This week, with the release of the official salary cap numbers and onset of formal contract signings, was supposed to bring clarity to the NBA. Instead it left us debating the kind of obligations not covered by the collective bargaining agreement, a hazy realm of morals and values.
You could gather as many lawyers and accountants as you want and you still couldn't come up with a definitive answer to the question: What do the Lakers owe Kobe Bryant? Conversely, how much does he owe them?
These are the central questions governing the Lakers as they make their key decisions for the next few years. Should they go all-out for another championship in Kobe's shrinking window among the league's elite, or should they embark on a long-term strategy to win down the road? Should Kobe forsake the fair compensation coming his way in order to facilitate the Lakers' moves?
The Lakers have paid Bryant a quarter of a billion dollars during his NBA career. They've put him in position to win five championships. In return he has played through every circumstance short of being strapped to a hospital gurney, and has scored more points than all but three players in the history of the league.
So far it appears the Lakers are operating under the premise that they're beholden to Bryant, the guy they've been tied to since 1996. It's not the way things usually work in Los Angeles, where spouses and leased cars are often returned at a similar rate. The Lakers used their one-time amnesty provision on Metta World Peace's $7.7 million salary, even though taking Bryant's $30 million off the books would have had a more dramatic financial impact and still provided an opportunity for him to return in 2014-15.
A promise to cut Kobe loose (along with axing Mike D'Antoni) also would have been a much more meaningful sign to Dwight Howard than those "Stay" billboards that the Lakers were committed to the center.
Dramatic moves? Surely. But if you think about it, they would have been no different from what the Lakers did in 2004 when they were desperate to retain Kobe. They let Phil Jackson go and traded Shaquille O'Neal to Miami. When it came to choosing between Kobe and Shaq, the Lakers went with the 25-year-old over the 32-year-old. They also went with the more popular of the two. Lakers fans were infatuated with Kobe, and growing increasingly frustrated with Shaq.
Kobe won the crowd. And if there were any doubts that he still holds exalted status, he quelled those when he made his way out to the Lakers bench on crutches, shortly after Howard was ejected from the Lakers' final playoff game. The crowd responded with its loudest cheer of the day.
It's why the Lakers are riding with Bryant, who turns 35 next month and is coming off a major injury, over the 27-year-old Howard, who sent neither the franchise nor its fan base into mourning when he decided to leave for Houston. It's also because Howard built no equity with the Lakers. He didn't win a single playoff game.
Accomplishments don't always mean obligations. Paul Pierce played 1,102 games for the Boston Celtics, helped them hang their 17th championship banner, scored more points in the green and white jersey than anyone other than John Havlicek -- and yet those things didn't allow him to finish his career in Boston. There's no provision in the salary-cap rules for that, no way for the Celtics to retool while keeping Pierce aboard at a salary commensurate with his service. So now he's a Brooklyn Net.
The Celtics chose their future over honoring Pierce's past effort, or fielding a competitive team in the present. Is that fair to Pierce, or the fans, who will still be charged full price? Let's just say the Celtics are operating at an obligation deficit right now.
You know an organization that shows a balance of zero "debt" right now? The Clippers. They got the best available coach (even though he technically wasn't available) and paid him a salary most coaches don't get anymore, they've got their two biggest stars -- Chris Paul and Blake Griffin -- under long-term contracts, and they filled out their roster with role players such as J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison, Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins.
That might explain in part why Paul declined a free-agency tour of his own. He could have squeezed another personnel move or two out of the Clippers, or lured other teams into rearranging their rosters to accommodate him.
"I didn't feel like that would be fair," Paul said. "I'm pretty aware of what could have happened, or where you could go. I'm pretty knowledgeable about the situations. There was no need to put any of that added stress on anybody."
So he told the other teams not to waste their time, committed to the Clippers from the outset, then signed the paperwork at the first possible opportunity. Then again, I'd be pretty eager to sign my name to a contract that had $107 million coming my way, too.
We won't see Kobe command such big numbers again. The salary-cap restrictions mean that if Kobe wants to continue playing beyond next season and bring in the best available talent, he and the Lakers will have to reach agreement on a salary that pays him below his worth. Even if he can't produce at the same level, you could argue he still deserves a max contract based on all the years that same concept -- a salary ceiling -- prevented him from receiving his fair cut of the tickets, jerseys and sponsorships he sold. But he'll be forced to choose between competition and compensation. I'm guessing the competitor will win out.
Shaquille O'Neal took a $7 million pay cut with the Miami Heat in 2005, a move that enabled the Heat to reconfigure their roster and bring in the pieces that won them the championship in 2006. In 2007, Kevin Garnett's reduced salary (he made about the same in the first three years of his new contract as he did in the final two years of his previous, landmark contract) made it easier for the Minnesota Timberwolves to send him to the Celtics in the trade that redefined his career.
Bryant could be asked for an even steeper drop-off, up to $20 million a year. After the Lakers showed their faith in him this summer, next year will be his time to return the favor.