As we told you earlier today, Kobe Bryant signed a contract extension to remain with the Lakers for another two seasons beyond the current one. The extension will reportedly pay Kobe a total of 48 million dollars and will keep him as the highest paid player in the NBA over those two seasons.
I am of two minds about this extension.
First, I am happy for Kobe and for the idea that he will remain a Laker through what will likely be his final two seasons as an NBA player. I have said this often, but there is a special relationship fans have with players of Kobe’s status. As a franchise icon and a player whose place in history is cemented among the all time greats, I appreciate that he will only wear one uniform for his entire career. He joins West, Magic, and Baylor as other Lakers who are able to make this claim and that, to me at least, is worth celebrating. I’m sure Spurs fans want the same for Duncan and that Mavs fans want the same for Dirk. When you have a legend who has given so much to an organization, it is only natural to want that player to end his career where it started. With Kobe, it looks as though we will get that and I am happy this will be the case.
My second thought, however, is that this is a lot of money to commit to Kobe even when considering all he’s given to the organization and the legacy he’s built in Los Angeles as a Laker. This isn’t to say Kobe isn’t worth that money. A player is worth what the market will pay him and in this instance, the Lakers – even if they were bidding against themselves – were willing to pay Kobe this amount. So, he’s worth that. Considering the late, great Dr. Buss once went on record saying Kobe is worth upwards of $75 to $100 million to the Lakers’ brand, it’s hard to argue he shouldn’t seek a salary that somewhat reflects that value respective to the collective bargaining agreement. What he signed for is what he can earn, so in that regard he did what he was supposed to do.
The question, however, is whether this is what the Lakers were supposed to do under those same rules that govern the league and that is where this gets dicier.
Forget for a second Kobe’s rehab from his torn achilles. Forget his age and the number of minutes he’s played in his career. Forget everything I wrote just two paragraphs ago and simply focus on the fact that under the new CBA, it is very difficult to build a roster when a player is making as much money as Kobe will make. It’s not impossible, but it is harder.
The new CBA dictates that luxury tax paying teams have fewer exceptions in which they can sign players. It dictates that when you are a tax paying team, you shell out substantially more money for every dollar you are above the tax line. It dictates when you do this repeatedly, the penalties go up exponentially and make it extremely difficult to be profitable while still fielding a roster that demands the type of money you end up paying to be a tax paying team. When the rules of the new CBA came out, the Lakers were very clear in setting expectations for future spending, declaring that they would try to avoid playing the repeater tax and would be more fiscally responsible in this new world. By signing Kobe to this contract, they’ve not gone back on that, but they have made their future ability to build that competitive roster more difficult.
It is obvious to say, but it must be said, Kobe’s extension makes building a top tier roster harder.
Next year, the Lakers were slated to fall well underneath the salary cap, with the potential to sign multiple top tier free agents in an effort to rebuild quickly. Kobe was always viewed as a part of that plan, but the assumption was that his salary would be much less than what it will be and that it would aid in that proposed rebuilding rather than be a potential obstacle in it. This contract, however, makes Kobe one of those assumed top tier (and highly paid) players and removes a hefty chunk of cap space the Lakers could have used to sign an additional player (or two). This may not end up being the worst thing in the world, especially if Kobe can return to top form and produce at a level that mirrors what he did, say, last year. I cannot speak to the odds of that happening, but I can say the hope was the organization would build in a fail-safe for it not occurring by paying Kobe less than what they will and, thus, making it easier to sign more reinforcements to offset any dip in production from #24. That, however, will not be the case.
Further, with Kobe taking up such a large portion of the team’s cap, the ability to sign more than one top upper tier player goes down considerably. In fact, it eliminates it entirely. As it stands now, the Lakers will have room to sign one player to a max contract in the 20-22 million dollar range. They will also have their “room exception” (roughly the amount of the mini-mid level exception and an exception that allows teams who go beneath the salary cap to sign a mid-level player to a contract that pushes them back above the cap, but below the tax line) to sign another player who can contribute. Depending on what happens with Steve Nash (does he retire? does he get waived via the stretch provision?), the Lakers can have roughly 6 to 9 million dollars more in cap space, but those are not givens. This is to say nothing of what happens with the other slew of free agents on the team who the front office may want to keep on hand for future seasons.
All of this is to say that by signing Kobe to this specific extension, the Lakers have done two things that affect their planning for the next two seasons.
One is that they’ve locked up a player who they think will be a major contributor and, by doing that, have set the terms in which they can spend on the remainder of their roster. These aren’t necessarily bad things as they lock up a talent and they allow for crucial planning in terms of how much money will be available to spend on other players. Being able to target “free agent X” now while knowing what they can realistically spend on him is a good thing to know today. Especially considering the window of time to make those decisions AND still work on signing Kobe next summer was going to be relatively short.
Second, however, is that the Lakers are banking on Kobe being Kobe for two more seasons and that the investment in him at this amount is worth more than trying to sign multiple players at higher amounts while still trying to keep Kobe in the fold. This, of course, is complicated for a variety of reasons, but chief amongst them is the desire to keep Kobe in house and Kobe’s desire to maximize his earning potential (something he was honest about from day one). Maybe the Lakers could have played hardball with Kobe and tried to get him to sign for less. Maybe Kobe could have voluntarily taken less money to help out the franchise (this is a concept popular with fans, though as someone who doesn’t like anyone telling me I should say “no thanks” to money someone wants to pay me, I’m uncomfortable saying another person should – especially Kobe Bryant).
It’s also complicated by the idea that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Said another way, there’s no guarantee Kobe at a lower dollar amount gets the Lakers multiple top tier players. Don’t get me wrong, it makes it possible and that possibility is definitely important. But Kobe at 2 million dollars next season doesn’t guarantee the Lakers will suddenly sign LeBron and Chris Bosh. It’s nice to think of it that way, but that’s more wishful thinking than practical outcome.
In essence, what we see with this extension is the Lakers dealing with a franchise icon the best way they know how. They think he’ll be back performing at a high level and know that he is a major draw and money maker for the organization. For them, this is a win-win from that angle. But, what they’ve also done is made their future planning harder, even if they’ve made it clearer at the same time. This isn’t the type of contract you can simply hand out and hope things go well. There needs to be a firm plan (or at least a very clear vision) in place in how the rest of the roster will be built around a player making this much money. That would be true if the player we were talking about wasn’t named Kobe Bryant, by the way.
The fact that is the player’s name, however, means this decision carries extra weight. That can be both good and bad. We’ll see how the Lakers look next season and the ones beyond that to fully judge this deal. But, for now, what we know is that the front office has put their marbles in the Kobe Bryant basket. Historically, that has been a pretty good choice. Whether that’s true down the line, well, we’ll see.