Lakers gamble by signing Kobe to two-year extension

November 26, 2013

The Los Angeles Lakers surprised many NBA observers by today announcing the signing of injured superstar guard Kobe Bryant to a two-year contract extension.  Other outlets have reported that the deal is for $48.5 million, making Bryant the NBA's highest-paid player and taking up approximately one-third of the Lakers projected cap room for next year.

One immediate question produced by the signing is, why now?  The second logical follow-up question is, why for that high price tag?

As to question number one, Bryant is coming off a devastating injury and might not be close to the same player he was even months before.  Although few other athletes in history share his obsessive drive, dedication, and focus, the Lakers have yet to see him perform in a single game this year and presumably, are entering into the deal with the blind faith that he will be the same player.

Bryant recently practiced twice last week with the team, so in fairness they likely were able to gauge his athleticism and recovery to a limited degree.  Moreover, Kobe has given max effort to the franchise over the years, so the contract also was a way of showing loyalty to one of the team's storied players.

Nevertheless, wouldn't a wait-and-see-him-in-a-game approach have been the more prudent course of action?

Ultimately, the responsible party for the signing is Lakers executive Jim Buss, who has done little to counter the notion that he is in over his head when it comes to basketball-related matters, and that he holds his current position due to nepotism alone.

Buss just got burned in dealing multiple draft picks for an aging Steve Nash, who could be on the shelf permanently with a nerve problem in his back.  He also was rejected by free agent Dwight Howard, who opted to take less money just to get out of town.

Jim Buss also selected an ineffective coach in Mike Brown, a move only exacerbated later by the rejection of Phil Jackson and the fiasco of the Mike D'Antoni hire.

The reality, however, is that right now the team completely lacks star power.  Although this year's team has been somewhat exciting and surprising thanks to a collection of young and athletic role players, it nevertheless lacks the gate attraction that Bryant generates.  His presence alone brings revenue and sells out Staples Center.

Given that LA is a star town that demands a "name" on the Lakers roster, signing Bryant became a necessity.  So there is an understandable rationale behind the deal.

“This is a very happy day for Lakers fans and for the Lakers organization,” said General Manager Mitch Kupchak. “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. 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.”

At the very least, the signing ensures that the team will have a star in its lineup.  Moreover, it perhaps concedes that the Lakers' brass did not honestly believe that any other max-level free agents would sign with the team in the offseason.  Better to have a bird in hand apparently, then nothing at all.

So signing Kobe before he proves that he is healthy, in and of itself, might not be as large a risk for the Lakers as one might think.

The true issue with this contract relates to that second follow-up question mentioned above.  In other words, the problem lies not so much with the fact that they signed him, but with the actual price.

Depending on how the negotiations occurred, either Buss or Bryant must take massive amounts of blame if the franchise flounders in mediocrity and is unable to attract a premiere free agent in the next two years. Here are two potential negotiating scenarios, with blame being allocated accordingly:

SCENARIO #1: Buss' first offer is for $48.5 million and Kobe immediately accepts's usually reliable Adrian Wojnarowski reported that no true negotiation took place because Kobe simply took the first offer they gave him.

If true, then the Mamba cannot be blamed for Buss' pathetic negotiating skills.

Under these circumstances, Kobe would be taking a multi-million dollar pay cut and would be accepting an offer that evidently, in the minds of his employers, is fair.  As such, there is nothing selfish on Kobe's part in accepting a deal that the Lakers have impetuously rushed to get done, absent some knowledge on his part that he is completely damaged goods.

The only true blame then would lie with Buss and the Lakers for hurrying to get the deal done before Kobe saw game action, and then paying him at a rate that would limit the team to only two total max slots next year, with one of those slots going to Bryant.

Should Bryant become a shadow of his former self, or even a significantly diminished player from last year's top 5 superstar, then the deal is an epic failure because no title-seeking max free agent will want to come to LA knowing that its just him and a lesser Kobe carrying the load.

