Free Agency, the Future, & the Kobe Conundrum

Daniel Rapaport —  September 26, 2013

Paul George is twenty-three years old and he’s ready to break out. His progression up to this point has been steady if not remarkable, burgeoning from a hyper-athletic project to one of the league’s most versatile all-stars. In the most marquee of match-ups, PG24 didn’t back down from LeBron James one inch and earned the respect of this generation’s greatest player. It’s natural, really, for Laker fans to be sauntering over George, whose eclectic fashion sense┬ásuggests he’s ready for the LA spotlight. And after this season, Paul George’s rookie contract will expire. In an interview over the summer, George expressed that it would be tough to “say no to Kobe, man” because it’d be “playing at home” (George is from Palmdale). In a sense, Paul George and the cap-happy Lakers are a perfect match.

But today, Paul George agreed to the maximum contract extension, a deal that will keep him in the Midwest for another 5-years and pay him a handsome $80 million. His justification was a PR masterpiece, citing loyalty and the ability to win championships in Indiana (he’s right, also. I maintain that if Roy Hibbert is on the floor for the last play in Game 1, Indiana takes the series). But what’s more, I don’t think Paul George has any interest in spending the prime of his career as a second fiddle to a certain Kobe Bean Bryant. He doesn’t want to be a second option, nor should he- dude has superstar written all over him. He doesn’t want to spend crunch time in the corner as a never used decoy to the ever-present Kobe iso. He would, however, jump at the prospect of becoming the face of the Los Angeles Lakers. Problem is, there already is a face of the Los Angeles Lakers, a man whose commitment to stay on top rivals that of a despotic dictator. And this face makes $10 million more per year than anyone else and has been documented in saying that he’s extremely hesitant to accept a drastic pay cut despite his age and the team’s sticky situation.

Let’s pull the band-aid off quick. I’ve bit my tongue countless times the instant before this harsh truth came out, but I’m ready to finally accept reality:

Kobe Bryant is the Lakers’ biggest obstacle in recruiting free agents. And despite the organic rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder (they drafted KD, RussWest, and Harden back-to-back years. Think about that for a second.), landing coveted free agents is the fastest path to competing for championships. Just ask Pat Riley and Micky Arison.

Before you label me a Kobe hater, please remember that Kobe is my absolute favorite basketball player. I don’t believe the NBA has ever seen a harder worker or more competitive player. That being said, ┬áKobe has the third highest usage rate in the NBA, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, who both tread dangerously close to gunner status. That’s curious for someone entering their 18th year, especially when you consider the ages of the other members of the top 5 in terms of usage rate: Carmelo is 29, Westbrook is 24, Kyrie Irving is 21 (!!!), and John Wall is 23. Clearly, Kobe’s not ready to accept the second-dog status that he might need to embrace in order to catch MJ at 6.

During the back-to-back title and three finals in a row run of ’08-’10, Kobe was the best player in the league because not only did he have that mamba mentality, but he seemed to truly trust his teammates. At his best, Kobe tip-toes the line beautifully between a cold-blooded scorer and one of the very best passers in the league. We all know that if he wanted, Kobe could average 10 dimes a game because we’ve seen stretches where he’s done exactly that and it seems to require little extra effort. But when things got tough this season, Kobe seemed to revert to his old alpha-dog ways to the point where Dwight Howard literally turned down being the face of the franchise because, well, he couldn’t deal with the pressure of LA, the massively high expectations, and, yep, #24.

Kobe’s not afraid to absolutely rip a teammate to shreds, no matter if he’s a cocky rookie or the most established veteran. When Dwight signed with the Lakers, Kobe was quick to squash any notion that he’d hand the baton off in typical Kobe fashion (that video never ceases to amaze me. The thought of Dwight passing up more money and the chance to lead the Lakers to head somewhere else just wasn’t even in the conversation. Like, Kobe would have laughed at you that day if you told him that Dwight Howard would enter the 2013-2014 season as a Houston Rocket. The Lakers were eventually going to be Dwight’s because Dwight was going to re-sign. Duh.). What makes you think he’ll be willing to hand the reins off this time ’round? And would you want to have to follow in the footsteps of Kobe, arguably the greatest Laker of all time (yes, I’m aware of your existence, Mr. Johnson), 15-time all star, 2-time Finals MVP, 2-time scoring champ, 11-time first team all-NBA, etc.

The only conceivable scenario in which I could see Kobe accepting beta-dog status is if the Lakers somehow manage to bring in an established superstar who’s undeniably better than Kobe today. Not someone who has the potential to be better than Kobe, someone who is better than Kobe. At the training camp for the 1992 Dream Team, everyone was curious to see who was going to snatch team-leader status. And the stories go that when Magic Johnson saw just how incredible Michael Jordan was, he realized that Michael was the better player and he was going to lead and that was that. Problem is, assuming that Kobe comes back from his injury (do y’all have any doubts?! He’s Kobe and this is an injury, we always knows who wins those battles…) Kobe is still a fringe top-5/surefire top-10 NBA player, so those types are few and far between.

A certain LBJ comes to mind.

LeBron is on top of the world, having finally overcome the PR nightmare that was the Decision. Miami won 66 games last year, including 27 straight, and Drake sits courtside at every game. I just can’t see him taking the risk of leaving Miami at this point in his career. Chris Paul is Mr. Clipper. And Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are best friends and are both yet to see their 25th birthday. They’re not going anywhere.

And then there’s Carmelo. He’s undoubtedly searching for his Miami, a place where he can forget about the selfish stuff and win the championships he needs to cement himself as an all-timer. Kobe and Carmelo have, despite both holding reputations around the league as score-first guys who sometimes forget that their teammates are indeed NBA players, played beautifully alongside each other for Team USA. They’re close friends. Just like Paul George, it seems right.

And just like Paul George, Carmelo assured New Yorkers that he’s not going anywhere. The list of potential players for Kobe to hand the baton to is shrinking by the day. But hey, we can still hold out hope for Kyrie. We can hold out hope that Kobe will contact the best young point guard in the league and tell him that LA is a completely different world than Cleveland, a place where he can become a global icon. We’ll hope that he’ll tell Kyrie that if he comes to LA, the squad is his- that Kobe is ready to pass the baton because he knows that’s the only feasible way the team can win a championship. But if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, Kyrie very well might tell Cleveland that he’s not going to pull a LeBron, that he’s going to bring the ring that Dan Gilbert so obnoxiously guaranteed and that the city deserves. He could decide that he wants to create his own legacy and not follow in the impossible-to-fulfill footsteps of Kobe Bryant.

Just like Paul George and Carmelo.


Daniel Rapaport