Turns out Kobe Bryant has 48.5 million reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving.
Despite suffering last April one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can have, Bryant signed a $48.5 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday. As it stands now, the new deal will make the 35-year-old the NBA's highest-paid player through the 2015-16 season, all before he even takes the court this season.
By all indications, Bryant still is some way from returning to the court, but the Lakers felt compelled to lock up him long term. The $48.5 million question is: Why?
If you needed any more convincing that this was a public-relations move, the Lakers packaged the announcement on Twitter with a Hallmark-meets-Hollywood staged photograph. Never mind the Lakers have come out to a lukewarm 7-7 start with a negative point differential and sit 11th in the loaded Western Conference. Look at all those smiling faces!
Indeed, the Lakers carved out some extra salary-cap space by extending Bryant to a number that is lower than his $32 million cap hold that would have acted as a placeholder during free agency. Now, the Lakers have an extra $8.5 million to attract other free agents. The Lakers have relatively clean books after this season, but Bryant's monster price tag chews up an enormous portion of their available cap space.
The truth is if Bryant is truly about winning the NBA title, the contract he just signed will make it very difficult for him and the Lakers to do so.
As is, the Lakers should have $28.5 million in cap space this summer if they release Steve Nash using the stretch provision, according to analysis from our friend and cap guru Larry Coon. That's after renouncing all their free agents, including Pau Gasol, and accounting for the cap holds to fill out the rest of the roster. This also is in addition to the expected salary owed to their 2014 first-round draft pick. And the cap space shrinks to about $21.5 million if the Lakers want to keep a 40-year-old Nash around.
In practical terms, the Lakers can fit only one max-level star into their cap space next to Bryant. It's a risky strategy that's compounded by the fact that it's unclear if stars even want to play next to Bryant in the first place. Stars are an observant bunch. The last time the Lakers fielded a star-studded team around an aging Bryant, it resulted in a soap-opera disaster that yielded two coaching fires and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in his prime turning down more money to go elsewhere.
And that was when Bryant was healthy.
Are we really expecting marquee free agents to line up to play next to a 35-year-old who just demanded to be the highest-paid player in the league while being too injured to play? Call me skeptical. Next summer's free-agency class boasts big names such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, with Kevin Love to hit the market in 2015, but they all enjoy being the No. 1 option for their respective teams. It feels relevant to point out that Bryant averaged more shots per game last season than Dwight Howard and Steve Nash combined. Again, that was when Bryant was healthy.