Instead, Buss should have inquired whether Bryant would take a bigger cut in the hope of forming a "Big Three."

Assuming Kobe would not act like a child and hold a grudge for a lowball offer, then LA simply could have upped their offer to the current figure if he wanted more.  But starting off at that higher rate and impeding their flexibility for next year, must be considered nothing less than another colossal Jim Buss mistake.

SCENARIO #2: Both sides negotiate back-and-forth before compromising at $48.5 million

If the Lakers initially wanted to pay Kobe less, and he rejected their offer and asked for the 48.5 million figure, then Kobe must accept all the blame for any failings on the court.

Bryant, a five-time NBA Champion and two-time gold medalist, has earned numerous accolades over the span of his 17-year career, including being selected as the NBA MVP in 2007-08 and winning the NBA Finals MVP award in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

But despite all that success, if Kobe, coming off a severe injury, indeed refused to take a greater pay cut, then he must justify whether he is worth the contract.

The Lakers structured their roster this year with short term deals in order to create the cap space needed to sign two to three max players.  With Kobe's deal, the Lakers most likely can forget the "Big Three" dream, and hope for only one other max player to sign.

To a degree, his exemplary past service warrants a hefty thank you from the franchise, but the reality is that contracts are not made based on past service, but rather on future performance.

Since Kobe is the highest-paid player in the league next season, he must produce like it.

After all, if he can ask that Howard play hurt and if he can demand that Pau Gasol put on his "big boy pants," then the Mamba should be held to his own cutthroat standards.

Prior to his injury, Kobe was enjoying an efficient, top 5 All-NBA type year. Now, in order to justify taking up so much cap space and hindering the team's ability to sign other talent, he must play at that same level, or else he won't be worth the money -- on the court, at least.

That means deep playoff runs and championship contention.

That means no free pass due to his recent injury.

That means attracting a top free agent and then developing chemistry with that player.  No given for a guy who has repeatedly alienated other stars and admits that he can be tough to play with.

Such expectations are not too lofty for the highest-paid athlete in the sport.

This is not a financial situation similar to what Magic Johnson experienced during the Showtime era.  In that case, Magic was relatively underpaid given the money he generated for the team, and owner Jerry Buss gave him a balloon payment of approximately $14 million that he honored even after Magic retired.

In this case, Kobe has earned fair market value generally throughout his career, so he does not necessarily have to make up for "lost time" such as in Magic's case.

Moreover, this is also not a Tim Duncan or Tom Brady-style hometown, below-market discount.  It certainly is not Karl Malone's bargain-basement $1 million salary to chase a ring in LA.

So if Kobe in fact demanded the $48.5 million, then we know that his talk of a sixth ring was mere lip service.  A classic case of wanting to have his cake and eat it too.

Ultimately, Jim Buss and Kobe are now aligned in this period of Laker history, and these next two offseasons will reveal much to Lakers fans about their beloved star and his boss.

If the Lakers cannot attract any stars, then Buss' failure to inspire organizational confidence to free agents, and Kobe's perception as a selfish teammate, whether right or wrong, are largely to blame.

Then there is the other, more depressing possibility for fans.

The Lakers may actually have free agents pounding down the doors to come to LA, only to have the team lack the cap flexibility to sign them due to Kobe's contract.

If this is the case, then we will know that the cause of the problem was management's actual, rather than perceived, incompetence, or in the alternative, Kobe's stubborn refusal to take a larger pay cut.

No matter who is to blame, in this scenario, the Lakers' championship dreams might be ruined.

By Mike Elliott
Editor for


  1. Finally, someone willing to say what apparently is taboo for most in the media: The Mamba must be held to his own standards! If you're getting paid the most money, you should produce. No excuses.

  2. Mike Elliott's synopsis on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers is excellent, to say the least. His analysis and writing ability indicates that he, Mr. Mike Elliott is an excellent, knowledgeable sports journalist and writer. I know what I am talking about because I am a teacher of journalism.


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