It was a simple question, and it went directly to the center of a struggling franchise and its rapidly aging megastar.
Did the Lakers do the right thing by giving Kobe Bryant that two-year, $48.5-mlllion contract extension in November 2013?
“100%. We have no regrets at all,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday.
Why? “Because he’s worth every penny of it.”
By the time this season ends, Bryant will have played 41 of a possible 182 games since the deal was done, and will have one more year on his contract for $25 million. It’s a lot for an increasingly injury-prone player whose last three seasons were cut short by a torn Achilles’ tendon, a fractured knee and now a torn rotator cuff.
Kupchak acknowledged that the Lakers, mired in a nine-game losing streak and foundering with a 12-34 record, will need a talent upgrade next season. The catch: They have room for only one maximum-salaried player.
“To me, a big part of Kobe’s contribution next year is if we can improve this team during the off-season,” Kupchak said.
Yes, he expects Bryant to return for a 20th season, all with the Lakers.
“I don’t think he’s retiring,” Kupchak said. “I spoke to him [Thursday] morning. The doctor’s prognosis was released yesterday and [Bryant] said he was looking forward to training camp. That’s what we expect.”
Bryant, 36, will need about nine months to recover from his shoulder surgery. It was unclear if he would return in time for training camp. At the very least, he will need three or four months before he can start running, Kupchak said.
“He’ll be in a brace and it will be an awkward-looking brace. I think that would prevent him from doing anything for quite some time,” he said.
The Lakers are tanking without tanking, so to speak, losing games without doing it purposely. They don’t need to try to lose. It’s happening because their roster is so substandard. Kupchak acknowledged that it wasn’t the worst thing if the Lakers ended up with the top-five protected pick they owed Phoenix for the Steve Nash trade.
“A top-five pick is always a good thing,” Kupchak said, adding that the Lakers weren’t losing on purpose. “Our coaches and players have been instructed to win games. Maybe I used the wrong word. I don’t have to ‘instruct’ the players to win games and try to win games. I don’t have to instruct Byron [Scott] to. That’s why they’re here.”
Kupchak did not fault the Lakers’ coach for overplaying Bryant, including an average of 37.1 minutes a game in November. Scott has taken the blame for giving Bryant too much playing time.
Bryant played only 35 games and shot only 37% this season, easily a career-low. He had become a part-time player by the time he was injured, appearing in only eight of the team's last 16 games. His playing time had been reduced to 32 minutes a game.
“Byron is saying the right thing and doing the right thing but I really don’t think that had anything to do with anything, certainly not the injury,” Kupchak said.