LOS ANGELES – It sounded like a brilliant plan. Bold and brash, just like all the Lakers' power plays over the years. Dwight Howard didn't want to be a Lakers legend, so fine, they'll just cast TWO more leading men for the job in the summer of 2014. Kobe Bryant will recruit, then train them to take over for him one day and hopefully win his sixth title along the way.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Or if you prefer a younger guy, how about Eric Bledsoe or Gordon Hayward? The Lakers had lined up room under the salary cap to pursue two superstar free agents this summer, in addition to re-signing Bryant.
Two years ago, they'd had that big bold idea with Chris Paul and Howard and darn near pulled it off. Why not try again? That's the Laker way, right? #whatDr.Busswoulddo
The thing is, the further the Lakers drove down that path, the more they started to feel like Thelma and Louise driving toward the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Yes, it would be awesome if LeBron and Melo wanted to team up in L.A. Really, really awesome! But what were the chances they were really going to land either of them, let alone both? And if you don't get at least one and you've let Kobe play out the final season of his contract on a still-healing Achilles – snarling and growling along the way because the franchise made him prove he could still play – what happens if he leaves, too? Or even thinks of leaving?
Do you really want to be Thelma and Louise driving off that cliff?
Can the Lakers really go all in? Can a franchise that's worth at least $1 billion, with a $5 billion TV contract and $5,000 courtside seats ever let the bottom fall completely out?
No, the Lakers didn't go crazy when they gave Kobe Bryant a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension Monday morning; they got very, very real.
They looked around and realized they still had one bankable international superstar who has more than paid for every dollar they've ever paid him, and still will, on and off the court. Why do you think the franchise is worth over $1 billion? Why do you think people still pay $5,000 for those courtside seats? As enjoyable as it's been to watch the Lakers' bunch of upstart guys play hard and hustle this year, the Lakers are the Lakers because of stars like Bryant. It's part of their brand and it's absolutely what their fans expect. Lose that, risk that even, and you're just another team.
No, the Lakers got very real with themselves and realized they can't simply trade on all the historic advantages they've enjoyed with free agents under this restrictive new collective bargaining agreement, where superstars have to take less money and security to sign with a new team.
Yes, it's probably true that no team would've paid Bryant half of what the Lakers are going to pay him the next two years. Maybe a random team makes him a big offer, just for the show of it. Same way the New Jersey Nets, Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers let it be known they had interest in Phil Jackson over the years. I'm not sure what those teams would've done if Phil had said yes, but presumably it would've taken more than the record $12 million the Lakers paid him to win titles in L.A.
But that's immaterial. The market was never going to set Bryant's value. He falls into an entirely different category, one that includes legends like Derek Jeter and Magic Johnson.
Their value is tied to the franchise with which they've become legendary. It is an important part of their legacies. But conversely, lifetime status with a franchise is equally valuable to legendary franchises like the Lakers and Yankees. It's part of what sets them apart. Players like Magic Johnson and Jeter don't just get their jerseys retired up in the rafters; they get statues built in front of the stadium.
Could the Lakers have held out a little while and gotten Bryant at a lower price? Probably.
But it was important to the Buss family to send a message to both Bryant and the Lakers' fan base that loyalty to iconic players like Bryant is still going to be one the hallmarks of the organization. Remember when Dr. Buss himself gave Magic Johnson that 25-year, $25 million contract?
It was never about the money. It was about the statement that contract made to Johnson and every future free agent who considered the Lakers.
But what's really the difference if he signed for $16-18 million instead of the $23.5 million he'll get next season? The Lakers will still have the flexibility to sign a maximum-level free agent this summer or the next one. They won't be able to chase two of them, but really, how realistic was that anyway?
And yes, they won't have as much to pad out the roster with mid-level players. But if there's one thing they learned this summer, it's that those guys usually get overpaid and there's plenty of talent that's available for veteran minimum contracts. A guy like Earl Clark leaves for a two-year, $9 million deal with Cleveland, and the Lakers replace him with Wes Johnson on a one-year, vet minimum deal. Johnson's having a good enough year that he might leave for more money next summer, but the bet is they'll find someone who can step in for him at a discount, too.
It's not ideal, but it's reality in the new CBA.
The other big bet here is the one Bryant is making. The Lakers, as currently constructed, do not give him the best chance to chase his sixth championship ring. They will not be favored in any of the next three seasons.
But three times in the past eight years, the Lakers have been favored after a series of bold offseason moves and came up empty. Remember when Gary Payton and Karl Malone came over to chase rings in 2004? Remember the 2008 Finals when the Lakers were supposed to roll the Celtics? Remember, um, last year?
Talent is always a great start, but Bryant's seen enough to know it doesn't guarantee a thing in the NBA.
No, the only thing that is guaranteed is the affection a star like him can retire with if he remains with the same franchise for his entire career. Like any marriage, it's not always perfect. But something indescribable happens when a bond is for life, and both sides know how much they've given up to preserve it.
It might not glitter, but it's a special kind of gold.