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?