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Tuesday, August 16, 2011
When Kobe's contract becomes a burden

By Henry Abbott

Kobe Bryant
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images
Stadium honcho Tim Leiweke and rapper will.i.am tend to a banged up Kobe Bryant.

Titles go to teams with superstars, by and large.

There are two reasons for that:
The Lakers organization has swum in the warm waters of this reality for nearly all of the decade-and-a-half of Kobe Bryant's career to date. Delightfully, championships, ticket sales and huge local TV deals have washed ashore.

But under a new, more restrictive collective bargaining agreement, all that could be in jeopardy moving forward.

Bryant's productivity, like all banged up 33-year-old athletes', is likely to decline. Falling far faster is the total amount the Lakers are allowed to spend on players under the CBA. L.A. spent more than $90 million last season, under some proposals for a new CBA, they'd be faced with slashing that total by a third.

Meanwhile, Bryant is about to become the highest paid player in the league, with big raises in each of the next three years. The team's obligations to Bryant -- approaching double LeBron James' income over the next three years -- could force the Lakers to ditch the best of the rest of the roster just to keep him.

Although new CBA rules will likely come with a phase-in period, and rollbacks of existing salaries may provide some relief to the team, there is no scenario on the table in the CBA talks where the Lakers will be able to keep outspending rivals as they have. A stated league goal is to level the competitive playing field, which can only be achieved by tweaking the market to permit less talent on teams like the Lakers, and more talent on teams like the Kings. Tough choices loom, complicated by the fact that though he continues to play like a star, Bryant, is poised to become so overpaid as to flirt with "bad contract" status.

Signs of decline

By necessity, older NBA players find regular season moments here and there to put their competitiveness, and knees, on ice. You just can't go all out all season all career long and be at your best when it matters most. So you pick your spots, biding your time for the playoffs.

On April 17, 2011, those shenanigans were finished for Bryant. The playoffs had finally arrived, and the Hornets were in town.

About 23 minutes and 50 seconds in, though, things had gone a bit sideways. Chris Paul was waltzing through the Laker defense, and the hosts -- expected to win easily -- were trailing significantly.

Bryant did a very Bryantish thing, using a jab, a stepback, and a fadeaway jumper -- essentially unguardable, the way he does it -- to close the gap to eight with about ten seconds in the half. He fell backwards a bit, and summoned a textbook crash-landing, bent legs pushing his momentum straight back into a nice, practiced backside slide.

Just when you'd expect him to hop up and run back on D, however, the base of Bryant's neck found the knee of AEG executive Tim Leiweke, sitting courtside.  The bump wasn't much to look at --  nothing compared to the collisions Bryant has endured in the paint for years. Leiweke certainly appeared uninjured.

Play rolled on -- Paul led his Hornets the other direction and nailed a 3 playing against just four Laker defenders as Bryant ... where was Bryant? Ron Artest used the half's final seconds to wish in a half-court shot bomb before the TV cameras found Bryant, still on the floor, unaware of the thrilling plays at both ends, grabbing his neck, kicking a leg in pain as he was fussed over by an oddball crew of Laker trainers, security guards, a stadium executive and the rapper will.i.am. Bryant was face-down for more than a minute -- an eternity when the clock is ticking in a playoff game.

And it is a story of a ticking clock. Young people accused Bryant of faking the injury (A top-rated YouTube comment: "Pierce does it better. He actually got people˙ carry him off the court."). But watching as a man a few years older than Bryant's 32, I felt for the guy. I'm sure there's an accurate story to be told about this or that nerve or tendon or delicate supporting musculature; a month earlier he had injured his neck. But that would all be a distraction from the real story which is: Age. 25-year-old Bryant had no reason to fear a Leiweke knee.

Now, though ... you just don't spring up like you used to.

Mileage

Bryant will be 33 before next season. That's an age when the vast majority of NBA players are solidly in decline, especially perimeter players who rely on athleticism. Even at the tender age of 32, Bryant is already the 18th oldest guard out of 179 listed in the NBA last season on Basketball-Reference.

