Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Mixed Reactions to Kobe Bryant's $48.5 Million Extension (11.25.13)

I wrote about 90% of it.

It was a difficult piece to write. It was lengthy. It had to explain too much.

It simply, was too much work, required far too much nuance.

And I nearly got to the point of hitting "publish." But as I wound down to the end, I began to reconsider some things. I began to wonder, "Maybe this isn't so bad."

As I recounted my years of perspective regarding Kobe Bryant, I realized, "This is the reality of the situation."

I tried to write a piece that would explain my support of all things Bryant despite his complex character. It started in the beginning and wound up to the present. It dealt with his early showboating, his labels of "selfish," and "uncoachable," his alpha-feud with Shaquille O'Neal, his struggle to play "Robin" although he had the talent to play "Batman," his devalued championships as a "1B," his struggles as "The Man," his renaissance as a champion and a "mature" leader, his recent early postseason exits, and finally, his devastating achilles injury.

I'll get to all of those topics one day with an exhaustive piece, but this wasn't the forum to examine Bryant's career in the context of questioning his worth.

I was going to defend many of Bryant's polarizing topics, and then flip the switch and question Bryant's decision to sign a two-year, $48.5 million extension, something that seems to cripple the Lakers chances of winning a championship anytime soon. But as I wound down the piece, I just knew that questioning Bryant wasn't the answer. My cynicism regarding Bryant's championship aspirations quickly dissipated.

Instead, I wondered, "What's the plan? What is management's plan?"

I am interested to know the pitch management gave to Bryant regarding the two year forecast that must have been presented to him. Bryant is an intelligent, savvy individual, one that sees through bs.

Regardless of what the pitch was, Bryant signed off on it. Could he be a money hungry former great looking for one last paycheck? Sure, I guess that is within the realm of possibility.

However, this is Kobe Bryant we are talking about.

This is a five time champion.

This is someone who has stated, "It's win a championship or everything is a complete failure."

This is a man after number six, after Michael Jordan, after the ability to flash rings on each hand.

So what's the issue?

Well, it appears that Bryant's large hold on the Lakers salary cap hinders the organization's ability to win another championship before Bryant's contract expires in 2016.

Unable to sign two max-player free agents in the coming summers of 2014 and 2015, the Lakers will be unable to give Bryant a "super-team." Say goodbye to the pipe dream of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony signing with the Lakers this summer. And depending upon what the Lakers do this coming summer, forget about landing Kevin Love in free agency in the summer of 2015.

Even worse, Bryant's extension likely spells the end of Pau Gasol as a Laker. Gasol could take a massive discount to stay with the team while keeping the cap open, but I doubt that is a realistic option given Gasol's talent and his generally unappreciated tenure with the organization. It also signals the end of Steve Nash. Nash will likely be waived this summer with a stretch provision that will clear $10 million in cap room, giving the Lakers $28.5 million in cap space this coming summer.

Essentially, it will be Bryant, and some other big name, and a collection of fringe talents. Or it will be Bryant, Gasol, some other big name, and a collection of fringe talents. Or it could disastrously just be Bryant, but I have serious doubts about that happening. Either way, it seems like Bryant isn't all that interested in piecing together a super-team.

All of this leads to the question of "Why didn't Bryant take a huge pay cut in order to free cap space for future free agents?"

Well, first let's get the math out of the way. Eligible to receive up to a 5% increase in salary under the current collective bargaining agreement, Bryant could have negotiated for up to $32 million for his 2015 salary and gone with an even bigger extension. So, technically, he did take a substantial pay cut with his $23.5 million and $25 million earnings for 2015 and 2016. In fact, he took $7 million less than what he is earning this season, and $8.5 million less than what he could have demanded for the 2015 season. Furthermore, the late Dr. Jerry Buss once revealed that he believed Bryant was worth $60 to $70 million a year to the Lakers, so let's not get caught up in the "worth" argument.

We cannot argue if Bryant took a pay cut or not, or if he is worth the contract, however, many question, "Was it enough of a pay cut?"

That is the true question, and it points to the new framework of the NBA. LeBron James upended the system of team building as he teamed up with Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade in Miami as a member of the Heat. Each agreed to take less than their market value, and in turn, they won championships due to their elite talent. Many legends slammed James for his inability to get the job done on his own account, but after two straight championships, it is clear that the super-team build is a successful model.

