HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The inner workings of the Los Angeles Lakers just keeps getting zanier. No wonder why they call this place La-La Land.
On Thursday the Orange County Register reported that executive vice president Jim Buss has talked to Kobe Bryant and they have an understanding that Bryant will become a free agent in July to allow the team to address other free-agent needs first before re-signing him to a deal that will end his career in purple and gold.
Except on Friday, ESPNLA.com reported, with quotes direct from Buss’ mouth, that the Lakers will never allow Bryant to reach the treacherous waters of free agency. Contract talks have begun with Bryant’s agent, Buss said, on an extension that will be completed at some point before July 1 when Bryant can become a free agent.
“I want to put an end to any speculation that we would allow Kobe to become a free agent,” Buss told ESPNLA.com. “That’s not going to happen. Kobe is a top priority for us. He’s a Laker legend and always will be. I don’t think we’re done winning championships with him yet.
“[Lakers general manager] Mitch Kupchak and [Bryant’s agent] Rob Pelinka have been talking, but with him being hurt, it has slowed the process some. I don’t know when it’ll get done, but I have faith in Rob and Mitch to work things out.”
Meanwhile, Bryant, 35, continues to rehab from surgery on his left Achilles tendon. There remains no timetable for his return and it’s obvious that he won’t be in uniform to start his 18th season, one in which he is owed $30.5 million in the final year of his deal.
Still, Bryant’s future with the Lakers should be a formality. The Lakers want to make sure he’s a lifer, and Bryant himself has said he fully intends to retire as a Laker. This isn’t 2007 after all.
Whether Bryant signs an extension before the free agency period starts or enters into a new deal after it, the ultimate execution of it should be no different from 2012 when Tim Duncan signed a new deal to stay with San Antonio and Kevin Garnett did the same to remain in Boston. Dirk Nowitzki reached free agency in 2010 with no intention of signing anywhere but Dallas. He is set to become a free agent in July, but all signs indicate that he will do the same as Duncan and Garnett, and take about a 50 percent pay cut to stay put.
We’ll see how much of a pay cut Bryant is willing to take. The Lakers have just three players under contract for the 2014-15 season — Steve Nash, Nick Young and Robert Sacre — and are positioned to make a major splash in free agency.
Bryant is focused on getting back to his old self this season to help a re-tooled team with a very real chance of getting off to a very slow start without him. Perhaps Buss sees this coming and wants Bryant’s signature on paper before his superstar ever has a chance at a change of heart.