Lakers knew risks; Kobe Bryant’s final season a career reward

Kobe Bryant has won five titles with the Lakers. Hurt once again is it time to retire?

The Lakers were hit with disappointing news this week, with Kobe Bryant suffering his third season-ending injury in as many seasons, this time a torn right rotator cuff.

Bryant will undergo surgery Wednesday morning, after which the team will give an official timeline for his full recovery, but the All-Star guard isn’t expected back on the court until next season.

Without Bryant, the Lakers’ season will be about player development (notably rookie guard Jordan Clarkson) and draft-pick protection. The Lakers owe their 2015 first-rounder to the Phoenix Suns, unless it’s a top-five selection. The Lakers currently have the NBA’s fourth-worst record.


Bryant is under contract for one more season, at $25 million.

It’s hard to imagine Bryant, who will be 37 next season, averaging more than 32 minutes a night. He’ll probably skip at least one game when the team plays on consecutive nights, and take days off when his body isn’t right.

Best case, he plays 65 games? A more realistic guess would be 50, assuming he doesn’t suffer another catastrophic injury.

With Bryant on the books, the Lakers may have in the neighborhood of $24 million to spend in free agency this summer. Add in a top-five pick, plus the return of Julius Randle, who missed all but one game of his rookie season because of a broken leg, and whatever the team can acquire in free agency, and the Lakers figure to be improved next season. But they aren’t likely to be championship contenders.

Bryant showed only flashes of his old self in the 35 games he played this season, averaging 22.3 points a game but shooting a career-low 37.3% from the field. His 19-point, 17-assist game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers was memorable, as was the left-handed fade-away against the New Orleans Pelicans, shot after Bryant had injured his right shoulder.

With five titles to his name, Bryant isn’t likely to get a sixth. He recently told The Times that early retirement had crossed his mind -- prior to the latest setback.

If Bryant would step away from the game a year early, voluntarily giving up his massive salary, the Lakers could be in a position to add two or even three maximum-salaried players this summer.

It would be a magnanimous sacrifice to the Lakers, his greatest gesture as a team player, but who walks away from $25 million?

The Lakers knew the risks when they gave Bryant a two-year, $48.5-million extension sight unseen after his Achilles’ tendon tear.

The team needs to turn the page, but owner/executives Jim and Jeanie Buss both signed off on rewarding Bryant for his years of service.

From a basketball perspective, he should retire -- but in the real world, Bryant has earned his Derek Jeter year, even if the cost will be another season of Lakers purgatory.

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