(Photo: Lakers twitter account, @lakers)
Never has a star player in the NBA received the level of backlash for signing an extension as Kobe Bryant received last season after signing a 2 year, 48.5 million dollar extension contract extension with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The contract practically ensured that Bryant, arguably the greatest player in the franchise’s history, would remain a Los Angeles Lakers for the entirety of his career; a rarity in sports today. Instead of the signing being a celebrated moment for Kobe and the Lakers, it received fierce criticism from the media and a segment of fans.
While the timing and amount of the contract extension was definitely questionable considering that at the time it was signed, Bryant had yet to play in a game after his devastating Achilles injury that ended his season the year before, it was Lakers management that had made the decision as to when and how much to pay Bryant with little to no back and forth in terms of negotiations; despite that, the majority of the criticism was pointed directly at Bryant and not someone in the Lakers’ brass.
A contributing factor to the level of outrage was the expectation that Bryant would take less in the same manner as older star players had done in the recent past, such as Tim Duncan of the Spurs who signed a 3 year, 36 million dollar extension in 2012 when he was 36. Duncan signed his extension after making 21 million in the 2011-12 season then agreeing to an extension that paid him 9.6 million in the first year of the deal in 2012-13. The same financial concession by Bryant was expected by most, even demanded by some.
However, the main reason cited for the cause of the outrage by most, the one that I thoroughly reject, was the idea that Kobe’s massive contract hampered, some even going as far to say it completely killed the Lakers ability to field a championship contending team for the next 2 years. The Lakers having to pay Kobe 23.5 in the 2014-2015 season then 25 million in 2015-2016 took too much of the available cap space for the Lakers to sign star free agents was the belief by most.
It is this belief that Kobe’s contract had or will continue to have any impact in the Lakers ability to rebuild that was proven wrong. Not only did it not have any impact this past off-season, as the free agent landscape has turned out, it won’t have any impact next season as well.
Plenty of money to offer this off-season
The Lakers went into the off-season with only 3 players on guaranteed deals (Bryant, Nash and Sacre) and almost 30 million in available cap space to go towards signing free agents which was enough for 1 maximum contract for a player with the years in the league of Carmelo Anthony or 2 maximum contracts if they were to pursue a player with less years in the league such as Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe. With the amount of cap space the Lakers had and could have created with a few moves, there were a few ways they could have approached free agency.
The Lakers with a plethora of cap space pursued the biggest names in free agency: Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James. The Lakers plan this past free agent season was to land one of the big name stars that they felt was worthy of taking over the reins of the franchise and retain Pau Gasol to form a strong nucleus to close out Kobe’s career; then, rebuild over the next few years around the newly acquired star player going forward.
Despite the Lakers efforts and stacks of money available under the cap, they ended up swinging hard and missing in free agency. The reasons the Lakers failed had nothing to do with Bryant’s 48.5 million dollar contract as the Lakers had the max money to offer but the free agents they pursued decided to go elsewhere. In fact, Bryant and the financial commitment that the Lakers’ brass showed to their star in his twilight years was one of the few selling points that were at the Lakers’ disposal when courting free agents.
Plenty of money to offer going forward but it might not be enough
The main reason the Lakers failed in free agency this past off-season and why it will continue to be an issue going forward is that the star player that they covet is rarely ever realistically up for grabs even when you have max money to offer. This was the situation that played out for the Lakers this past off-season.
Lebron James and even Carmelo Anthony were pipe dreams. The truth was that it was highly unlikely that Anthony would leave New York and it was clear that James’ intent was always to either stay in Miami or return home to Cleveland, but, as part of the Lakers’ plan, they had to pursue a star and do so with the fervor and laser focus that Jerry West and Dr. Buss exhibited when pursuing Shaquille O’ Neal; it paid off then, it failed this time around.
Looking at next year’s free agent class it looks to shape out the same way as this year, free agents technically available but having all but decided to return to their respective teams even before the free agent courting and signing period begins. Kevin Love was the big name free agent that the Lakers were set to pursue in 2015 but now that he’s been traded to Cleveland to form the new super team with Kyrie Irving and Lebron James he’ll likely re-sign long term with the Cavs. The next big name free agent Larmarcus Aldridge has already stated he is looking to stay in Portland with burgeoning star point guard Damian Lillard. After that the class is filled with 2nd tier players such as Rajon Rondo, Greg Monroe and DeAndre Jordan that are great building blocks but not the star level player that the Lakers covet.
While a team like the Lakers that set themselves up to have tons of cap space to offer free agents, they will always fall short of what the free agent’s originating team can offer as per the collective bargaining rules that allows a team to offer their own free agent an additional year (5 years versus 4 years) and greater incremental raises per year (7.5 percent versus 4.5 percent) per year. Still, despite the difficulty the Lakers must make that effort to land the next big star and they are in position to do so next year and beyond.
Lakers plan to rebuild
Looking back at how the Lakers’ brass approached free agency their plan to rebuild moving forward was clear. First, keep cap space open in order to land that elite, tier one star in the class of a Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony. Looking forward, Kevin Love in 2015, Kevin Durant in 2016 and Russell Westbrook in 2017 would fit that tier one star class.
