According to Kobe Bryant, his contract extension with the Lakers, which will make him the NBA's highest paid player through 2016, "wasn't a negotiation." They made an offer—a massive offer for a 35-year-old who hasn't yet returned from surgery on a torn Achilles—and he accepted.
That's what Bryant told Adrian Wojnarowski. In most cities, you'd see a team play hardball with an aged superstar it'd like to keep around, but not at the expense of the team's future. Los Angeles isn't most cities, and Kobe isn't just any superstar.
"This was easy," Bryant told Yahoo Sports on Monday night. "This wasn't a negotiation. The Lakers made their offer with cap and building a great team in mind while still taking care of me as a player.
"I simply agreed to the offer."
If true, it's as stunning as it is telling. No one expected the Lakers to lowball Bryant, who'll be a face and a symbol of the franchise for decades to come. But to just up and offer $48.5 million without knowing just how much is left in Bryant's tank could look very questionable in a couple of years. It's not that Bryant's not worth it—from just PR and merchandising standpoints, it's a bargain—but the possibility of a significant rebuild just went by the wayside.
Bryant will make $23.5 million next season, and $25 million the season after that. If the Lakers waive Steve Nash and spread out his hit under the Stretch Provision, Bryant will be the only Laker under any kind of significant contract for next season—and he'll still consume a huge chunk of the Lakers' cap. According to capologist Larry Coon, the Lakers could have a max of $28.5 million to spend next summer. That would allow them to sign one max player, and another worth about $5 million, with the rest of the roster filled with young players and cheap rentals. It would also leave them unable to sign another max player in the summer of 2015, when the likes of Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo will come on the market.
L.A. is a feisty .500 right now, but the return of Kobe Bryant and adding, say, Carmelo Anthony next year probably aren't enough in a conference where, other than the Spurs, the power teams all have windows of a few more years. In a vacuum, locking up 40 percent of your cap space in one old guy isn't an obvious winning strategy.
But this isn't a vacuum. Basketball's the sport where a single player can have the greatest impact on a team's success, yet the NBA is a league where there's a maximum on how much a single player can earn. Superstars are egregiously underpaid, even when compared to other sports with a salary cap. Someone like Kobe Bryant has left hundreds of millions on the table over his career compared to what a true open market would bring. It's hard not to see the Lakers' offer through a lens of largesse: two years of overpayment as a reward for 17 years of below-market loyalty. And a guarantee that Kobe remains in the Laker family until retirement and long after. Does that make this contract right, from a front-office perspective? Nah. But there's sense to it.