Kobe Bryant’s decision to retire brings to a close one of professional basketball’s most storied careers.
But it also gives the Lakers, mired in one of their worst seasons ever, a big gift and hope for a new era: Bryant’s $25-million salary is coming off the books, allowing Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak to go shopping for some free agents with money in his pocket, raising hopes that the team can return to its former glory.
In fact, the Lakers have only seven players under contract next season for a total of $26.3 million. NBA team payrolls will spike to about $90 million thanks to a lucrative new national TV deal, so it’s hard not to envision Lakers executives smiling a bit despite the team’s worst start since 1957.
The team must build around its younger starters, point guard D’Angelo Russell, 19, forward Julius Randle, 21, and shooting guard Jordan Clarkson, 23. The rebuilding plan also includes landing some key free agents.
Whether any free agents take the Lakers’ money is another story. They struck out on the last six big-name free agents they pursued: Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Monroe and DeAndre Jordan.
It’s not clear what kept those stars away. Maybe they didn’t want to play with an aging Bryant, or maybe they didn’t want to join a team coming off so few victories. For whatever reason, even the Lakers’ vastly successful tradition didn’t bring them in.
But the Lakers will have fewer excuses next year. They will be tens of millions of dollars under the NBA’s salary cap, an impressively large blank check without Bryant.
Next summer they will doggedly pursue free agent superstar Kevin Durant, as will countless other teams. They can also look at adding unrestricted free agents such as Atlanta center Al Horford, Memphis guard Mike Conley, Miami center Hassan Whiteside and Sacramento guard Rajon Rondo.
The Lakers will also consider harder-to-sign restricted free agents that include Detroit center Andre Drummond, Golden State forward Harrison Barnes and Utah center Rudy Gobert. Talented small forwards DeMar DeRozan of Toronto and Gordon Hayward of Utah will become free agents if they decline contract options with their teams.
The Lakers must also re-sign guard Clarkson, who had only a two-year contract because he was a second-round draft pick in 2014. He will be a restricted free agent and is going to cost the Lakers perhaps $10 million annually for four years.
Bryant’s shooting accuracy is a meager 30.5%, worst in the league this season, and his defense is no longer passable. He knows it, which is why he announced he would retire at the end of the season, after the Lakers’ final regular-season game April 13 against Utah at Staples Center.
The 37-year-old Bryant was introspective and humorous in his sit-down with reporters Sunday after making only four of 20 shots in the Lakers’ 107-103 loss to Indiana at Staples Center.
“So . . . what’s new?” was how he opened the 20-minute news conference.
“I see the beauty in not being able to blow past defenders anymore,” he said. “I see the beauty in getting up in the morning and being in pain, because I know all of the hard work that it took to get to this point.”
He joked about the age discrepancy between him and the younger Lakers starters Russell, Randle and Clarkson.
“I feel like their grandfather. I’m like a triple O.G.,” he said, using slang for original gangster.
The Lakers play the winless Philadelphia 76ers (0-18) on Tuesday, a game notable not only for early jockeying among bad teams seeking a top spot in the draft lottery, but because it’s Bryant’s last NBA stop in his hometown.
Philadelphia fans never really accepted Bryant, booing him mercilessly whenever he played there. Regardless, he softened when asked about Tuesday’s game.
Bryant promised there would be no crying on the court at any time during the next several months and he even revealed his most memorable NBA moment. Surprisingly, it didn’t involve the night he scored 81 points against Toronto or any of his five championship runs.
“Nothing beats getting drafted. That’s the beginning of it all,” he said, referring to that 1996 night when he was selected by the Charlotte Hornets, who traded his rights to the Lakers.
The Lakers are hoping that the 2016 draft will be as meaningful to their franchise as it was for Bryant 19 years ago.
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