This week, with the release of the official salary cap numbers and onset of formal contract signings, was supposed to bring clarity to the NBA. Instead it left us debating the kind of obligations not covered by the collective bargaining agreement, a hazy realm of morals and values.
You could gather as many lawyers and accountants as you want and you still couldn’t come up with a definitive answer to the question: What do the Lakers owe Kobe Bryant? Conversely, how much does he owe them?
These are the central questions governing the Lakers as they make their key decisions for the next few years. Should they go all-out for another championship in Kobe’s shrinking window among the league’s elite, or should they embark on a long-term strategy to win down the road? Should Kobe forsake the fair compensation coming his way in order to facilitate the Lakers’ moves?
The Lakers have paid Bryant a quarter of a billion dollars during his NBA career. They’ve put him in position to win five championships. In return he has played through every circumstance short of being strapped to a hospital gurney, and has scored more points than all but three players in the history of the league.
So far it appears the Lakers are operating under the premise that they’re beholden to Bryant, the guy they’ve been tied to since 1996. It’s not the way things usually work in Los Angeles, where spouses and leased cars are often returned at a similar rate. The Lakers used their one-time amnesty provision on Metta World Peace‘s $7.7 million salary, even though taking Bryant’s $30 million off the books would have had a more dramatic financial impact and still provided an opportunity for him to return in 2014-15.
A promise to cut Kobe loose (along with axing Mike D’Antoni) also would have been a much more meaningful sign to Dwight Howard than those “Stay” billboards that the Lakers were committed to the center.
Dramatic moves? Surely. But if you think about it, they would have been no different from what the Lakers did in 2004 when they were desperate to retain Kobe. They let Phil Jackson go and traded Shaquille O’Neal to Miami. When it came to choosing between Kobe and Shaq, the Lakers went with the 25-year-old over the 32-year-old. They also went with the more popular of the two. Lakers fans were infatuated with Kobe, and growing increasingly frustrated with Shaq.
Kobe won the crowd. And if there were any doubts that he still holds exalted status, he quelled those when he made his way out to the Lakers bench on crutches, shortly after Howard was ejected from the Lakers’ final playoff game. The crowd responded with its loudest cheer of the day.
It’s why the Lakers are riding with Bryant, who turns 35 next month and is coming off a major injury, over the 27-year-old Howard, who sent neither the franchise nor its fan base into mourning when he decided to leave for Houston. It’s also because Howard built no equity with the Lakers. He didn’t win a single playoff game.
Accomplishments don’t always mean obligations. Paul Pierce played 1,102 games for theBoston Celtics, helped them hang their 17th championship banner, scored more points in the green and white jersey than anyone other than John Havlicek — and yet those things didn’t allow