The sudden and surprising news of Kobe Bryant's two year contract extension to remain a member of the Los Angeles Lakers through 2016 touched off a firestorm of opinion yesterday. It was completely unexpected, if for no other reason than the fact that Kobe is coming off of a very, very serious injury, and locking him up for an additional two years before even seeing how he handles his return to live-game action is a bold pronouncement of faith in his ability to recover, especially when you consider that the financial terms of the deal (Kobe will remain the league's highest paid player throughout the extension) were not beneficial to the Lakers in any significant way. Lots of folks had an opinion on the matter, and most of those opinions were of the negative variety. Too much money for a player whose ability is on the decline, too much risk for a player who might never be the same.
Let's get that part out of the way first. Re-signing Kobe Bryant to an extension that will continue his run as the league's best compensated player through 2016 was a bad basketball decision. Under this restrictive CBA, tying up that much money in one guy, pretty much any guy not named LeBron or Durant, is a bad basketball decision. There is simply no way to rationally believe the Lakers will get good value out of paying Kobe Bryant nearly $25 million a year, and that is before you even consider the inherent risk in giving that kind of money to a player who just suffered the most serious injury a basketball player can suffer without even asking that player to take his new body out for a test drive first. If Kobe can somehow defy the odds and return to being exactly the same player he was last year, his contract extension is still a bad basketball decision. If he returns as something far less than that, his contract will immediately jump to the head of the line for worst contracts in basketball.
It is also hard to believe that the Lakers needed to make this bad basketball decision to keep Kobe in a Lakers uniform. Evaluating the contract under the adage "You are worth whatever somebody is willing to pay for you", who would have been willing and able to pay Kobe Bryant anywhere near what the Lakers are now locked into? Teams with that kind of cap space are not going to be contenders unless they pull off some kind of magical Miami Heat super-team type situation, and a key component of that super-team was that the players involved took less money than they could have in order to allow the roster to be filled out. There are no teams out there who would have been one piece away from a contender while also having $25M to burn. It's possible a team would be willing to spend that kind of money on Kobe as a marketing ploy, a way to invigorate ticket and merchandise sales, but would Kobe really have been willing to leave the Lakers for one last pay day in the middle of NBA nowhere? It seems far more likely that the Lakers were bidding only against themselves in the Kobe Bryant sweepstakes, and they decided to bid far more than anybody else would or could anyway.
And you know what? That's OK. Just because Kobe's extension was a bad basketball decision does not make it a bad decision, period. There are other factors to consider, and by virtue of those other factors, there are myriad ways to see Kobe's re-signing in a positive light. The first is the most obvious: Kobe Bryant will remain a Laker for the rest of his career. That is an exciting and positive development, even if it fails to surprise. With this extension, Kobe is now solidified as the Lakers' most iconic player: a 20+ year career, with a great deal of success, all spent with a single team. That is awesome, and it is the kind of institutional loyalty and consistency that can be used as a selling point to future stars: Come to L.A. and you'll never want to go anywhere else. After the fiasco with Dwight Howard, re-building the Lakers' sales pitch is an important step, and it's possible this contract sets the Lakers up to be more compelling to future stars (the opposite is also possible, but we'll leave that for another time).
Re-signing Kobe is also an excellent business decision, under almost any terms. There can be zero doubt, absolutely none, that signing Kobe Bryant to a long term deal will be good for the Lakers bottom line. Kobe is one the league's premier money-makers, and he will remain so whether he continues to be an elite player or not. The only possible down-side from a business perspective is if Kobe's ruptured Achilles tendon was the crack that broke the injury dam, and Kobe is unable to play at a high level, or even worse, unable to play at all. If Kobe starts picking up niggling injury after niggling injury (sound familiar, Steve Nash?), and ends up missing a lot of time, then he might not be able to put enough butts in the seats to justify his salary. However, that is a fairly large and distinctly negative hypothetical, and cannot be used as absolute proof of the foolishness of this extension now. The bottom line is this: Kobe Bryant is one of the most visible faces in the NBA, and there is simply no way to replace somebody of his commercial value. Yes, the Lakers overpaid to retain their top commodity, but in an NBA world in which there are maybe three or four players of Kobe's commercial value in the entire world, you can understand why they might be willing to do so. In that context, the Lakers' bad basketball decision isn't really a problem.
But there most certainly is a problem. The problem with Kobe's extension is not that they are paying him too much money, nor is it that Kobe's contract limits their ability to build a contending team around him. The problem with Kobe's extension is that it flies directly in the face of the strategy the Lakers have been pursuing for multiple years. Since the signing of the new CBA, nearly every move the Lakers have made (with the notable exception of the Steve Nash trade) has been towards the goal of adjusting to the new financial realities of the NBA. The Lakers have cut corners and filled out their roster on the cheap, not, they say, because they didn't want to spend the money, but because the NBA practically requires it. With limits on sign-and-trades and mid level exception contracts for teams over the luxury tax, as well as a heavily punitive "repeater" tax for teams that are constantly among the league's highest payrolls, the Lakers had to make cost cutting moves so that they would have the ability to quickly transition from the Pau-Kobe era to whatever is next.