But there are exceptions to every rule, and among current NBA guards Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Ray Allen are all older than Bryant and still playing at something like their peak.

And by any measure, Bryant's an elite player right now. For instance, he had the league's fifth best PER last season, which is in keeping with his ranking by that stat as a younger man.

Here's the complication, though: Bryant is in a group with Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and other top players who came to the NBA straight from high school. Having joined the professional ranks so young, and played so many minutes throughout their careers, they are racking up old-man minutes at young-man ages. Between the regular season and the playoffs, Bryant has already played 48,310 NBA minutes. Only 15 people in NBA history have ever played more.

Nobody really knows if age, or minutes played, better predicts future performance (and players who went to college still endured wear-and-tear all those pre-NBA years).

But to whatever extent mileage matters, Bryant has logged more playoff minutes than every single player in NBA history, except Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The next active player on that list is Tim Duncan, who is more than a thousand minutes behind.

Bill Russell won 11 titles in less floor time than Bryant has already played. 174 minutes, or a few games, into next season, Bryant will have played more than Michael Jordan ever did, including the Wizards years. Oscar Robertson, Charles Barkley, Mark Jackson, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Lenny Wilkens, A.C. Green, Jerry West ... all retired before playing as much as Bryant already has.

John Stockton, John Havlicek, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, and Jason Kidd are essentially the only perimeter players in NBA history who have continued to play well after having played more minutes than Bryant has, when regular season and playoff minutes are combined.

Kevin Pelton has a sophisticated method of identifying players with similar playing styles, position, size and productivity. After the disappointing end to the Lakers' season, Pelton noted that "of the 50 players whose stats were closest to Bryant's in 13 categories, including height and weight, 71 percent saw their overall per-minute performance decline the next season."

More of the same is not enough

The idea that the Lakers will contend next season, despite the league's second-oldest roster, hinges on the notion that they will greatly improve on a season Bryant called "wasted." There are limited ways that could happen.

Can Bryant be among the 29 percent of players who, in Pelton's analysis, had seasons like his and then came back better? Jordan did it -- as Pelton points out, after a season like Bryant's, he came back the next year to lead a team to a title.

It can happen, but it would take some luck. And counting on luck is no plan.

Bryant, however, has already showed plenty of signs of wear and tear.

Somebody could write a feature film about his right knee. Bryant took it to Colorado for surgery in 2003, a visit that famously ended in scandal at a hotel in the town of Eagle. It was operated on again in 2006 and 2010. It then kept Bryant from practicing nearly all of last season, which has been called a key factor in major breakdowns in the team when under stress against the Mavericks in the playoffs, where the favored Lakers were swept in four games.

The same knee has already undergone a fourth operation this summer, this time in Germany.

And the knee is only part of the story. His left ankle, his right index finger, a ligament in his right pinkie ... his neck took a beating from Martell Webster in March. The point being, you can say this past season was an aberration in that he was never fully healthy. The idea is that next season he will, at long last, be able to play unhindered. But you have to look back years to find a Bryant season that is not marred by nagging injuries. Even with arguably the league's finest offseason training regimen, he has carried a whole team's worth of aches and pains for a half-decade, which speaks admirably of his mental toughness, but not as well of his likelihood of being free and clear of injury worries in the future.

Win Shares is a catch-all stat that can measure a player's total contribution over a season, and unlike PER is not efficiency-based. Win Shares offers no free pass for time missed. After consistently finishing seasons in the league's top-five, Bryant has been seventh, 21st and 14th over the last three regular seasons.

How long can you expect a player like that to continue outplaying a brutally athletic crop of improving competing shooting guards?

If the Lakers are going to get better, the most likely thing by far is that more and more of the heavy lifting will have to come from other Lakers -- and of them Andrew Bynum is far and away the best candidate to improve because of his size, position, skill and age. He's one of the few Lakers who is both productive at an elite level and likely to get even better -- just what the team needs. His PER is just a shade behind Bryant's, while his offensive efficiency, as expressed by true shooting percentage, is already superior. The Lakers could presumably make things easier on Bryant's body, and better for their offense, simply by running more of the offense through their young big man.

