Lakers forward Pau Gasol has agreed in principle to an extension that would keep him under contract through 2013-14, and Kobe Bryant has had ever-improving discussions on a contract extension that would keep him with the Lakers for the same period.
On Friday, Gasol smiled and said, "I haven't signed anything yet," but it was merely semantics, the stroke of a pen probably completing his extension within a few days after the Lakers' trip ends Sunday in Detroit, according to sources close to the negotiations but not authorized to speak publicly.
Gasol, 29, made the Lakers instant championship contenders when he was acquired in February 2008 from the Memphis Grizzlies, but his current contract expires after next season. He is making $16.5 million this season and $17.8 million next season, though a three-year extension would net him an additional sum of up to $64.7 million, depending on NBA salary-cap figures to be determined in 2011.
Bryant, 31, is also having positive talks with the franchise with which he began his career in 1996. He is making $23 million this season and will make $24.8 million next season in the last year of his contract, but he can tack on a three-year extension worth up to $91 million, depending on future salary-cap figures.
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak declined to comment on Bryant or Gasol other than to say, "Generally speaking, we'd love to have both players finish their careers as a Laker."
The Lakers have offered Bryant the most they can under salary-cap rules, but the sides are believed to be discussing smaller items such as whether the 11-time All-Star can get most of his annual salary at the start of each season, which has been the case throughout his current contract. Another sticking point possibly includes whether he can again have a no-trade clause, which came into play when he demanded a trade from the Lakers in May 2007.
Bryant has declined to talk about the status of his contract extension, saying most recently he wanted to "keep my business behind closed doors."
The Lakers have been to the NBA Finals the last two seasons with Gasol and have not lost three consecutive games since acquiring him. His value was obvious earlier this season when the team went 8-3 while he was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Since his return, the Lakers have won 12 of 13 games. "It's crazy to think it, but he's still underrated," Bryant said. "He's a great, great player."
Gasol made the All-Star team last season, representing the Western Conference as one of the NBA's most versatile forwards. He is averaging 17.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game this season, and has been on a recent rebounding tear, averaging 19.5 over the last four games.
Bryant is two NBA championships short of Michael Jordan, who won six titles with the Chicago Bulls, but he insists he doesn't think of it as a goal. "I never gave it consideration," Bryant said. "I wanted to try to gobble up as many as I could. With this team that we have, we want to try to milk the cow and just see what happens, see where it goes."
Could this team gobble up quite a few?
"It could," Bryant said. "But the Lakers had the chance to three-peat in '89 and then the injury to Magic [Johnson] and the season, boom, it's gone. You have to have a little bit of luck there."
Two thumbs up
Ron Artest got a strong vote of approval from Bryant. "It's like a breath of fresh air. He's fantastic," Bryant said. "He just has great energy, is extremely competitive, plays hard and has a high basketball IQ. Plus he has a sense of humor. You have to have that on this team -- a sense of humor and thick skin."
Artest (6 feet 7, 260 pounds) replaced the thinner but quicker Trevor Ariza (6-8, 210), giving the Lakers a different look at small forward.
"Last year we used our length and speed a lot more," Bryant said. "With Ron, we can be more physical and make teams more uncomfortable physically. Once he puts his body on people, it's hard for guys to move."
The Lakers still haven't faced two of the NBA's top small forwards -- Cleveland's LeBron James and Boston's Paul Pierce -- but that will come in the next month and a half. "He's going to make them take contested jumpers, make them take tough shots," Bryant said. "If they make them, you live with it."
The Lakers practiced Friday in New York and will play at New Jersey tonight.