sheet for the next two seasons.
Golliver: Yes. Living and dying with Bryant has paid off handsomely for the Lakers since his arrival in 1996, and the temptation to continue to pursue that strategy, regardless of the negative implications, appears to have won out here. Getting a deal done early removes a lot of the pressure that was facing Bryant as he returns and it will significantly reduce the short-term scrutiny directed towards the Lakers' front office. That's a priceless development in which both sides benefit. Still, this is a fortune-casting move by the Lakers, and it's a really expensive leap of faith that possesses a lot of potential downside if anything goes wrong. What happens if, God forbid, Bryant suffers any type of injury over the next two years? What happens if, at some point between now and his 38th birthday, he's no longer capable of being the No. 1 guy for an above-average offense? Those are reasonable risks that demand accountings. Those risks look to have been ignored given the total price and the timing. This was the easy way out for the Lakers, and it says a lot about their long-term options that they didn't hesitate to pull the trigger.
There was no ticking clock here and no real concern that Bryant would be able to earn significantly more money than this by playing out of his mind once he returns this season. Why not slow this thing down, assess his early returns and make sure Bryant returns to 100 percent health (or close to it) and top-shelf productivity by the end of the season? Was Bryant really going to turn down this very same deal next summer? Are the Lakers sure they couldn't have negotiated more favorable terms along the way? Are they sure they couldn't have talked Bryant into a more nuanced plan that involved him sacrificing financially for the benefit of the team's free agency plans?
3. Will the Lakers contend for a title between now and the end of the contract (July 2016)?
Golliver: No, I don't see it, unless LeBron James decided to shock the world by heading to L.A. this summer. That franchise-altering development seems increasingly unlikely, if not totally dead in the water after this extension for Bryant. What do the Lakers have to offer James that he doesn't already have with the Heat?
Going forward, L.A.'s roster can't even be described as Swiss cheese. After all, Swiss cheese has holes but there's cheese around those holes. The Lakers are just holes: there's no reliable point guard, no starting-caliber big men under contract, no lockdown wing defender, no proven No. 2 scorer, no rim-protecting interior defender. There's just an injured Steve Nash, Nick Young on a player option and rookie deals. This is ground zero, and Lakers management just tied one of its hands behind its back by forking over roughly 40 percent of the team's salary cap room next season to Bryant. Perhaps the plan is to keep the band together by re-signing Pau Gasol at a steep discount and filling out the rotation by picking-and-choosing from this year's players and free agents who are willing to play for less in L.A. That's just not a title-contending approach.
Mahoney: I find it hard to believe that they could. The Lakers can still afford to squeeze in one more max-salary player alongside Bryant and Steve Nash's remains, but only under the condition that they forfeit Bird rights on ALL of the team's free agents. Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, and Jodie Meeks would undoubtedly be Lakers no more, with Jordan Farmar, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Shawne Williams only re-signable on minimum deals. The roster would be turned over completely, with the appeal of Los Angeles' bright lights obscured by a role in Bryant's shadow.
As Ben noted: Anything is possible if James is involved, though it's tough to even construct a hypothetical argument for why James would pick L.A. over Miami or a handful of other potential suitors.
Mahoney: Eric Bledsoe. If the Lakers are going to indulge their present by re-signing Bryant, they might want to make some moves to help their rebuilding future. Signing Bledsoe would accomplish that, though the Suns loom with the ability to match any formal offer the Lakers would make. That's an understandable deterrent to an all-out pursuit of Bledsoe, though, especially considering how the point guard's terrific start to the season might leave Suns officials even more hopeful for his long-term development.
Other than Bledsoe, though, there aren't all that many intriguing names on the board. Gordon Hayward is another terrific young player in restricted free agency, but has a do-it-all game that makes more sense on a balanced team. Chris Bosh could be a nice complement to Bryant, though the reasoning for why he'd leave a tandem of superstars in Miami to play under Kobe in L.A. is fuzzy at best.