Secondly, do not overpay for a 2nd tier free agent such as a Lance Stevenson, Isaiah Thomas or Kyle Lowry who would require a multi-year deal at 10+ million which would rob them of their cap space that they need to offer a max deal for that tier 1 star. This approach was apparent this off-season when the Lakers did not aggressively pursue any of the 2nd tier free agents after being shun by both James and Anthony. In particular, Stevenson, Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe were there for the taking for the Lakers but they decided to pass as these players did not fit into the transcendent, elite star class.
The most distinguishable part of the Lakers plan to rebuild is not committing to long term deals to non-star players in order to retain their cap flexibility to offer a maximum contract to an elite level star for years to come. The Lakers missed out on getting their star free agent this year but have set it up to do it all over again next off-season and the following year until they land the right player which was accomplished by only committing to or acquiring players on short 1 to 2 year deals.
As of right now, the only players that have a guaranteed contract next season are Kobe Bryant, Nick Young , Ryan Kelly and Julius Randle who will have a combined salary of roughly 35 million. The salary cap is projected to grow to 66 million which means that the Lakers will have 31 million to offer the 2015 free agent class that, again, includes Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe and Rajon Rondo to name a few.
Lakers brass saw the big picture that the critics did not
The knee jerk reaction to Kobe’s 48.5 million dollar contract extension from the media and fans was somewhat understandable. Looking at this situation from a mere general strategic standpoint, committing one-third of your salary cap over the next two years to a 35 year old player who was coming of a devastating, possibly career threatening injury and doing so without even seeing him play one minute on the court since his the injury was risky and controversial. Also, agreeing to an extension when they had the entire 2013-14 season, and even off-season if needed, to come to terms and negotiate a better contract seemed rash and irrational. But once you see how the free agent landscape over the next years materialized and got a clear picture of the Lakers’ plan to rebuild it made sense.
From fans, that immediate lashing out at Bryant for taking a massive contract can be explained and forgiven by the normal fan emotion that stems from their deep love for the team. Rarely do fans every take the time to look at the big picture or take into account the intricate details behind decisions made relating to their favorite team. Fans get a pass.
From those that cover the NBA, at least those that were highly critical of the Bryant’s contract extension and took the position that the contract would significantly hurt the Lakers in free agency or in their immediate plans to rebuild, is inexcusable since they have access to unlimited amounts of information, have the time to collect their thoughts, assess all factors involved and then formulate a well reasoned and articulated position. As we saw the surplus of articles and numerous statements via radio and Twitter, most of them didn’t and continue to ignore the facts today.
The Lakers brass saw the free agent landscape over the next two years and what they saw were very few of those elite, franchise direction-changing players becoming available. They understood that most free agents do not leave their original team in free agency and leave both money and years on the table.; however, they made certain that in the off chance that one does become available, that they have the ability to offer the most money possible and that was with accounting for Bryant’s 48.5 million dollar contract. As it turns out, based on the limited number of elite free agents that are set to be available in the 2 years of Kobe’s contract, the Lakers actually have more than enough cap space.
The Lakers brass also saw that they had a player coming up on the last year of his deal who had given them 17 of some the greatest years that any player had given any franchise in sports history in terms of tenure, production, mainstream exposure, global interest, sales of seats and merchandise, and most importantly, winning.
Could the Lakers’ brass have offered him less and run him and his agent through the ringer until they got the lowest contract amount possible?
Could they have waited until the end of the year and allowed Bryant to test the free agent market creating the “Will Kobe stay or go” narrative that would have hanged over the Lakers all season long?
Could they have gone the Phil Jackson route and attempt to shame Bryant into taking less money by referencing Duncan’s decision to take less money for the good of the team publicly?
Yes. The Lakers could have done all of the above to get the right price, but that would have been unbecoming of the Lakers franchise and gone against what Dr. Jerry Buss had believed in and demonstrated during his tenure as owner of the franchise, which was to take care of their stars. It was Dr. Buss that agreed to offer the 25 year, 25 million dollar contract to Magic Johnson in 1981 which was the richest and longest in sports history at the time. The Lakers continue to involve or employ former players after their career such as Mychal Thompson, Mitch Kupchak, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Vlade Divac, Kurt Rambis, Luke Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all of which either recently held or currently hold a position with the Lakers franchise or Lakers’ business partner.
Taking all of the information available into consideration, weighing the very light and unpredictable free agent landscape over the next two years and what Kobe had done for the franchise and believe he can continue to do, they made what I believe to be the only choice they could make, which was to take care of their star and enjoy watching him close out his career in a Lakers uniform. No long, drawn-out, contentious, brutal negotiations. Taking care of their own has been a long standing tradition and the Buss kids made sure that tradition continued.
The decision to pay Kobe, both the amount and timing, proved to be the right one. Therefore, the decision proved the naysayers wrong.
They were proven wrong when the Lakers were most active in pursuing the big name free agents this year while having the most money to offer.
They will be proven wrong again when the Lakers are active next off-season with the same level cap flexibility to offer maximum contracts to any big name free agents that enter the market.
They will be proven wrong a third time when they see the Lakers fan base rewarded with Bryant’s last years of his illustrious career and take part in his farewell tour in a purple and gold uniform and not have to endure the embarrassment of having him finish out his career in one of a competitor as in the case of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Lastly, when that next big name free agent does decide to sign with the Lakers and cites the Lakers’ history of taking care of their star players like they did with Magic Johnson and most recently with Kobe Bryant, they will have been proven wrong yet again.