The Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant, who hasn't played since tearing his Achilles tendon in April, signed a two-year extension on Monday. Our J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez discuss what the deal means for L.A., and what could be in store for two other faces of their franchises: Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade.
J.A.: Believe it or not, there's a way to link the two biggest, diametrically opposed stories of the week: Derrick Rose's injury and Kobe Bryant's contract. I take the $48.5 million contract Kobe signed -- while he had missed every game of the season to date -- as a sign that there's still a corner of the harsh sports world where there's room for expressing appreciation and gratitude, no matter the hit to the salary cap.
I'm hoping there's a time that sentiment comes into play for Rose. As disappointing as the past two years have been, and as realistic as it might be that he'll never be the same player he was, when it's time to decide his future in Chicago I hope the Bulls remember he took them to their only Eastern Conference finals since Michael Jordan left in 1998.
Israel: See, I don't see Kobe's contract as simply a thank you for all the years of amazing basketball. It's a business decision that keeps Lakers fans showing up to see arguably the biggest celebrity in that city. It still allows them to make a run at another major player next year. And frankly, in the LeBron-in-his-prime era, would there be any sort of guarantee that even with a superstar cast around him (ahem, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol) Kobe and the Lakers would even reach a Finals? By paying Kobe that much without even negotiating, the Lakers guarantee they have a satisfied-yet-motivated Kobe, an entertained fan base and a chance to put together a quality team -- even if it's not the "dream team" many believed could've been built.
See, I don't see Kobe's contract as simply a thank you for all the years of amazing basketball.
"-- Israel Gutierrez
This is also the way Kobe would've preferred it. He wants to be the reason the Lakers win another title, but not because he was a nice guy, gave up money and brought in a couple of superstars that would diminish his role. He wants to be the leading man. He wants players to take a discount to play with him, not the other way around. Call that what you want -- some have used the word selfish -- but it's consistent with who Kobe has been his entire career. Kobe's value is far greater to the Lakers than it would've been to any other team. So if you can't guarantee yourself a title in the next two years, at least you can guarantee the organization keeps making lots of money and the Kobe-Lakers relationship ends as one of the most storied in sports history.
J.A.: I think it's fair to call it selfish. His contract is not as team-friendly as Tim Duncan's (for one). But I wouldn't call Kobe greedy. He did leave some $16 million on the table. Anyone who thinks it's easy to pass on $16 million has never been in position to pass on $16 million. Also, notice how Howard wasn't praised for bailing on the extra $25 million the Lakers could give him last summer. Nor did the fact LeBron took less than the max to sign with Miami keep the critics at bay in 2010. So if there's no glory in taking less money, why should Kobe forfeit any additional millions?
Also, I'll buy Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak's line of thinking: Rather than say the Lakers can no longer sign two max free agents, why can't Kobe count as one of the two? He could have been a free agent; now the Lakers are guaranteed to have him. And I'm not sure there were two realistic max guys for them to get. They weren't landing LeBron and Melo. And if they maxed, say Rudy Gay or Luol Deng, that would be even more suspect than what they gave Kobe.
Back to Rose: Don't you think it's ironic that ever since the NBA adopted the "Derrick Rose Rule" for players who outperform their contracts, Rose has underperformed his contract? The owners felt sheepish enough about Rose winning the MVP in 2011 while making $5.5 million on his rookie scale contract that they allowed higher raises for young players who quickly reach such lofty status. Unfortunately for the Chicago Bulls, that means they'll end up paying Rose $34 million for playing 10 games over two seasons. The question is, does that get them off the hook down the road? Do they still owe Rose a lifetime achievement award like the contract the Lakers gave Kobe?
Israel: Rose needs to have a lifetime of games before we decide what he's owed. There's always a chance he'll never be the same player (that's not something I believe, by the way), and therefore his future contracts won't be anywhere near his current one. But that's part of the reason why, when you're young, you get what you can, when you can get it. Basketball isn't nearly as dangerous as football, and the money is guaranteed, but players such as Greg Oden and Brandon Roy will tell you that "overpaying" young, talented players is never a bad thing.
The more intriguing element to the Rose story, to me, is the near future. First, his recovery from the meniscus tear -- his medial tear isn't even considered as bad as Russell Westbrook's lateral tear -- should allow him to return at the start of next season (it's probably more time than he actually needs). What will the Bulls look like when he returns? We can be almost certain the team won't include Deng (free agent in 2014), Carlos Boozer (amnesty candidate) or Kirk Hinrich. If things go right for the Bulls, they could have Charlotte's first-round pick (it's only top-10 protected, and the Bobcats are currently in playoff position). If things go wrong for the remaining Bulls on the court this season, their own draft pick could be quite high in a loaded draft. And they'd still have some room to sign a significant player in free agency. To me, this is an OK scenario for Chicago. Sure, this year is another wasted one. But as long as you believe Rose will return at an All-Star level, the future looks pretty strong.
