Kobe Bryant averaged 27.3 points and 6 assists last season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images Sport)
One day after agreeing to a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension that will maintain his status as the league's highest-paid player, Kobe Bryant took to Twitter Tuesday to defend himself, the Lakers and the agreement.
In a series of messages, the 15-time All-Star pushed back against various criticisms of the contract from fans and media members. Those criticisms included: that Bryant should have sacrificed more to help the Lakers build a better roster, that the size of his contract would drastically alter L.A.'s cap flexibility next summer, and that Lakers management shouldn't have given out such a large deal before Bryant returned from a season-ending Achilles injury.
"The cap rules players have to be 'selfless' on to 'help' BILLIONAIRE owners [are] the same cap rules the owners LOCKED US out to put in," Bryant wrote. "#Think."
He continued: "Don't just learn [your] sport. Learn the sports industry #futureathletes ... [By the way], Lakers have max cap space and then some."
Bryant concluded by referring to GM Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family ownership group as "sharp."
Those messages were in line with statements made during a press conference Tuesday which were reported by the Los Angeles Times.
"It makes me want to run through a wall for them," he said Tuesday. "Kind of just adds more fuel to the fire. Prove to everybody that [the Lakers] are right and everybody else is wrong."
Bryant thought the Lakers could "absolutely" still put together a championship team despite his extension.
"I think the fans are, God bless them, they're fans and they have good intentions and have a good spirit about it, but I don't think they understand the cap. ... I think we'll be all right," he said.
Then, Bryant went even further in an interview with Yahoo! Sports.
"Most of us have aspirations for being businessmen when our playing careers are over," Bryant told Yahoo Sports in a corridor of the Verizon Center. "But that starts now. You have to be able to wear both hats. You can't sit up there and say, 'Well, I'm going to take substantially less because there's public pressure, because all of a sudden, if you don't take less, you don't give a crap about winning. That's total bull----."
Meanwhile, Lakers VP Jim Buss defended the deal in comments to ESPNLA.com.
"We made him the highest-paid player in the NBA because we felt like it was the right thing to do. This wasn't about what somebody else would pay him or outbidding anyone for him. This was to continue his legacy [with the Lakers], our legacy of loyalty to our iconic players."
"He doesn't have to prove to us one thing," Buss said. "He's proven everything to us over the last 17 years. We've seen what he's done with broken fingers and torn ligaments. There's no stopping the guy. We have 100 percent faith in him."
There's a lot going on here, so let's unpack this point by point.
Part of being a "Laker for life" is proving that loyalty by standing up for the organization when it takes criticism. In this case, Bryant should be commended for backing his bosses. It's not always clear whether Bryant is the face of the Lakers or whether the Lakers are merely the body attached to him, but he has everything to gain and nothing to lose by throwing his considerable influence behind the organization's move, even if The Point Forward concluded that Bryant clearly won the negotiation. In fact, a good negotiator always makes sure everyone is happy when a deal has been consummated, and Bryant succeeded on that count to be sure. To show such dedication could only be seen as a positive from the Lakers' perspective.
His point about the salary cap system -- which essentially boils down to "don't hate the player, hate the game" -- is also well-taken, even if he was reportedly one of the loudest voices urging the players to settle for their current deal rather than pressing on for more favorable terms. Yes, Bryant has surely earned the Lakers far more than they've been legally allowed to pay him over the years. Yes, he would have commanded far more in salary if there were no salary cap or limit on maximum contracts. Yes, being the "highest-salaried player" is peanuts compared to the Lakers, who have been valued at more than $1 billion. Bryant shouldn't be faulted for the size of his contract, or the rules governing L.A.'s next moves, and he is correct to push back against the personal attacks against his character.
Agreeing to a deal that will push his career earnings well over $300 million does not make him "greedy" or "selfish" or anything else in that vein. His lifetime of achievement and immense global popularity helped set that threshold, and his positive relationship with his employers played a role in reducing the back-and-forth tension that might have popped up in a longer, tougher negotiation. Any blame for the size of a contract falls on the Lakers for two reasons: they cut the checks, and they call the roster-building shots. L.A. could have waited to make this deal and they didn't. L.A. could have tried to approach Bryant by selling him hard on an alternate plan (taking a heavily-subsidized salary to help facilitate the arrival of top-shelf free-agent sidekicks next summer, for example) and they didn't. Bryant bears no responsibility for the Lakers' approach.
From there, though, Bryant walks out on shakier ice.
As noted by The Point Forward on Monday, the Lakers will find it extremely difficult to construct a roster capable of championship contention with Bryant's salary eating up such a large portion of their cap. Bryant can be forgiven if his mind fixates first on the 2009 and 2010 championship teams, but by July there will almost certainly have been four straight years worth of Lakers teams that bowed out in the second round of the playoffs or earlier. Bryant doesn't need to publicly acknowledge these facts, especially right now, but he also can't expect people to treat his comments about the max cap space and the championship contention talk as anything more than fairly empty talking points.
Finally, the comments about the fans not understanding the salary cap are unusually tone-deaf for such a media-savvy and experienced superstar. Die-hard fans understand their team's cap situation inside and out these days -- and have for years now -- and even casual fans can understand how large contracts have put teams like the Knicks and Nets behind the eight ball this season. Lakers fans, in particular, have watched as their team used every trick in the book to build a team around Bryant over the last few years despite heavy luxury taxes, to no avail. Those same Lakers fans see the Thunder, Rockets, Warriors, Spurs and Clippers, five Western Conference teams that have star talent, depth and fairly clean salary situations, and they rightfully wonder whether the Lakers are simply stuck on the outside looking in. Bryant's approach -- which amounts to asking for blind trust -- is hard for people to swallow with L.A. sitting in 12th in the standings after barely sneaking into the 2013 playoffs and failing to re-sign Dwight Howard last summer.