The Los Angeles Lakers showed great loyalty to Kobe Bryant, the man whom Magic Johnson, Jerry West and even Shaquille O’Neal have called the greatest Laker of all time, by signing him Monday to a $48.5 million extension over the next two seasons.
"Deeply moved by it," Bryant wrote to ESPNLosAngeles.com when asked about the Lakers' show of loyalty. "Deeply."
But was it blind loyalty?
While the Lakers can honestly believe in Bryant’s work ethic and in his desire to do everything in his power to return to being the player he was before he tore his Achilles tendon in April, they just committed $50 million to Bryant before he has proved that he can play in one game, let alone in an additional 164 games through 2015-16, when Bryant will be 37 years old.
The reason the Lakers might take the risk is pretty clear: After their brand has taken a hit in recent seasons with uninspiring playoff exits and the departure of Dwight Howard, attaching themselves to Bryant is going all-in on their biggest star and their greatest box-office draw.
The appeal for Bryant is even simpler: He now has the opportunity to go out as the highest-paid player in the game, and the deal assures that he will play with only one franchise for his entire career, something that Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O’Neal could not do.
But while he’ll achieve a longevity milestone (passing John Stockton’s NBA record of playing 19 seasons with one franchise) in agreeing to this contract, he is also risking what his legacy has been built on.
Bryant has distinguished himself as the ultimate winner of his era, raking in five championship rings with two mini Lakers dynasties (three with O’Neal in four trips to the Finals and two with Pau Gasol in three trips to the Finals). When Bryant passed O’Neal on the all-time scoring list in Philadelphia back in February 2012, he was asked if passing Abdul-Jabbar as the game's career points leader was in his sights; he replied, "I just want No. 6, man. I'm not asking for too much, man. Just give me a sixth ring, damn it."
But in agreeing to a deal that will pay him approximately 37.3 percent of the Lakers' projected $62.9 million salary cap for next season, leaving the organization 62.7 percent to spread out over the additional 12-14 players it takes to fill out a roster, he may have compromised the team's chances of winning another title.
In what’s become a league that seems to be controlled by teams that manage the cap in order to put together three stars in the same uniform, Bryant all but guaranteed that L.A. can only add one additional max-level free agent over the next two summers, when it will finally have cap space to spend. He also pretty much forced the Lakers’ hand as far as using the stretch provision to waive Steve Nash this coming summer in order to use that extra $10 million on the free-agent market -- and also lowered the chance of Gasol returning to the team, unless Gasol is willing to give the team a significant hometown discount. And, of course, there are no guarantees Bryant will be able to return to anything like peak form.
Bryant was eligible under the current collective bargaining agreement to receive a 5 percent pay increase next season, meaning the maximum amount he could have received for 2014 would have been $32 million. In that regard, agreeing to $23.5 million for next year represents a pay "cut," but it's unlikely he would have been offered that amount by the Lakers or on the open market. And what's more, Bryant could have agreed to a deal more along the lines of Tim Duncan -- his closest peer in terms of all-time NBA standing -- who signed a three-year extension worth approximately $34 million (or roughly half of what Bryant will be making per season from here on out) and thereby contributing to the San Antonio Spurs' flexibility to pursue two top-level free agents.
The Lakers kept their man and Bryant landed a deal commensurate with his standing as one of the game's elite players. But both the team and the player may have risked the thing they and their fans care about the most -- championships -- in the process.