What is the future of the Los Angeles Lakers?

KOBEshigawa: The Lakers just signed Kobe Bryant to a two year, $48 million dollar contract extension. The deal will make the Black Mamba the NBA’s highest paid player for, more than likely, the remainder of his career.
 
Let’s tackle the issue at hand first: what was your first reaction to the contract? And before we take a turn to negativity-town, how could you possibly justify giving Bean that deal before he’s even played a minute this season?
 
The CDP: Outside of what my random friend from high school had for dinner last night, this was the first piece of major news I’ve ever learned from Instagram. While eating breakfast, I flipped open my phone to see the Mamba at a signing. My first reaction? Honestly, I was confused and totally surprised – I hadn’t even considered the fact that the Lakers could think about extending him. Before he had played a minute this season? Before they saw this summer’s free agent possibilities? It wasn’t even on my radar. At that point, I managed to read the Mamba’s artful hashtagging – “What an HONOR #laker4life #lakers #bussfamily #thankyou #extended.” There was a moment of pride that washed over me.
 
Kobe Bean Bryant, one of the greatest players of all time, was going to be a Laker for his entire career. Maybe there was the possibility that Black Sheep Buss had gotten one right. After watching Kobe play night in and night out since I was a teenager, there was significant sentimental value in locking the Mamba up. We’ve had our ups and downs – but Kobe will always be an all-time favorite. No question. At that point, my basketball brain started to take over and I wondered about the gory details. “How much? HOW MUCH?!” After several frustrating Google searches, I gave up. It took me a few hours to find out the terms and I spent the rest of the day obsessing about the implications for our squad.
 
How about you? What was your first reaction? And how was it changed since?

KOBEsh: My first thought was pure shock–in fact, this entailed me yelling “whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat???” in an empty parking garage. It takes a lot to generate that type of comedic vocal gesture when no one else is around.

As soon as I saw that he had signed an extension, I immediately knew it was a mistake for the franchise going forward. Perhaps that’s just the cynical fan in me, or perhaps it’s my utter lack of faith in this unproven front office regime. Either way, my fears have been fortified and built into a gigantic 100-foot monolith of confusion. I knew that there was a very strong chance that the contract wouldn’t serve as an accurate assessment of what Kobe’s actually worth…because we don’t know what that is yet. My thought was that IF Kobe ends up playing exactly up or down to the value of the deal (which, keep in mind, I didn’t know at the time), the concept that the front office could accurately gauge what a 35 year-old shooting guard coming back from a devastating injury was a foolhardy endeavor, to say the least. Making such a premature assessment is simply bad management–an unnecessary gamble with, on the surface, no discernible upside. What was the point of this? Why now?

I’ve run nearly my entire gamut of emotions through the day on the contract, ranging from sheer outrage to quizzical bemusement. However, I’ve since reconciled my feelings on the deal and I’ve actually come to a sort of displeased understanding.

Let’s get to real talk: what are your feelings on the deal? Expect contract or egregious overpay? What could the possible motivations be to give him this contract that Kobe himself has said was “not a negotiation, just presented to me?”

The CDP: Could not agree more on that sinking feeling, particularly as I slowly learned about the details. I think “displeased understanding” hits the nail right on the head for me. When I heard that the Lakers negotiated against themselves here, not even giving Kobe the option to give up salary, I just threw my hands in the air in frustration. I would be much more forgiving if Kobe had fought back on a more reasonable sunset deal – while Tim Duncan is the shining example of a star taking less money in a perfect situation, most of the time this is a favor to management that ultimately exposes the player to risk. KG and Ray Allen’ smaller contracts just made them trade bait for a rebuild. You can’t blame a player for securing his paycheck… but Kobe hadn’t even asked for it. Give him a chance to take $10M a year! Ask him politely, reason with him!

With that in mind, it’s an egregious overpay and ridiculously risky proposition. It’s not that Kobe isn’t worth $25M. We actually have no idea what his on the court production is worth, but the man will fill seats, sell jerseys, and could surprise with an unprecedented return to form. I’m done discounting anything involving the Black Mamba at this point, but I hate what this does to the Future of the Purple and Gold.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings here.

