Loyalty and the Kobe Bryant Contract Extension

November 27, 2013

Many in the media, specifically the Los Angeles media, seem to have lauded the new Kobe Bryant contract extension by raising some common myths about the Lakers, Kobe, and the team’s enormous fanbase that requires a response. Let’s get into it.

Myth #1: The Lakers look good to prospective free agents for showing their loyalty to Kobe Bryant

ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne has recently written an article that is a common example of what some in the local media believe.

Shelburne insists that the Lakers decision to sign Kobe Bryant to a 2-year $48.5 million contract extension broadcast a positive message about the organization’s commitment to loyalty. By making the 35-year old Bryant, who has yet to play since suffering a severe season-ending Achilles injury last season, the highest paid player in the NBA for the next two seasons, the Lakers sought to reward Kobe for his past performance and deep ties to the franchise.

Shelburne does not dispute that Bryant’s salary far exceeds his current NBA market value. As she candidly notes, “[I]t’s probably true that no team would've paid Bryant half of what the Lakers are going to pay him the next two years.” But she still argues this a good thing overall.

Considering that extremely disturbing financial truth, on the surface an extreme dose of loyalty seems a reasonable explanation for the Lakers decision. But whether the benefits of such P.R. outweigh the perception of fiscal irresponsibility in the organization is very much in doubt.

Nonetheless, Shelburne likened Kobe’s contract extension to when a young Magic Johnson was given a 25-year, $25 million contract. “It was never about the money,” Shelburne writes. “It was about the statement made to Johnson and every future free agent who considered the Lakers.”

One could point out the myriad of differences between Magic and Kobe’s contracts and the NBA salary caps of the two eras. But brushing that aside, it is fair on some level to compare Magic and Kobe as they are the only two examples of such special “face of the franchise” treatment in the Buss era. Certainly icons like Jerry West, Pat Riley, Kareem, Shaq, or Phil Jackson were never treated that way.

But Magic and Kobe are also truly unique situations for one other reason: they were  Lakers their entire careers, something the free agents the Lakers presumably intend to impress will by definition not be. Indeed, Kobe’s 20-year exclusive Lakers career will be so unique that no free agent can even identify with it.

So why would other franchise free agents now be more encouraged to play for the Lakers, in the next two years or anytime thereafter, knowing that they would never merit the same treatment? Certainly the latest big name, Dwight Howard, didn't appreciate being constantly reminded emphatically that he was not Kobe and never would be in the eyes of the franchise.

Myth #2: The deal rewards Lakers fans faith in the organization

This loyal act by the Lakers, Shelburne asserts, is also a great message to Lakers fans that they will take care of their iconic players.

For the Lakers, it’s apparently about rewarding Kobe. And for Kobe, it’s about…rewarding Kobe. But the fans are also expected to be particularly grateful about this? Perhaps it is assumed that they will feel, like apparently the Lakers do, that seeing Kobe receive more millions is a reward in itself.

Look, let’s be serious. There is no doubt Lakers fans are happy to see their hero stay in LA and get paid. Indeed most have no issue with Kobe making $100 million per year, let alone $24 million. He probably makes the team much more in total business revenue so good for him, they will say.

But what about that other, more pressing concern of the Lakers fans – winning an NBA Championship? If the ultimate goal of winning appears compromised by this contract, do you still think this will be viewed as a feel good story by the fans? Hardly.

Myth #3: Most Lakers fans care primarily about stars and style

Shelbourne’s article also perpetuates one of the great myths by framing the Lakers tradition as being about star players and style.

Sadly, this all-too-common but inaccurate narrative is due in large part to the incomparable precedent set by the 1980’s Showtime Lakers. That team had mega stars (Magic and Kareem), an incredibly exciting style of play (fast break basketball), and were highly successful (5 championships). They changed the Lakers franchise forever and created a new legion of fans for the team and the NBA.

That Lakers dynasty was followed over a decade later by one that still had stars (Shaq and Kobe), but also a relatively boring style of play (the triangle offense).  After they won three championships though, they were also adored by Lakers fans.

A few years later, Jackson returned and the Lakers, now with one less mega star player, won two more championships. The fans loved it.

The common theme was the winning.

To the vast majority of Lakers fans, the team is about a lot more than $5,000 courtside seats, celebrities in the crowd, and Laker Girls. The Lakers and Kobe are loved most of all because they have exhibited a fierce dedication to winning basketball games on the court. Being a star does not earn you automatic respect in Los Angeles (see Dwight Howard). Winning in Los Angeles itself is what makes you a star.

Haven’t we heard from the Lakers and Kobe all along that winning matters most? Yet, this deal frankly doesn't feel like it focuses on winning.

