Kobe Bryant is one of the best NBA players in the history of the game. He's a certainty for a lot of post-career honors that aren't given to just anybody. He'll be in the Hall of Fame someday, he'll have his jersey in the rafters of Staples Center (twice), he'll have a statue of his patented baseline fade, and he'll have it all shortly after his career ends. The man is an absolute legend of the game, and he's not done yet. Kobe did not enjoy one of his finest seasons, but what he accomplished was still enough to deservedly be named 1st team All-NBA. To this day, he remains one of the best players in the league, and one of its foremost attractions.
The word "amnesty", or the NBA variation of the word at least, belongs nowhere near a legitimate conversation about Kobe Bryant. In signing a new and more restrictive Collective Bargaining Agreement prior to this NBA season, teams have been allowed to amnesty one player to help them to get in line with the new financial realities of the league. So far, the players who have received this dubious title include some of the most ridiculously overrated, overpaid, or overinjured players in the league. Gilbert Arenas .... Baron Davis ... Travis Outlaw ... Brandon Roy ... it's a motley group of individuals who's time in the league should be dwindling if it hasn't already passed.
Kobe Bryant does not belong on that list. There are a million good reasons why Kobe shouldn't be anywhere near that list. But the vast majority of those reasons are not basketball reasons. If only basketball reasons were taken into consideration, the Los Angeles Lakers would have to think long and hard about parting ways with their supreme leader.
This is not a reflection of Kobe Bryant as a player. As mentioned, repeatedly, Kobe is still fantastic at plying his trade of placing an orange leather ball through a pattern of nylon string. He's got some issues with how to play with certain teammates, and could probably do with just the slightest bit of humility and self-awareness in knowing the limitations of his aging body, but these are minor issues in the ongoing evolution of a tremendous career. The bottom line is that you want Kobe Bryant on your team.
However, all the compliments in the world cannot distort the fact that having Kobe Bryant on your team might be a detriment over the coming years as it pertains to the only basketball goal that matters, winning an NBA championship. Not because Kobe is on the downside of his career and will not be the force that he was. Not because Kobe is a bad leader who can't engender the kind of confidence and team chemistry necessary to ascend the highest mountain. There is only one reason that having Kobe Bryant on your roster could hurt your chances at winning trophies. Kobe Bryant is paid a shitload of money.
Kobe is the highest paid player in the league, without a close second. According to this year's official salaries (which do not take into account the fact that players were paid less due to the lockout), Kobe Bryant was slated to make $25.2 million this year. The next closest contract belongs to Kevin Garnett, who made $21.2 million. That's a difference of 19%. Kobe Bryant gets paid nineteen percent more than any other player in the league, and that's just the beginning. Of the four guys making more than $20 M this season, everyone not named Kobe has an expiring contract. Kevin Garnett's contract is coming to an end. Tim Duncan's is, too. Both players will re-sign for a dollar amount that will probably be less than their current contract. Rashard Lewis' ridiculous contract has $10 M guaranteed for next season, but he will be waived as surely as the Earth revolves around the Sun. Kobe, on the other hand, still has two more years left on his current deal.
You have to move down to fifth on the league's top salaries list even to find a player that has a contract which goes that long, one Dirk Nowitzki. In 2013/2014, the big German will be paid $22.7 M. Carmelo Anthony will be paid $22.4 M. LeBron James, with his slightly less than max deal, will be under $20 M. In 2013/2014, Kobe Bryant will be paid $30.5 million to play basketball. That's 34% more than any other player in the league*. Purely from a basketball standpoint, you know who is worth $30.5 million dollars in today's financial reality? Nobody.
The salary cap for the 2011 season was $58 M. It is expected to change very little in 2012, and is projected to be about $60 M in 2013. Extrapolating out to the 2014 season, that means Kobe Bryant will be paid 1/2 of the money allotted under the Los Angeles Lakers' salary cap. The luxury tax threshold for 2011 was $70 M. Assuming the same moderate increases, it will be between $72 M and $73 M in 2014. That year also doubles as the first season in which harsher penalties for luxury tax offenders will begin**, and it is a year that the Lakers have very clearly targeted to be under the luxury tax threshold. With Kobe Bryant on the team, that leaves just $40 M + to fill out their roster. You want to know what $40 M looks like? Go look at the Sacramento Kings, the team with the league's lowest salary at $46 M, and that includes players like Tyreke Evans and Demarcus Cousins playing on rookie contracts that are far below value. The Lakers might be able to obtain a few players like that by giving up pieces like Pau Gasol. But adding Kobe Bryant to the roster of the Sacramento Kings sure as hell isn't championship quality.