Kobe Bryant will remain the highest paid player in the league as a 37 year old. Because of sterling cap management in recent seasons, this may not actually be a total killer in itself. As Kobe said in his Instagram defense to a particularly nasty internet troll, the Lakers still have the ability to sign a max player. In Kobe’s mind, that will equal instant title contention. Sadly, I’m pretty sure he’s wrong.

It’s not 2010 and there aren’t franchise savior players floating around until next summer. This contract sends signals that will still give Dwight Howard nightmares. It shows that Kobe thinks he’s going to be the alpha dog until the day he retires. Even if we manage to get a max contract, Kobe’s will severely limit our ability to add championship-caliber depth around him. Under the current CBA, the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions have been diluted and you can’t add quality depth once you are capped out. The Lakers will be stuck in the middle of the West again.

When I envision how I wanted this summer to unfold, I had such great hopes and dreams. Kobe and Pau signing for $10-15M combined, wanting to chase a title. Steve Nash being serviceable for one last year. And oodles of cap room to get a few quality free agents or a max if we lucked out. With the right deals, we could have retained our core, been championship contenders, AND reloaded for the future.

Now? I’m mostly sure I’m glad we kept Kobe and not sure of much else.

What about you?

KOBEsh: Perhaps because I’ve been sitting on this for thee previous 24 hours or so, there’s been a part of me that thinks that Kobe could still be an elite offensive producer into his late 30s. He’s adjusted extremely well thus far, focusing more on facets of his game that require far less athleticism and quickness than he employed when a slick afro covered his retreating hairline. Though this injury will hamper him far more physically than he’s ever been in his entire career, there is the notion that he’ll simply find a way to be affective with each new hurdle. It’s unlikely that he returns to the same level of production, albeit through different means, but it’s certainly possible. I’m fairly certain that I’ve just started to find ways to justify this deal. I’m just not sure that realistically those reasons exist.

Another reaching rationalization: the Lakers needed SOMEONE next year. I think they realized that elite free agents simply aren’t coming and the ones who were weren’t going to be game changers. When you’re in a situation like the Lakers are in, in that you have ZERO building blocks currently, then better to dance with the devil you know rather than go into free agency, strike out and have to pay Greg Monroe 4 years, $80 million (that’s how the saying goes, right?). They needed someone to stay competitive next year, and Kobe Bryant, even at an advanced age, was a better fit than whoever they could sign, especially when all extracurricular marketing and merchandising costs were put into the calculus.

That being said, I’m extremely dismayed by just how little room there will be for the Lakers to improve their team going forward. Basketball-wise, this is an egregious overpay. I could argue that several elite (or near elite) two-way players–LeBron, Paul George, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Russ Westbrook–are worth $23-25m per season. However, for a guy that was horrendous defensively before this type of injury, it’s obviously not worth it strictly in a basketball sense. Even more so as you said, looking at the cap:

If the Lakers wanted to keep together the most valuable parts of their team from this season, including a ever-so-slowly returning Pau Gasol, the MIP candidate Jordan Hill and reserve spark plug Jordan Farmar, the Lakers would essentially eat into every bit of their cap room in 2014. If not, guys like Eric Bledsoe, Greg Monroe, Luol Deng and Danny Granger look like the most likely candidates to join Kobe for the foreseeable future. Aside from LeBron James miraculously deciding he wants to ride out his prime with a 36-37 year old Bryant by his side, there is no one max contract player that will get the Lakers to the championship platform GM Mitch Kupchak seems to think they’re close to. There’s simply no easily conceivable way that this team comes close to contention with Kobe eating up as much cap room as he is with this deal.

But as you’ve said, I’m sure Kobe is worth incalculably more than $25 million when adding up ticket sales, merch, etc. over the life of the deal. My father said years ago that even if the Lakers stink, it’s still fun to go because you’re watching Kobe Bryant. Now that he’ll be the longest tenured player on one single team ever, I’m sure the fervent loyalty the Southland has to Bean will somehow grow to even larger heights.

In this sense, I’ve become resigned to simply enjoying what’s left of Kobe’s career. This team isn’t angling towards titles in the near future and will face a full on rebuild in 2016. However, in the interim, we all need to divest ourselves from the very tenants of being Lakers fans: finding pleasure in simply watching basketball, without the inherent pressures of a “championship or nothing” tilt.

However, one part of that is almost assuredly going to be handicapped after the season. Looking at the cap, I see almost no way the Lakers could keep Pau Gasol on the roster. What do you think the Spaniards future is in purple and gold? Would you rather have him for the next two to three years, or Jordan Hill?