Myth #4: This contract doesn't impact the Lakers chances of winning

The modern day fan is hardly ignorant of issues like salary cap restrictions. How will this deal help the Lakers acquire mid-level players, in the $5-10 million dollar range? All the other good teams seem to have several of those players, but the Lakers will have a tough time getting any those guys next year if they sign a max player.

Forget about the mid-level exception talents, suggests Shelburne. “[T]hose guys usually get overpaid and there’s plenty of talent that’s available for veteran minimum contracts.” Perhaps Shelbourne is referring to the apparently expendable services of Steve Blake and/or Jordan Hill. It almost certainly means goodbye to 2-Time champ Pau Gasol, unless he takes a far more drastic pay cut than Kobe.

But okay, let’s assume that the Lakers sign other quality free agents for cheap who are willing to accept lower salaries to play with the Lakers. Guys like Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Chris Kaman, and Wesley Johnson did. (All of whom will be surely thrilled with their reward for playing well this season: A Lakers offer to play for below their market value again or to get lost. Wonder what message that sends regarding loyalty?)

You basically will have Kobe, maybe at best a Carmelo Anthony-type player, and a remaining roster not so different from the one they have now, minus Pau Gasol. Does anyone believe that will get it done?

Myth #5: Loyalty was really what this was all about

If you want to ask a few simple questions, the “it's all about loyalty” analysis of the contract becomes quite dubious indeed. Of course it’s not as simple as that.

After all, Kobe could have been paid up to $32 million per year according the CBA, so why didn't the Lakers pay him that much? Do the ungrateful Lakers not love him enough?

Well, the immediate imagined response coming from the Lakers would be that they still need money to pay the other guys on a championship contender-type team too, and the league rules will only allow them to spend around $62.7 million total for next year’s roster.

Okay, so to field a truly competitive team means that the Lakers needed Kobe to take some sort of pay cut, which he did. But wouldn't Kobe taking an even greater pay cut mean more money to get better players around Kobe?

To ask this question is taboo for some. After all, what right do you have to demand a player to take less money? A player should get all they can, the reasoning goes. Of course there is no such right.

But there was hope. There was hope that Kobe’s drive for his sixth ring mattered so much to him that he was willing to make serious financial sacrifices.

Informed fans already realize there is a precedent for this. Tim Duncan was making $23 million per year and then signed for around $10 million in order to help the Spurs chase another NBA Title. The Spurs were in the NBA Finals last year and have the best record in basketball this year. Duncan was 1st team all-NBA last season.

Is there some reason Kobe couldn't do the same?

There is no question that devotion to Kobe Bryant, the individual, runs very deep in Southern California. So much so that Kobe’s cult-like followers makes it almost uninviting for other stars to come to the Lakers.

But even Kobe will feel some backlash about this. This had already been evidenced by his frustrated responses to the media and on twitter in defense of his contract.

The reality is that fans are beginning to connect the dots on their own.

Few believe that there was really no negotiation about the amount of Kobe’s contract – Kobe himself previously suggested it would be a negotiation – and no one suggests that the Lakers would have let any other team outbid them.

So what exactly was Kobe’s leverage in this situation to make the Lakers pay him twice what other teams might pay him before he actually played a single game after his injury?

From the outside, it appears that Kobe convinced the Lakers that after 18 seasons in Los Angeles, he might actually leave Los Angeles…to play for another team…for less money...primarily for vindictive reasons (since his taking a large pay cut would enable the Lakers to surround him with a real title contender, it couldn't be about winning).

And boy did the Lakers press that panic button quickly. Or as Shelburne, who apparently shares their sentiments, put it, "Can the Lakers really go all in? Can a franchise that's worth at least $1 billion, with a $5 billion TV contract and $5,000 courtside seats ever let the bottom fall completely out?"

Seriously? Wow. That’s a pretty disturbing image for Lakers fans and loyal Kobe supporters. And that’s where the backlash is coming from.

Where was the loyalty on Kobe's side? He didn't seem to have much for the team or the fans.

And what was management thinking? Did they really so lack confidence in the Lakers brand that they hastily adopted a "sky is falling" mentality and caved into their cash cow star?

From this perspective, Jim Buss hardly seems as capable a poker player as his father. It seems he folded pretty quick on this hand. Can he possibly be vindicated in the long run? Time will tell.

In any case, considering the situation, at least temporary disappointment on the part of many Lakers fans seems inevitable. Of course, if Kobe and the Lakers do somehow win an NBA title in the next two years, who will remember? After all, to the fans at least, it's still about winning.

by Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

1 comment:

  1. Disastrous move by the Lakers! Why couldn't the Buss family and Kobe work it out like Dr. Buss did with Magic, and take care of him down the line?


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