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Friday, April 2, 2010
When you have it all, what can free agency get you?

By Henry Abbott

Salary cap expert Larry Coon makes a good point. It's entirely possible that, thanks to a wrinkle in the collective bargaining agreement, Kobe Bryant has reduced his own future NBA income by signing a three-year contract extension with the Lakers, instead of entering free agency this summer and starting fresh with a new deal.

But I get it.

Consider the opposite, which is keeping your options open.

LeBron James is the highly paid star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are by many measures the best team in the NBA this year. He's playing for his hometown team, where he could hardly be treated any better. If he signed up for the long-term, he'd help his front office build a cap strategy, which could give them an advantage in surrounding him with quality teammates.

But James has not committed.

Why would he go and do a thing like that? It's easy to guess. Maybe he wanted to maximize his celebrity, and marketing income, by playing to a massive hometown audience in one of those cities where NBA teams make good money even in a bad economy. Maybe he wanted to join a roster that didn't just have a chance at a title, but instead knew precisely how to win one. Maybe he wanted to live in a nice climate.

Meanwhile, today's the day that I'm on record saying that I think James is almost certain to re-sign with Cleveland. There are several reasons I say that, but the most obvious of them is that Shangri-La ain't out there.

If James wanted to make max money while immediately winning titles for a deep-pocketed team in a top NBA market ... there is no such team.

Except the Los Angeles Lakers. The roster is excellent. The fan base is rabid and star-studded. The competition from the NFL is non-existent. The climate is stellar. The ownership has always spent to win. The front office is skilled, as evidenced by everything from trading for Pau Gasol in 2008 to drafting Andrew Bynum tenth overall in 2005. The championship banners are plentiful, and many of them are fresh.

Even if you maximized every ounce of what free agency could get you, it's hard to imagine how you could do better than what Kobe Bryant has right now. And when you know what you want, there's a ton of value -- not the least of which is psychic -- in taking all the other options off the table by signing on the dotted line. This extension keeps Bryant where he has been happy and successful. It gives him something almost no NBA player has ever gotten: fat salaries in his 16th, 17th and 18th NBA seasons. And it also keeps any other superstar free agents of 2010 from getting any funny ideas about making a play for Bryant's spot in the sun. A few dollars is a small price to pay for that.