We've heard, unofficially, for multiple seasons now that it's all about the summer of 2014. That's why Lamar Odom was traded for nothing but a trade exception. That's why Derek Fisher was shipped off to Houston (although that move incidentally worked out quite well, since Jordan Hill came back in the opposite direction). That's why the Lakers have been unable to pull the trigger on a deal for Pau Gasol, because they've been unwilling to take on return salary that would hamstring their free agent acquiring capability. That's why the Lakers were unwilling to even discuss a sign and trade for Dwight Howard in the off-season; there were no pieces the Lakers were more interested in acquiring than the salary cap relief provided by Howard's departure. It's why they filled out an entire roster with bit parts on one year deals. The Lakers punted the 2013-2014 season in a nearly unprecedented way so that they would be able to have the maximum amount of flexibility next off-season.
Now, in one broad stroke, they have utterly repudiated their grand scheme of the past few years. Not since the hiring of Mike Brown have the Lakers made a move so puzzling, not because the move is inherently terrible, but because it flies in the face of their own stated mission statement. Signing Kobe to such a lucrative contract destroys their ability to lure more than one big name free agent in the off-season, so the possibility of quickly turning the roster into a new-age powerhouse is gone, probably at least until 2016 when Kobe's new contract expires. In today's NBA, there are two ways to build a contender ... either convince a group of top tier free agents to come play for you, or build your roster from the ground up with good pieces on cheap contracts (usually through the draft). In the cold light of day, the Lakers now seem ill-equipped to pursue either strategy for a large number of years. They don't have many of their own draft picks over the next few years. They are locked in to paying Kobe a significant sum of money for at least two more seasons after this one. They aren't good enough to be considered a great destination for free agents, and they aren't bad enough to acquire the pieces that might make them be considered a great destination in the future. One can never know what the future holds, but it seems probable that the Lakers have wittingly embraced mediocrity through the end of the Kobe Bryant era. And that's fine, if that's the route they've decided to take. But they had a plan, a plan they worked very hard, for a very long time, to implement. Now, they have abandoned the plan just before they got to the potential pay-off.
And after all that lip service paid to the NBA's new financial realities, how in the world can the Lakers justify paying Kobe enough to remain the highest paid player in the NBA? In doing so, the Lakers aren't ensuring that Kobe maintains his status amongst the league's truly elite players. Instead, they are massaging Kobe Bryant's ego by competing with relics of the very past they say can not remain the new normal in today's NBA. In making Kobe the highest paid player, the Lakers weren't competing against the salaries of the league's best players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. They weren't competing against the salaries of the guys who have received max contracts since the new CBA was instituted, like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard. Instead, the guy whose contract had to be surpassed is the ultimate monument to why a new CBA might have been necessary in the first place: Joe freakin' Johnson. The hurdle that needed to be surpassed so that Kobe could remain the league's highest paid player was nothing less than one of the worst contracts in the history of basketball. By all means, if you want to reward Kobe with a loyalty contract, pay him more money than Dwight. Pay him more money than LeBron if you really want to. But Joe Johnson? Come on.
It's possible to see the logic behind the Lakers' decision to bring back Kobe at any cost. It was also possible to see the logic behind the many decisions the Lakers made in building towards the summer of 2014. But there is no logical path from the Lakers' previous plan and their new reality. Maybe attracting free agents in 2014 was always a pipe dream, and maybe the Lakers were wise to finally realize it. But they didn't have to, not like this. There was literally no motivation to pay Kobe this much money this early. If this was the contract the Lakers had in mind for Kobe, they could easily have waited to be sure that the 2014 super-team plan really wasn't going to work. With this much money on the table, I'm sure Kobe would have been willing to wait until the summer to see how things panned out before he signed. The point of a contract extension, any extension that isn't just "We'll give you as much money as we possibly can" at least, is to lock up a player before that player hits free agency, and the main motivation behind doing so for the team is that the team can get the player at a slightly discounted rate by providing the player with the security of knowing his future immediately. Instead, the Lakers did all the sacrificing. They gave Kobe the kind of contract you might expect from them in a competitive free agent market, but they did it on their own, before anybody else could even compete with them.
Maybe the Lakers have a new grand plan. Maybe they plan on parleying Steve Nash's expiring contract in 2015 into the cap space to sign Kevin Love, and plan on Kobe's salary going to Kevin Durant in 2016. Maybe the Lakers will start making more beneficial long term decisions now that they seem less hamstrung by the self-imposed limit of "No salary past 2014". However, based on the seemingly failed implementation of their last grand plan, do you really have confidence in their ability to do it all over again? With Kobe Bryant on board, and taking up nearly half the team's salary cap along with him, it's hard to see what the Lakers' plan is for re-building the team into a contender, and it has to make you wonder whether they even have one.