Kobe Bryant is 35 years old and has yet to play this season because of surgery to repair a torn Achilles, a blow to any athlete at any age. And yet, on Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers signed the aging gunslinger to a two-year extension that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA over that span.
So the question then becomes: Should the franchise’s and the fan base’s passion for their star player, and all the benefits that come with his return, be prioritized when it comes to team-building?
Justin Verrier: How much do you love Kobe Bryant? Your answer will likely be the biggest color stroke as you process the extension he just signed with the Lakers.
Bryant is one of the few players in all of sports with the star power to defy on-court production. There’s plenty of good and some bad that comes from his approach to the game. But the Lakers have a history unlike few other franchises in sports, and Kobe is one of the most popular athletes in an age with limitless avenues for media exposure. His signature may put a ceiling on this team moving forward, but having his statue outside of Staples Center next to Magic’s one day, or just being able to defend him with every fiber of your being, probably means a lot more to some than the actual wins.
But at what point does sentiment supersede rationality? While the Celtics, the NBA’s other beloved franchise, cut bait with their championship-winning stars this summer and looked toward the future, with this move, the Lakers appear stuck in the past.
Kobe is supposedly all about rings. Is keeping a player with as many as he has more important than sacrificing the chance to add to that total as long as he’s around?
Kevin Arnovitz: It depends on the probability of that chance. Say the Lakers let him walk this upcoming summer. What are the chances they can use the entirety of that space to build a contender for 2014-15 or 2015-16? Slim.
So the Lakers chose a different reality: the opportunity to orchestrate one of the most glorious, albeit expensive, farewell tours in NBA history. While they won’t come close to contending, there will be an electric buzz around Los Angeles for the final two seasons of “Kobe,” the kind of excitement that was generated back in the day when a Broadway smash was closing and the marquee above the theater read “Final Performances!” in bold letters.
There’s value in that, for the gate, for television ratings and for the overall value of the brand. I’m not suggesting it’s $48.5 million in value, but it’s much greater than zero.
Regarding the Lakers not sufficiently considering the future, are you suggesting they should let Kobe walk and commit themselves to a tank job?
Verrier: Not necessarily. And therein lies my biggest qualm with the deal. The front office successfully put the franchise in position to rebuild without having to go to such extreme measures. The Lakers threw together a patchwork lineup with a short lifespan, are now having some moderate success in a fun system, and were ready to reap the benefits this summer with their oodles of cap room. Even if it seemed unlikely that a superstar would join the party, at least they had hope for something better than what they are now.
But the Lakers cashed in all that potential -- perhaps the biggest lure for any fan, for any person -- for (broadly) two more years of their current construction. Which will be fun. Problem is: Why do they need to do that? Why do they need to bring back Kobe in the first place?
Context is important. You cut the Bucks some slack for shooting for the middle because of their ownership’s mandate. You understand why the Bobcats want to overpay an Al Jefferson.
But the Lakers have every advantage. They have money, they have location, they have legacy. And without Kobe, they would have been able to provide cornerstone free agents a blank slate. That may not guarantee a star’s signature, but it’s the best possible package any team can put together.
The only thing holding them back was sentiment. Should we not expect the most privileged franchises to shoot for more than serving as a vehicle for a star’s prolonged goodbye?
Arnovitz: Isn’t hope the ultimate sentiment? Because as you said, that’s all the Lakers would be getting in exchange for cutting ties with Bryant. They’d be banking on the notion that having two max slots would enable them to attract two max stars. There’s nothing in the marketplace to suggest that they’d lure that second star, and it looks as if they might have some trouble attracting the first. Mitch Kupchak almost certainly examined the free-agent landscape on the horizon and determined as much.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Lakers’ producing the goodbye. I didn’t fully grasp this idea until I moved to Los Angeles, but the Lakers are engaged in a different project than most of the league. The vast majority of organizations are trying to build a mystique, but the Lakers already have one and they’re in the business of maintaining it. Doing so might mean they have to compensate an aging home-grown legend more money than he’s worth between the lines. That’s the premium a franchise pays when it wants to have control of the script and have events play out like a romance.
Do you believe that an elite group of teams in each sport is exceptional in this regard? That the Lakers are playing a different game because they’re a unique brand?
Verrier: It’s the Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems corollary -- life is certainly more complicated when you’re working with billions instead of millions. Which is where the Celtics comparison begins to fall apart. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett may be icons in Boston, but Bryant is a global star and tent pole for goliath American shoe and beverage companies. The franchises may have comparable track records on the court, but they are in different stratospheres in this plane.
But the importance of such a brand is hard to pin down these days. Warm climates and a big spotlight will likely always matter; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t take their talents to Lake Michigan. But Dwight Howard’s departure from L.A. this summer at least suggested that the Lakers’ ground can be only so high when players are dictating player movement.
Kupchak alluded to such a change this summer, when the “Stay” billboards were shooting up around the city. And yet, signing an injured 35-year-old at an old CBA-like price is in complete opposition to that conclusion. If the Lakers are still exceptional, it’s in no small part because they refuse to see themselves in any other way.