Ultimately, I wouldn't be so opposed to the Lakers re-signing Pau Gasol under the circumstances. Given that the franchise has already committed to jogging behind Kobe as he takes his two-year victory lap, I don't see a reason why they couldn't keep around a helpful player and one of Bryant's closest NBA friends. If you're not going to contend and don't have a great chance to secure a difference-maker in free agency, might as well lean into the inertia.
Golliver: Chris Bosh. The terms of this deal send a clear message to everyone around the league, including free agents: This is going to be Kobe's team. That pecking order tension already cost the Lakers with Dwight Howard, and it's possible that it handicaps their ability to land any of the A-list talents. Of the biggest names available, perhaps Heat forward Chris Bosh, who has been Miami's third wheel, makes the most sense as a Bryant complement.
Regardless of whether Gasol stays, L.A. will need a high-quality big man capable of playing major minutes and contributing offensively, and Bosh fits that bill. His versatility and mid-range game would fit nicely with Bryant and/or Gasol, and he's already shown a willingness to take a backseat to James and Wade in Miami. Making a max-type offer to Bosh would stand L.A.'s biggest play next summer and it would require most, if not all, of their cap space. Is a Bryant/Bosh pairing really going to be a force to be reckoned with in the West? Would the Lakers be able to build a contender from that base during the following year? Probably not. As with James, the biggest question here is why Bosh would prefer L.A. to Miami or his other possible options.
5. Will this be Bryant's final contract?
Golliver: I say no. Both the Lakers and Bryant pitched this extension as the deal that keeps Bryant as a "Laker for life" but he will still only be 37 upon its completion. The idea that he would walk away in 2016 does carry a nice symbolic aura; like NBA commissioner David Stern, who decided to call it quits after exactly 30 years in February, Bryant could theoretically hang it up after 20 seasons, a nice round number. But Bryant has been an All-NBA First Team performer for eight straight seasons and his chief ability -- pure scoring -- hasn't declined noticeably over the last six seasons.
The Achilles injury throws a wrench into everything, of course, but it's hard to imagine a player like Bryant walking away from the game if he's still competing at or near the league's best. Steve Nash, Derek Fisher, Ray Allen, Andre Miller, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Antawn Jamison and Chauncey Billups are all 37 or older and still on NBA rosters. Many of those players are shells of their former selves but they all decided to keep playing anyway. Michael Jordan averaged more than 20 points per game at age 38 and age 39 with the Wizards.
Plus, there's history to consider. The allure of a sixth title to match Jordan will stand as an annual tease for Bryant, as will his ranking on the NBA's all-time scoring charts. Right now, Bryant is in fourth on that list but he should easily move past Jordan for third by the end of the season, at which point he gets to set his sights even higher. Although Bryant stands just 6,770 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 all-time, he will almost certainly need another contract after this one to claim possession of the top spot. If Bryant returns fairly soon, enjoys relatively good health, and is able to average roughly 25 points per game over the next two-plus seasons, he will wind up about 1,000 points short of Abdul-Jabbar when his new extension expires in 2016. Wouldn't that be worth a one-year swan song?
Mahoney: I don't think so. That makes the question of whether he'll ultimately retire a Laker all the more interesting, as Bryant would hypothetically have to agree to terms on another contract with a Lakers team that -- in 2016 -- may finally be ready to move on. Either way, it's hard to imagine Bryant hanging it up in general, particularly as he closes in on the aforementioned milestones. Kobe isn't just a student of the game, after all, but a historian. Given that, I think it's safe to say that such individual records likely mean something to him, if only as further affirmation of an already outstanding career. Along with that, other factors are in place to more or less ensure that Bryant can stick around as long as he's willing. He takes incredibly good care of his body, which could help with injury prevention and general durability. He's also a popular draw that could interest another team down the line, provided that the Lakers opt to go a different direction in 2016. On top of it all, Bryant is just the kind of hyper-driven, basketball-obsessed star that would believe in his ability to contribute at any age, particularly after seeing Jordan do the same. A lot could change over the next two seasons, but I doubt they're the last we'll see of Kobe on an NBA court.