Not only did the Lakers decide not to use the amnesty provision on Bryant this past offseason even though it made a lot of business sense, they doubled down on his future without even seeing what kind of condition he'd be in when he returned. The reasoning? Win over the fans now and deal with the wins on the court later.
That's an enormous risk that won't be felt now, and it could cripple the Lakers organization for years to come. You know why the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets situations feel so dire these days? Don't just look at the standings; look at their books as well. The Knicks are a capped-out, 3-9 outfit this season and still owe Amar'e Stoudemire (a formerly league-high) $23.4 million next season even though he can barely play 10 minutes per game. The 3-10 Nets will shell out (a formerly league-high) $24.9 million to Joe Johnson in 2015-16 despite the score-first shooting guard averaging fewer points per game than Gerald Green.
The Lakers are trying to build a contender overnight, but Stoudemire's and Johnson's teams demonstrate the stakes of the big gamble. You can't reach into your deep pockets if your hands are tied.
It's not the dollar value that is so debilitating for these capped-out teams; it's the opportunity cost of putting all your eggs in tiny baskets. Instead of allocating that money to other less-expensive players who can provide surplus value, the Lakers will be dedicating that precious cap space to a depreciating asset. Yes, the Lakers might argue that Bryant, as an iconic hero to his fan base, holds more value to the Lakers franchise than to any other team. But that same fact could come back to bite them if they need to open up trade talks. Other general managers likely couldn't care less about the banners that Bryant raised in the Staples Center.
Looking at Bryant's statistical comps, it's hard to see Bryant adding to a winning bottom line at this point in his career. If we look at Bryant's statistical fingerprint, the players most similar to Bryant's age are Michael Jordan, Paul Pierce, Sam Cassell, Gary Payton, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler. In their age-36 and age-37 seasons, none of them even came close to contributing on-court value worth about half the team's cap space. For instance, Jordan averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in his age-38 season with the 2001-02 Wizards. Not bad, right? Thing is, Jordan was paid exactly $1 million in salary that season. And he wasn't coming off Achilles surgery.
However, Wilkins did that when he was 32. As Kevin Pelton points out in his Per Diem piece Friday, Wilkins stands as the best-case scenario for Bryant. Wilkins made the All-Star team in his return, but he was also three years younger than the Lakers star at the time of their snapped tendons. According to Dr. Mark Adickes, the minutes played discrepancy between the players is huge: Wilkins played 27,482 minutes over 10 seasons prior to the injury, while Bryant has played 54,041 minutes over 17 seasons. Those are no small things. Most players underperformed their statistical projections and others didn't come back at all. Bryant could have opted to follow Jordan's lead and taken a bargain deal, but he felt being known as the most expensive player in the game was more important.
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.