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.
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.