The CDP: Could not agree more on the adjustment points about Kobe. I was doing a mental checklist the other day and the man has played through so many ailments without complaint that I can scarcely believe it. At some point, though, Father Time always wins. You just don’t want to be holding the hot potato max contract when he does. I buy the Lakerland argument that LA doesn’t actually care as much as others might – this contract was about rewarding loyalty, 20+ seasons of Mamba, and the old school NBA. Even if it means taking a dent out of the present.

You’ve made a pretty compelling argument for the limitations of free agency, particularly in the summer of 2014. We’re agreed there. I’m still not over our diminished chances at a championship, but I do think the twilight of Kobe’s career will still be plenty enjoyable. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed watching this year’s edition of the Lake Show – although they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at a title.

Still, you ask a good question. What do we have internally and what does Kobe’s contract mean for them?

Assuming Nash can scotch tape his body together for next year and the Lakers get a mid-round first round pick, we should have a bit more than $20M in cap space. Even that isn’t enough to sign Carmelo for instance without him taking a discount. That means we’ll have tough choices come summer.

If I was a betting man, I’d think the Pau Gasol is out of here. He’ll take a mean paycut from his current $20M salary no matter what – but he’s not playing for the minimum in Lakerland. I’ve been a vocal supporter of the Human Ostrich over the last few years, but I don’t think he’s consistent enough on offense anymore to be a priority. In a Mamba Vacuum, he has failed to become the leader of this team. He’s a nice piece, but he’s not a building block.

I’d rather have the youth and athleticism that Hill provides, even if this is the best stretch of his career. The cynic in me believes that he too will probably take the Get Paid Express out of town. I’d prefer a few more reasonable free agents to ensure at least a bit of depth, but a Melo signing would leave Kupchak with the unenviable task of finding the best of the best in the NBA discard pile once again. For the record, I think he’s done an amazing job this year –Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, and Jordan Farmar will all have additional NBA life because of Mitch.

The other thing to think about here is the repeater tax. If the Lakers intend on competing now and surrounding Kobe with any kind of depth, they’ll have to dip into tax territory and risk handicapping themselves for years to come. I hope Mitch is wise enough to stay under the tax no matter next season but only time will tell.

KOBEsh: I too would probably rather have Hill, but if another team offers him say, 3 years, $27 million, I’m not sure the Lakers will match. I feel like they’d be much more apt to spend that type of money on Pau, but again, this is just rank speculation on my part. The best use of funds would be, as you said, to allocate them to someone with Hill’s athleticism and mobility.

Going forward, yes, the repeater luxury tax is a concern, so I suspect that unless the Lakers hit a home run (or at least, what they perceive to be a home run) this summer in free agency by signing either LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or even Chris Bosh, I suspect that they’ll be wary about spending on just one max free agent this summer. I’d look to the Lakers to spend on relative youth, especially restricted free agents. Greg Monroe, Evan Turner and Eric Bledsoe look like decent options in this scenario as all of them would fit in nicely alongside Kobe and Hill, presuming that he gets re-signed.

But I’m using those guys just as examples of where I feel like the Lakers should take free agency. With Kobe signed for two more years at such a gargantuan cap figure, I see the next two years as a sort of limbo for the Lakers. Of course they should try to compete with Kobe because they’re paying him like an elite player that theoretically should be able to carry a team to a championship. However, the reality is that with Kobe making the type of money he’s signed for, gathering enough effective players around him is going to be extremely difficult. Despite the losses and mediocrity that I’m sure will pile up, the team won’t suffer much in terms of national spotlight–after all, they’ll have a franchise legend and historically great player finishing up his fabled career and chasing scoring records.

The Lakers need to spend this time to slowly build the pieces for the next title contender when, quite frankly, winning isn’t far and away the most important thing. They need to gather young pieces like Monroe, Turner or Bledsoe, as well as spend to keep their current useful players like Farmar and Hill. If elite free agents aren’t coming, the team needs to spend one year deals that can be used in trades to nab solid talent from rebuilding teams.

Fans need to stop thinking about the home run. They should be thinking single, sacrifice bunt, double, walk, triple. The summer of 2010 and the Miami Heat are the exception here, not the rule. In this new CBA, the long game is how title contenders are built.

 

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