The earthquake rocked the Lakers on the morning of Nov. 25, 2013, their economic future rattled by a $48.5-million contract extension given to an aging and injured player who neither required it nor demanded it.
Now, seven months later, comes the tsunami.
The Lakers’ noble attempt at resurrection through the pursuit of two of the greatest free agents ever will probably be washed away by the effects of a contract that grows more destructive by the day.
The NBA headlines are filled these days with speculation about LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, but the Lakers’ bottom line is all about Kobe Bryant.
In a career-ending twist as ugly as a torn Achilles’ tendon, Bryant was likely given too much money for the Lakers to be able to give him another championship.
For seven months Lakers fans have felt it, and now they’re finally drowning in it. A contract that was criticized here and elsewhere from the moment it was signed is worth revisiting now, because now it really hurts.
A Lakers Big Three? A Big Lie. Even though James’ agent will meet with the Lakers on Friday, there can probably be no Big Three here because Bryant’s contract, which cannot be renegotiated downward by NBA rules, fills up too much salary-cap space to allow for the signing of both James and Anthony.
A Lakers Big Two? A Big Leap. Certainly they can acquire Anthony, who visited El Segundo on Thursday, and that would probably lead to the re-signing of Pau Gasol. But there would be little cap room for any sort of talent to fill out the roster around them, and that would leave them with a roster that would be fortunate to win one playoff round in the West.
This summer the Lakers’ management has been acting like the savvy Lakers management of old, smartly grabbing powerful Julius Randle in the NBA draft, patiently waiting to name a new head coach until the roster is set. The embattled Buss kids seem to be finally, slowly maturing into their role as their father’s successors.
If only they had not experienced that one sharp growing pain seven months ago.
In giving Bryant a two-year, $48.5-million extension without even having seen him play a regulation minute since he tore his Achilles’ tendon in the previous spring, Jim and Jeanie Buss were clearly trying to reflect their father’s legacy while allowing themselves to step out of his shadow.
It was the wrong move at the worst time. In trying to honor Bryant, they dishonored their fans. In attempting to saying thank you to one of their greatest players, they actually scripted his painful farewell.
At the time, of course, they had no idea that Bryant’s comeback would last only six games because of other injuries, and that he would enter the first year of this new contract engulfed in physical uncertainty. But they could read a birth certificate, they could read doctors’ charts, they knew he was 35, and they should have figured this downward spiral was possible.
They didn’t need to give him the contract then, and, in fact, they didn’t even need to do it before last week. That’s right, Bryant’s old contract didn’t expire until June 30, which means they could have waited until both James and Anthony became free agents before approaching Bryant with brains instead of emotion.
Think about it. Knowing the two stars were available to join him, would Bryant have agreed to a deal that annually paid him about $10 million, a fair price for an older player batting injuries? Would Bryant have taken less money to give his team a better chance at winning a championship? Like other NBA stars often do? Like Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki just did on Thursday? Who knows? But it would have been nice to see what he would have done with that opportunity.
Bryant has taken a lot of heat for not insisting on taking less money to help the team, but it’s hard to rip a guy for accepting what was clearly a gift. The onus was on the Buss family to scope out the future and realize this might be the costliest gift in franchise history.
Their explanation was that they were just following in the steps taken by their father Jerry Buss many years ago when he honored Magic Johnson with a one-year, $14-million deal in 1992 even though Johnson had been diagnosed with HIV. The owner wanted to show Johnson his gratitude and make sure he remained a Laker for life.
That was a nice gesture, but it wasn’t a potential championship-preventing gesture like this one. Magic was receiving farewell tour money, but Kobe Bryant is two years from a farewell. Magic was necessary to maintain the aura of Showtime, while last year the Lakers still reportedly made $100 million with Bryant in street clothes.
They didn’t need to give Bryant all that money for marketing. They didn’t need to do it for loyalty. They didn’t need to do it, period.
“Kobe, by signing that deal, will have played 20 years for one organization,” Jeanie Buss told Time Warner Cable SportsNet several months later in defense of that contract. “To have that kind of longevity he’s had makes it extremely special, and I think that Laker fans understand that.”
No, today’s Lakers fans understand winning. The Kobe Bryant contract was never about winning. Seven months later, it is now about losing.