HANG TIME WEST – The Lakers revealed Monday they committed a reported $48.5 million over two years to a 35-year-old who was in physical decline even before a serious injury, who said last season he was leaning toward retiring after 2013-14 and who has yet to play this season to deliver a progress report in the return from a torn Achilles’ tendon.
“This is a very happy day for Lakers fans and for the Lakers organization,” began a statement from general manager Mitch Kupchak.
And it is. That’s swallow-hard money under the circumstances even for a franchise surfing waves of cash from its local cable TV deal, but there is no other way for Kobe Bryant to go out, whenever it happens, other than as a Laker. He wanted to be there rather than window shop as a free agent in 2014, they wanted him there. Medical uncertainties and all, he remains extraordinarily popular with L.A. fans, and so it was only a matter of time before the sides signed an extension. The only question was how long and how much.
When it turned out to be two seasons and a reported $48.5 million, it was a pretty good day for the rest of the league, too. Bryant off the free-agent market is not a big deal since he was never leaving anyway. Watching L.A.’s salary cap take on two seasons when the Lakers may (understandably) have preferred to wait until after 2013-14 to see how Kobe does in his yet-to-begin comeback is a win for opponents. So, too, is him signing at a reported $23.5 million and $25 million per season, a pay cut from what he makes now and could have demanded yet hardly a serious pay cut, is also a win for opponents.
Plus there is the intangible of Bryant signing on through 2015-16 – this season and the two under the extension – months before he will try to recruit superstar free agents to Los Angeles. He can tell someone the Lakers will be their team, that he, Kobe, will take a step back, but it’s hard to imagine anyone really believing it. It was probably a coin toss they would have in the first place, knowing his mentality, but Monday made it official: The Alpha Dog isn’t going anywhere for a long time, health willing, and therefore neither is his personality.
That’s a good thing for the Lakers past and present, because the demanding attitude has been integral in championships and the current determination to fight through tough times. But it doesn’t make other superstars feel entirely welcome if they are looking to jump somewhere with the guarantee of having the biggest spotlight.
(Bryant made the same public promise a season ago to turn the Lakers over to Dwight Howard. Whether Howard ever believed him is not known – there were so many problems in the relationship between team and player that Howard could have believed Bryant and still been plotting his escape all along.)
The Lakers will still have the lure of Los Angeles and serious spending power in the next free-agent gluttony – capologist Larry Coon has his typically excellent breakdown — but July 2014 will be about more than money and location. A lot of superstars want to know they will be The Man.
That all of this is without knowing what kind of shape Bryant will be increases the complications. Giving his career a 10-count last April, when the Achilles’ went snap, was always a mistake. But all that is actually known about his health is that he has been practicing with the Lakers and is scheduled to be with them when a three-game trip opens Tuesday in Washington. Coach Mike D’Antoni has ruled Bryant out against the Wizards, and that’s where the definitive statements end. Maybe he’ll play Wednesday at Brooklyn or Friday at Detroit. Or maybe not.
Management is clearly confident Bryant will return at the same level of his personally successful 2012-13 or needs Kobe’s presence in place for marketing purposes the next two-plus seasons when almost everything around them is an unknown. Either way, they had their happy day on Monday.
“We’ve said all along that our priority and hope was to have Kobe finish his career as a Laker, and this should ensure that that happens,” Kupchak’s statement continued. “To play 20 years in the NBA, and to do so with the same team, is unprecedented, and quite an accomplishment. Most importantly however, it assures us that one of the best players in the world will remain a Laker, bringing us excellent play and excitement for years to come.”