Laker For Life

Darius Soriano —  April 7, 2010

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Earlier today, Phillip put together a great post on what it’s been like following Kobe Bryant’s career with the Lakers.  And while I think he summed up many of the feelings and experiences that a lot of Lakers fans have had, the first point that he made is the one that should be repeated over and over again – us Lakers’ fans are extremely lucky to have this player on our team.  Through all the ups and downs, we’ve seen one of the NBA’s all time greats lace up his sneakers and perform for the team that we follow every day.  Not every team gets a Kobe or Duncan or Larry or Magic or Jordan.  And those that do get them may not even get them for their entire careers as trades and free agency have moved us into a different era in terms of the athlete/team dynamic.  Guys just don’t stay with the same teams anymore.  But, with Kobe’s contract extension, we’re likely to get that priveledge.  Barring something completely unforeseen Kobe Bryant will be a Laker for life.  And I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way.  This is a player that has given us too many memories – from the lob, to all the game winners, to the 81 point game, to the championships…I could go on and on.  He is the modern image of what it is to be a Laker and for that there aren’t enough words to describe how happy I am that Kobe will likely never wear another NBA uniform.

That said, Kobe’s contract is one that we should look at closely.  Because even though he’s an all world talent and a player that makes the Lakers a lot of money by packing arenas and boosting merchandise sales, this contract affect how the team can do business between the lines of the court.  Due to the NBA’s salary cap rules, every contract affects a team’s ability to fill out the roster.  Every dollar spent on one player is, theoretically, a dollar that will make it tough to sign another player that will help you win.  We know this from some of the contracts that currently sit on the Lakers’ payroll.  So the first step is to look at what Kobe’s contract is actually worth.  When the news broke that Kobe signed a contract extenstion, the commonly tossed out value of the contract was $90 million dollars.  Sure, reports said that Kobe’s contract “could be worth up to” that amount, but it was assumed that the “maximum” value is what Kobe received.  The fact is, though, that Kobe’s deal is worth a bit less.  The actual dollar figure is a shade over $83.5 million.  And the yearly breakdowns look like this:

Year 1: $25,244,493
Year 2: $27,849,149
Year 3: $30,453,805

When I read the report that Kobe’s contract would be worth a bit less than the max, I reached out to Larry Coon (the CBA and salary cap expert who created this magnficent site where so many of my questions have been answered) to ask him about the value of Kobe’s contract and what possibly went into the decision making to come to this exact figure.  Below is what Larry told me about Kobe’s extension:

It’s NOT the maximum he could have received. The max started at 110.5% of his 2010-11 salary but would have been amended down to 105% of his 2010-11 salary. The salary in the first year of an extension can’t exceed the maximum salary — which in Kobe’s case is 105% of his previous salary.

It appears he got almost exactly the same amount over four years from the Lakers as he would have made by opting-out in 2010 and signing with another team. So yes, he left money on the table. The Lakers clearly weren’t going to bid against themselves.

The second point that Larry made is key one, in my opinion.  Yes the Lakers have made Kobe one of the highest paid athletes ever.  His salary in the final year of his contract will be only the second time an NBA player has made $30 million in a single season.  But, it also looks like the Lakers did not give him the maximum dollars that he could have earned because they did not give him the full raises from year to year that they (and they alone) could have given.  As Larry said, it looks like the Lakers were not going to bid against themselves (something that the Orlando Magic did with the Rashard Lewis contract two seasons ago) because they gave him pretty much exactly what he could have gotten if he’d opted out after this season and signed with a different team.  This fact enables Kobe to make a boat load of cash, while also saving the Lakers about $7 million (or so) over the life of the contract.  That may not seem like a lot, but for a team that will be deep into the luxury tax, every extra bit matters.

But enough about the structure of the deal (if you crave more, read what Larry Coon wrote for the NY Times in his excellent break down of the financial details).  I think we all want to discuss how this affects the Lakers long term spending and their ability to surround their core players with enough talent to compete.  Looking at the Lakers payroll figures, there are only 6 players under contract (including Kobe) in the 2011-12 season (the first of Kobe’s contract extension).  Those six players are Kobe, Pau, Bynum, Odom, Artest, and Walton.  The combined salary of those 6 players will be about $80 million.  For comparison’s sake, the total payroll for this season is $91.3 million.  Also consider that a team must have at least 10 players on their roster, per league rules.  Most teams carry at least 12, and the Lakers carried 13 this season.  That means that the Lakers, in the first year of Kobe’s extnsion, will likely need to fill out their roster with 7 additional players.  Now, some of those players will come from the draft (the Lakers have 2 second round picks in the upcoming draft and have a first round pick in next year’s draft) and there will be free agent signings between now and then.  We must also consider that there may be a trade (or trades) that impact the make up of the roster and how many players the Lakers have under contract.  But, as it stands now, the core of this team are the 5 big money players on the roster (or our best 5) and Luke Walton.

So, how will this team fill out it’s roster and still compete?  I think the answer to this question is two fold.  First, the Lakers obviously need to make smart personnel decisions for the foreseeable future.  And to start out, that means drafting well.  Over the years, Mitch Kupchak has had reasonably good success in the draft, especially considering he’s often picking in the latter stages of the first or second round.  I mean, Mitch drafted Walton (who, despite any opinion of his contract, is a contributing player), Turiaf, Farmar (who is a good player, though is proving to be a mismatched fit in our current system), and then there were guys like Crittenton and Von Wafer that have had their moments in this league (but have had their careers thrown off track by off court or attitude concerns).  The one time that Mitch has been in the lottery, the draft yielded Andrew Bynum.  All of these players are or have been solid contributors to teams in the league, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Mitch has an eye for talent.  My point is, Mitch will need to have a similar success rate (or better) if the Lakers hope to build around this very talented core and it will all start with the  relatively inexpensive talent that the draft provides.

The second part of figuring out how the Lakers are going to build around their core is determining what Jerry Buss’ spending limit is.  The figure $100 million (for combined salary and luxury tax) has been thrown out in the past, but the Lakers are above that threshold this season.  So the question is, how much higher will he go?  Will the Lakers sign a player for the MLE this off-season?  With needs at PG and also (potentially) at back up SF and/or PF they may have to.  What about the year after that?  And if there is the chance to pick up a good player but it involves taking on salary, will the Lakers do that?  Currently, these are questions that none of us have answers to and won’t have for sometime.  Even speculating about it is pointless because Dr. Buss rarely shows his hand early unless his mind is made up, and even then it all may be a bluff (the man is a poker player, after all).

So, at this point, we know that Kobe will be a Laker, he’ll have some very talented teammates, and the front office will have to find ways to fill out the roster cheaply but with capable players.  This is not the easiest task, but it’s not impossible either.  And in the end, I’m quite happy having one of the most talented (at least at the top) rosters in the NBA and going into battle with those guys leading the charge.  And it all starts with #24 – a fact I couldn’t be happier about.

Darius Soriano

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