But here Bryant, who has long had a tendency to hurt the Lakers with ballhogging in crunch time, has signaled he is unwilling to give up the rock, telling reporters at the end of the season: "Ultimately, [Bynum will] have to fall in line because I’m gonna shoot the ball -- we all know that. Pau is going to get his touches; he’s number two. And then [Andrew] will have to fall in line."

In other words, Bryant is unlikely to make a vast improvement, and while Bryant's controlling the ball, the same is true of Bynum, too.

Hard costs

Thanks to a contract extension he signed in 2010 that will take effect this upcoming season Bryant is due to draw a salary of $25,244,493 in 2011-2012, $27,849,149 the following year and $30,453,805 in 2013-2014, when he will be 35. That's a three-year total of $83,547,447, in a league that has been talking seriously about bringing player costs way down.

Let's say we emerge from CBA negotiations with a fairly hard cap averaging $60 million a season. The cold hard question for general manager Mitch Kupchak would become: which Laker team is better, Bryant and $32 million or so in supporting cast, or $60 million in the best players money can buy without Bryant?

In other words, was Bryant's contract extension a mistake?

It's almost impossible to project that Bryant's on-court performance over the next three years will be worth an amount approaching what he'll earn. The Lakers get a lot in that deal, including one of the best players in the NBA, by any measure, and a cult hero who gives the Lakers the star power to draw the coolest celebrity crowd in sports. Without Bryant, it's not hard to imagine that the TV cameras would be forced to linger longer on Penny Marshall, Dyan Cannon and the Kardashians where they once found Leonardo DiCaprio, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake. That doesn't help the Lakers brand.

The Lakers agreed to pay such exorbitant sums out of an urge to keep that party going, and to keep Bryant in purple and gold until his retirement. In some cases, such salaries are seen as thanks for a career's worth of service. It's good to see businesses treating workers well in this day and age, and it's not hard to argue Bryant has earned it. Maybe over the next three years some of Bryant's salary will be for his play, and the rest will be to make up for all the money he made them in years' past when the CBA prevented him from earning his real market value.

Laker fans have been musing about Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and all the other big names who may join Bryant in leading a Laker resurrection. But there will be no adding salaries for the Lakers if there's a firmer NBA salary cap. Just Bryant, Gasol and Bynum combine to earn roughly what the NBA's salary cap was last season. With the paltry sums general manager Mitch Kupchak will have to spend filling out the non-Bryant roster, and the big dollars guaranteed to players up and down the roster, it'll be tough enough for the team to hold on to Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, let alone add more big names to the mix.

To the extent the Lakers are in the business of cold, hard strategic thinking -- as opposed to admirably sustaining their long symbiosis with Bryant -- it's easy to see that the time is now to consider ways to get relief from Bryant's contract.

One way they could save some money is in salary rollbacks. The league has proposed slashing the future value of contracts that are already on the books. That could be particularly helpful to Kupchak who'll be trying to bring salaries down without gutting the team.

If that's not enough, though, and you accept that Bryant is entering the inefficient part of his career, but still has tremendous value to create excitement and draw fans, then it may be time to find out if Bryant might consider waiving his no-trade clause. He is such a big name that he may, even under a new CBA, fetch the Lakers a player or two in addition to salary cap relief.

Then there's the final, unthinkable option: It has been discussed that the new CBA may have an amnesty clause, that lets teams buy out players and send them on their way. Depending how it's negotiated, this could include salary cap relief. And if so, would the Lakers use it on Bryant?

They'd be laughed out of the gym for letting one of the best players in the league go, and future free agents may punish the Lakers for abandoning a good soldier. There are plenty of reasons not to. But the reason to consider it seriously is that keeping Bryant, at this age and those prices, virtually guarantees the team's decline -- unless Bryant can manage the magic trick of playing the best ball of his life after turning 33.