The bottom line is this: With Kobe Bryant on the team, being paid such an obscene amount of money, the Lakers will be very, very hard-pressed to build a roster good enough to win a championship around him AND be under the luxury tax threshold by 2014. They could certainly achieve one or the other, but both is damn near impossible. And if, as has been reported, paying the stricter luxury tax penalty is not an option the Lakers are willing to consider, that means they have at least partially resigned themselves to the challenges of providing Kobe another chance to win a championship in the next couple seasons. The reality is that you probably can't win in today's NBA with that much of your finances tied up in one guy, no matter who that guy is. And if you aren't winning trophies with Kobe, basketball reasons dictate that you at least consider the possibility of using the amnesty option.
But all the other reasons clearly dictate that amnestying Kobe Bryant is still completely ridiculous. Kobe will be paid $30 M in two seasons. There is no way he can justify that value with on court production when all of his peers are being paid significantly less money. From a business perspective, however, he will still be worth every penny. Kobe Bryant makes his team far more money than he is paid. He's been a top 5 jersey seller since the dawn of time. He remains one of the biggest draws in the league, because while his style of play may not be as efficient as some of the rest of the league's stars, it sure as hell is every bit as entertaining as the rest of the league's stars, and probably moreso. Worldwide, his brand is stronger than anybody not named Michael Jordan, and he continues to bring in legions of new Los Angeles Lakers fans across the globe. The Lakers charge more than any other team (except maybe New York?) for tickets, and they have the most lucrative television contract in the league's history set to start next season. Kobe Bryant is, at least partially, responsible for all of it. Does anybody actually believe the Lakers would be best served to amnesty their golden goose?
How about from the team branding angle? Amnestying Kobe would be the quickest way to lose a large % of the team's fans. Some of those folks are simply Kobe fans who might be lost once the star hangs up his sneakers anyway, but at least a few would be lost because of the horrid treatment the team would be handing out to their star player. I also have to believe there would be some residual effect on the Lakers ability to lure future stars. Don't get me wrong, basketball is a business, and no team has made that clearer in their willingness to cut players off (Derek Fisher, anybody?) than the Los Angeles Lakers. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and amnestying a player who is still performing in his prime would most certainly be on the wrong side of that line. How would Dwight Howard or Chris Paul think that coming to LA would be in their best interests long term if the Lakers were to pull such an audacious move.
Hell, let's even play out the scenario. Amnestying Kobe would provide the league with an incredible amount of intrigue, as you'd finally have a player on the block that would draw genuine interest from any team. The amnesty process is not simply waiving a player and paying his salary as he signs on with somebody else. Instead, all teams under the salary cap have the ability to place bids of how much of the player's salary they'd be willing to pay to get the player on their team. How much of Kobe's salary would teams under the cap be willing to eat? 50%? 100%? What kind of teams would be both willing and able to fork over that kind of scratch? Would Kobe be willing to go to Charlotte or Sacramento and waste two of his last good years plying his trade for a lottery team? Probably not. There would almost certainly be some sort of Chauncey Billups like rant from Kobe about how veterans can also be a problem in the locker room, and that only contenders need apply for his services. Somebody would pony up a fair bit of cash, but chances are the Lakers would still be footing at least 1/3 of Kobe's salary, while receiving absolutely zero of the benefits. You think the Lakers have any interest in paying millions of dollars for Kobe to be somebody else's golden goose?
Hell no. It makes no sense. Not from a business perspective, not from a brand perspective. It only possibly makes sense from a purely basketball perspective, where his salary is considered in comparison to the financial limitations imposed on building a team. Even that is unclear. Kobe Bryant is the very definition of a max player, but it just so happens that his max his higher than anybody else's because he's been doing this for a very long time. The fact that his salary makes it harder for the Lakers to build a championship contender around him is just a reality the Lakers will have to deal with, but the solution to the harsh reality is most certainly not to part ways with their star.
Amnestying Kobe Bryant would be the stupidest thing the Los Angeles Lakers could possibly do, for a million different reasons. It just so happens that basketball reasons aren't high on the list.
* I'm assuming the new contracts forthcoming for Dwight Howard et. al will not go higher than Nowitzki's, but this may not be 100% accurate, I haven't crunched the numbers on what a new max contract will look like.
**This piece originally stated incorrectly that 2014 was when the harsh "repeat" offender luxury tax penalties will begin, but those penalties cannot begin until a team has been over the cap 4 out of 5 years, and 2014 will be year three.