While the Brooklyn Nets may refute that idea with their atrocious play this season, as could the Lakers from last season, it makes sense that having three, and even four, exceptional talents would increase the chances of winning a championship.

However, such a model does not seem to attract Bryant's attention. Instead, he understands that the Lakers can pair him with one elite talent, and then the rest will have to be figured out. He saw the plan before signing the extension. He understands that there are more moves to be made.

And that's what is really interesting. Bryant is a very intelligent being. He understands his basketball mortality, and he knows that 2016 will likely be the last year he ever plays professional basketball. He knows he has this season, the next, and the one after that, and then his playing days are all but over. By the time it's all done, it will have been 20 regular seasons, countless postseason minutes, and he'll be 37. The window for a championship, for matching Mike, is coming to a close.

So now it is time for Bryant get back on the court and give his all in that pursuit. He undoubtedly will give his all, but the question remains to be seen if that will be enough.

What makes Bryant so special is what makes a countless majority question his extension. He believes in himself, and he believes that he will get a ring with whoever his next running mate is, especially if they buy in to his championship wisdom. He believes that the organization may have found some deep gems this season with young, cheap talents such as Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill. He believes that the organization can field a superstar such as Carmelo Anthony this summer. He believes that he can lead any group to the promise land.

Despite such deterrents as age and injury, Bryant has always pushed past limitations, and I fully expect him to do so in the coming years. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me if Bryant plays stellar ball and signs another two year extension following this one. The amount of criticism aimed at Bryant following this deal points to a disbelief in his ability to lead a squad to a championship. I will not question Bryant's ability, and it is clear that the Lakers, and Bryant himself, are not questioning that ability. If Bryant had countered the Lakers offer and asked for less money, I'd be far more worried about the Lakers future than I am at this point.

Simply enough, Bryant is the only superstar currently signed to the Lakers next season, and he has a deal paying him superstar money. He was offered the generous extension, and he signed it. There was no power play. There was no low-balling. There was no public split pitting the star versus the organization. The organization was not held hostage in a public relations nightmare. Things could have turned sour, real sour. Imagine the public standoff, with much of Los Angeles already turned against Jimmy Buss, imagine what it would be like if Jimmy proposed a take it or leave it deal. Imagine Bryant playing in another uniform due to spite, or principle, or whatever, just imagine it.

The Lakers could have asked Bryant to take a Duncanesque deal, somewhere around $12 million a year, but Bryant is not Duncan and the Lakers are not the Spurs. The Lakers have a $3 billion deal with Time Warner Cable, they understand big tickets. Hell, Bryant may have even accepted such a proposal, but the Lakers took a more generous route, and I'm not going to blame Bryant for signing the offer sheet. This was not hard-bargained stuff, this was a show of affection, a reward of loyalty. By the time it's all done, Bryant will surpass John Stockton as the longest tenured NBA player with just one franchise. Such longevity means a lot, and if a championship doesn't come, there will always be the 20 years of greatness to appreciate.

Honestly, Bryant hardly fails to deliver greatness. The man will be worth every penny he is paid. Was this decision arrived upon haphazardly? No. Was every possible option discussed? Likely, yes. The organization treaded lightly, and while some may feel they gave too much, they also showed a great amount of respect, a refreshing turn in today's "on to the next one" utilitarian model.

So here's to believing in Kobe Bryant, and in believing in Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Kupchak has a stellar record, and despite all of the negative press he's received, Buss has had some highlights and made some pretty big power plays  Andrew Bynum was a hidden gem drafted out of high school, the Chris Paul trade came out of nowhere, as did last summer's signings of Nash and Dwight Howard.

In my opinion, the Lakers are signing Carmelo Anthony this summer. Anthony may not be the answer, but he's certainly worthy of teaming up with Bryant in an attempt to find the solution. If not Anthony, trust the organization to give Bryant at least one last chance at a ring. Honestly, they would not have signed him to this extension, and he would not have signed this extension, if they all didn't believe that winning a championship is possible.

Do you really think that being recognized as the "highest paid NBA player" is the distinction Bryant is looking to pad his resume with these last few seasons?

I think six rings is the more accurate answer.

And those of you clamoring he just wants the all-time points record, well then, he would have signed a three year extension, because he certainly isn't going to average over 32 points a game for the next couple seasons.

Kobe Bryant is a man obsessed with winning. The Los Angeles Lakers are an organization that wins. Nothing else matters. You may chuckle at the irony of Bryant's extension in relation to winning, but I certainly won't, and neither did the parties involved.