So much for any fantastic notions of Kobe joining LeBron James in New York, or following in Michael Jordan's footsteps in Chicago, or even making good on his flirtations with the Clippers six years after he broke their hearts in the summer of 2004.
The long-negotiated, much-discussed contract extension for Bryant was finally announced by the Lakers on Friday. The cold truth was no other team could pay him $85 million over three years and still give him a shot at a championship. He has his MVP, he had his fun throwing up crazy scoring numbers. The only thing left on his slate is to add to his collection of four rings, to track down Magic Johnson (five) and Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six)
and yeah, he wouldn't mind getting a little separation from Shaquille O'Neal, either.
So now the only remaining question is this: Who will coach him in his quest? Signing the extension now removes any leverage he had in the coaching game and takes the hammer away from a key Phil Jackson ally. There was speculation that one thing holding up Bryant's signing was the increasing uncertainty surrounding Jackson's future. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Jackson's status has "never been a factor in the negotiation."
Kupchak said the lengthy process -- even the health care bill got passed in the time since extension talks were initiated last summer -- was a function of schedules, a break for the Lakers to get Pau Gasol's extension done, traveling, holidays and waits to get clarifications from the league office. He said the only urgency came from a desire to get the contract signed before the playoffs.
Jackson seemed strangely distanced from the NBA's big story of the day. Perhaps it's because there's no indication that Buss is handing out money to everyone; if anything, the belief around the Lakers is that Jackson will have to take a pay cut if he is to return.
Jackson's initial response when asked about Bryant's extension was two words: "Good news."
He said it wouldn't alter his decision on coming back to the Lakers because he always presumed that Bryant would re-sign with the Lakers, and the prospect of Bryant as a Laker through 2013-14 has little relevance because Jackson, 64, doesn't see himself coaching that long.
"I just don't think that's in the cards at all," Jackson said. "But I can look at a season one year at a time right now and feel comfortable with a commitment that I can generate enough energy to get through another year or push the team hard enough as a coach to get them through a year. But when you talk about those long-term things, there's got to be a change here in the future."
Kobe has come full circle in his relationship with Jackson. When Jackson first came to the Lakers in 1999, Bryant was so excited he drove to the site of the Lakers' news conference to meet his new coach. Later he felt restricted by Jackson's insistence on sticking to the triangle offense and getting the ball to Shaq. Then there was indifference; when the Lakers announced during the middle of the 2003-04 season that they were taking their contract offer to Jackson off the table, Bryant's three-word reaction -- "I don't care" -- turned Lakerland upside down.
All it took was a half-season with Rudy Tomjanovich and an offense that gave help defenders all kinds of access to Bryant for Kobe and Jerry Buss to appreciate Phil. (Easier for Kobe than Buss, since Buss was the one paying Jackson's eight-figure annual asking price).
At this stage Bryant doesn't want to try something new. He wants to go with what worked for his four championships, in addition to the six championships Jackson won in Chicago. Whatever keeps Bryant happy ought to be ownership's primary concern now that there's no chance Bryant opts out of his contract this summer and the Lakers spin him into the bad guy for leaving.
It also ratchets up the financial pressure to spend more on a coach. If they're going to shell out $64 million for Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom next season, then give them $71 million in 2011-12, isn't it a necessary insurance policy to spend an additional $10 million to $12 million on the proven Jackson to provide the leadership?
So while the Lakers breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to another three years with Bryant, they should pause to reflect on an inescapable fact from his first 14 seasons in purple and gold: He never won a championship without Phil Jackson coaching him.