GM: Lakers will contend with Kobe


WASHINGTON -- Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Tuesday that not only will Kobe Bryant retire as a Laker, he'll also close out his career playing for championship-contending teams.

A day earlier, Bryant signed a two-year contract extension through 2015-16 worth $48.5 million. 

Even with so much money committed to Bryant -- his $23.5 million salary accounts for more than a third of the expected $62.9 million salary cap next season -- Kupchak believes the Lakers can fill in enough pieces around him to compete for another Larry O'Brien Trophy. And what a title that would be -- Bryant's sixth, to tie his idol Michael Jordan, and the team's 17th, to tie the rival Boston Celtics.

"I think we do," Kupchak said on a conference call with a small group of reporters. "I think we do. The challenges are there. The collective bargaining agreement doesn't make it any easier for anybody. It's restrictive and challenging, but yes, I do believe we can."

Asked about the coveted cap space the Lakers have strategically secured for a free-agent spending spree next summer, Kupchak said Bryant took a deal with that in mind.

"Obviously, he took a pay cut," Kupchak said of Bryant, who will be paid $30.5 million this season and was eligible to be offered up to $32 million next season under the terms of the new CBA. "A substantial pay cut. A lot of people look at it and say, 'Well, that's not a huge financial pay cut,' but it was a negotiation that we felt like was pretty quickly accomplished and fair on both sides. We're comfortable."

Kupchak said the team accomplished its two goals: taking care of Bryant while also keeping open its options to improve elsewhere through trades or free agency.

"We could compensate Kobe in the manner that we felt he deserved and at the same time be able to have that flexibility," Kupchak said. "Substantial flexibility. We don't have a minimum amount of flexibility. We have a lot of flexibility. Then you have to weigh it against, 'OK, what do you think is going to happen this summer?'

"So, everybody forgets that Kobe would be a free agent this summer, too. So we got who we feel is one of the top free agents available this summer, and we still have the ability to pursue other free agents or other opportunities between now and the trade deadline or this summer or the next summer based on our flexibility."

Kupchak and the Lakers are banking on someone who's been a star and a revenue generator for the franchise for the past 17 years. Despite his Achilles injury, the team views Bryant as more of a known commodity than holding out hope for LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony to opt out of their contracts next summer and come to L.A. And the Lakers are aware of how fickle the free-agent market can be, especially with Dwight Howard leaving them for the Houston Rockets in July.

"The uncertainty of the summer is behind us now," Kupchak said. "We know we have Kobe in the fold for this year and two more years, and the negotiation went pretty smoothly."

While Bryant has been on the court for only a handful of team practices during his comeback attempt, Kupchak said he has already seen enough to believe Bryant will return at a high level.

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