J.A.: So should they think future and not present? Because they were trying to win now. If they're going to build around draft picks and a rehabilitating Rose, they should slide the target date back by a couple of years. But it might just be tempting to make a run at the 2014-15 title because we don't know what the Eastern Conference landscape will be like starting next summer. What if LeBron goes back to Cleveland and needs a year or two to get that young Cavs team up to speed?
Don't you think it's ironic that ever since the NBA adopted the 'Derrick Rose Rule' for players who outperform their contracts, Rose has underperformed his contract?
"-- J.A. Adande
And speaking of upcoming Heat free agents, isn't Miami in a similar position with Dwyane Wade as the Lakers were with Kobe? Wade can opt out of his contract this summer, but leaving Miami isn't a realistic option.
Like Kobe, he's earned the right to stick with one team his entire career, even if it means that team has to overpay him. With the devices the Heat used to sign smaller-but-important pieces such as Mike Miller and Shane Battier drying up, the Heat might not be able to assemble another championship roster around LeBron and Wade.
Israel: There are differences between Kobe's situation and Wade's. For starters, Kobe has his five rings and if he's going to convince anyone that his career has been as great -- or greater -- than Jordan's, he'll have to win his next ring in a leading role. Wade, on the other hand, already willingly took a step back to allow LeBron to take the lead. So while he fully believes he remains among the league's elite players, it's not a necessity that it be recognized, whether that be through salary numbers or basketball numbers. Point is, it appears as if Wade would be willing to sacrifice once again to keep this championship train rolling. But you're right, from the Heat's perspective, Wade is a must-keep. But even if he and/or Chris Bosh don't take significant cuts to allow for payroll flexibility, there's a faith in Pat Riley and Micky Arison that isn't necessarily there in the Los Angeles front office anymore.
J.A.: The fact Wade sacrificed the last time means he shouldn't have to sacrifice this time. Why should it always go in one direction? I agree with Kobe's tweet from Tuesday, when he pointed out:
The cap rules players have to be "selfless" on To "help" BILLIONAIRE owners R the same cap rules the owners LOCKED US out to put in #think
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) November 27, 2013
In fact, Kobe delving into the nature of the collective bargaining agreement on the heels of speculation about what the Lakers could do with Steve Nash's contract put me into hyper-theory mode. What if the reason the Lakers got this deal done so early, before they've even had a chance to see what Kobe still has left for real competition, is because they'd seen enough in practice to know he won't be close to his old self? What if they want to get this contract extension signed now so he could be assured of his money, but he plans to say "no mas" before it expires and put the wheels in motion to have the contract come off the Lakers' salary cap? That would be a win for him and the team. And the fact that his salary is so large would mean even more cap space for the Lakers. There's zero evidence that this is the plan, but if it were it would be very forward-thinking by the Lakers.
As it stands, back in the real world, his contract extension feels like the transaction of a franchise stuck in the past. They're paying Kobe a salary more commensurate with what he was than what he is. They're hoping that they can rely on brand equity to attract free agents rather than pure cap space. But Dwight's departure showed that the Laker lore doesn't hold the same sway it used to. In fact, the Lakers were advised not to use their banners or retired jerseys on the recruiting billboards they plastered around town in their unsuccessful attempt to retain Howard last summer. Howard wanted to forge his own identity, not be lumped in with the Lakers who came before him.
The Lakers' tradition is their greatest asset. Kobe's contract extension was a nod to that, an acknowledgement of his role in that story, as well as a reminder that he remains the present face of the franchise. But that contract doesn't feel like a template for any future negotiations. Guess we'll find out when it's time for Rose and Wade to sign.
Israel: Here's one fact that a lot of fans don't want to believe: It's not ALWAYS about winning championships, even for the Lakers.
I realize that's a blasphemous statement for a franchise that has won so regularly, but it's true. It's realism setting in, and it was never more obvious to the Lakers that winning isn't guaranteed than it was last season, when Howard turned into a disaster. So when it comes to fallback plans, the Lakers have a great one. For the next two years, they'll have an extremely motivated Kobe (even if he's only trying to prove he's worth the contract), and they'll have an opportunity, depending on what the Lakers' front office does with its remaining salary cap space (they have to play a role, too, here; the Lakers' success doesn't all hinge on Bryant's contract) to be among the elite in the Western Conference again. But let's say that doesn't happen as planned.
Let's say the Lakers make it only to the second round of the playoffs in 2015 and 2016. Well, the Lakers will be able to say they've succeeded at the box office, because Kobe brings in the fans, and they'll still have one of the most talked about teams, and they'll be part of a celebratory ending to a remarkable 20-year career that has been in purple and gold the entire time. That's a pretty good fallback option if you can't win a championship.
And if the Lakers do things right moving forward, they can work their way back to championship status soon thereafter. Not many franchises have opportunities like that. So this decision for Kobe shouldn't be judged the same way as you would judge it for 29 other teams.