The 20: Kobe’s Last Year

Kobe Bryant is far more than a basketball player. He is an untouchable brand, a global icon, one of the greatest to ever grace the court. The Black Mamba has vast influence that goes beyond the individual numbers he puts up on the court. However, at the end of this season, he will present a great dilemma to the Lakers management: do we re-sign Kobe or do we build for the future?

If we look at basketball in terms of wins, losses, team chemistry, and growth, the Lakers’ best move is to let Kobe Bryant walk. When Bryant hits free agency next summer, he will not quite be 38 years old. Bryant has stressed multiple times how he will be unwilling to take a significant pay cut, saying “I think it’s a big coup for the owners to put players in situations where public perception puts pressure on them to take less money.” He also has been on record saying that his 2-year, $48.5 million extension signed in 2013 should be considered a discount, despite him being 36 and coming off an Achilles tear. Kobe is going to want to get paid.

Although Kobe can be considered one of the greatest shooting guards in NBA history, his recent on-court production does not garner a lucrative contract. In 35 games last year, he shot 37% on 20.4 shots per game. Although the shooting percentage could be a reflection of a lingering shoulder injury, it still goes to show that Bryant will always aim for 20+ shot attempts per game.

When Kobe is on the floor, the offense orbits around him. He is the one with the ball, the one making all the decisions, and the one who holds the fate of the team.

It is becoming increasingly evident that Bryant no longer has the physical tools necessary to lead a team. It is also hard for the Lakers’ younger players to develop their talents while playing with such a ball-dominant player who absorbs so much of the offense.

By re-signing Kobe, the Lakers are partially taking themselves out of the free agency market. Star players do not want to play alongside Kobe because he demands so many offensive looks, and he can be hard to get along with. Kobe’s relationship with Lamar Odom proves he can be a close friend with some of his teammates but it also proves those relationships are rare.

Ask Dwight Howard. He chose to leave the Lakers after only one season. So is it really worth it to shell out millions of dollars for an aging volume scorer like Kobe Bryant who inhibits the ability to get star players?

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Kobe means more to his franchise and fans than any other player in the NBA. Currently, the Lakers bring in around $200 million per year in television revenues, which tops the league. These revenues are tied to ratings, and the principal reason why ratings have been so high is because of Kobe.

Bryant has made over $300 million in contracts from the Lakers during his NBA career; but the revenues that he has raised for the Lakers far surmounts that. According to Forbes, the Lakers are valued at over $2.5 billion, making it the most valuable NBA franchise. This would not be possible without Kobe, who has been a catalyst of the Lakers’ increase in value. Bryant’s contributions to L.A. are seemingly endless, consisting of championships, countless new fans, an impeccable work ethic, and millions of dollars.

Despite playing a mere 41 games over the last two seasons combined, Bryant is consistently rated as one of the league’s most popular players. Rostering this type of player is necessary in order to bring in the kind of revenue that the Lakers do, which is why Kobe is so vital.

L.A. raised Kobe Bryant, and he has not disappointed. Once just a 17-year-old draftee with a big heart, a streaky jump shot, and a love for the game, Kobe is now one of the most revered athletes in the NBA. Because of this, there would likely be emotional reactions if the Lakers’ front office opted to turn its back on Kobe by not offering to re-sign him.

While winning should be of the utmost importance to any NBA franchise, it is different with Kobe. The Lakers are a family business, and Kobe is practically part of the Buss family after being with the team for 20 years. No other player in NBA history has spent two decades with the same team, making Kobe’s relationship with the Lakers one of the most legendary in sports.

Kobe’s accomplishments with the Lakers:

  • 5-time NBA champion, including 2-time NBA Finals MVP
  • NBA MVP (2008)
  • 3rd All-Time Leading Scorer
  • 17-time NBA All-Star, including 4-time NBA All-Star Game MVP
  • 15-time All-NBA Team selection
  • 12-time All-Defensive Team selection
  • 2-time scoring champion
  • 46,774 minutes
  • 1,280 games
  • 32,482 points

Each of the 30 NBA teams is first and foremost a business enterprise. Although he is not currently worth $20+ million per year, Kobe has earned it because of everything he has brought to the Lakers. Though, it would be a class act (and would make a whole lot more sense), if Kobe returned to the team on a less lucrative deal

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The Lakers are desperate, in one sense. They need to focus all of their time on developing promising young players, which include Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr. Bryant can help these youngsters with his plethora of basketball knowledge. But he has to hand over some of the reigns to these future stars to ensure that the franchise will be in good hands when his career eventually ends.

Although Jeanie Buss has stated that she wants Kobe to be a Laker for life, General Manager Mitch Kupchak may not agree. The ownership of any company (whether stockholders or proprietors) has the simple goal of maximizing the company’s value; re-signing Kobe evidently increases the Lakers’ value. However, the management of a company is usually more concerned with performance and future outlook. This is why if Kupchak has a say in the matter, it is no guarantee that Kobe will finish his career in L.A.

Kupchak has put emphasis on the importance of developing the Lakers’ young talent, as well as bringing in big-name free agents next summer. It is hard for young players to thrive when dealing with Kobe’s presence. Kupchak has often remarked that Kobe has “never been great with rookies.” Kupchak may prefer to move on from the Kobe era in order to cultivate a young core with the additions of All-Star free agents next summer.

Kupchak would likely be more open to re-signing Bryant if the contract is less expensive, and if Bryant accepts a less significant role. A smaller deal will let Kupchak know he still holds some of the power in L.A., and that Kobe is not the dictator of the team. By accepting a reduced role, Bryant would be giving the Lakers a chance to compete for another championship before his career is over. Free agents would be more inclined to come to L.A. if they knew that Kobe would not be in complete control of the offense, and it would also allow for quicker and further development of the Lakers’ young players.

Although giving Kobe a pay cut and reducing his role are logical moves, they must be performed carefully. When Kobe is unhappy, everyone is unhappy, which is why the Lakers must tread lightly in this situation. If Kobe truly wants success for his team, then he will be content with these compromises. However, Bryant is aware of what he brings to the franchise financially, which will induce him to take as much money as possible. This is why the Lakers must pronounce to both Kobe and his thousands of fans that these decisions are made purely to ensure future success of the franchise

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The Lakers have been here before. When they chose to trade Shaq in 2004 it was because of money and production. At the time, Kobe was a young star, the best player in the league.  Shaq was a fan favorite, but also a player beyond his prime who did not fit with the team. Rather than keeping both stars in L.A. in a situation that would result in higher ratings and profits, Kupchak traded Shaq to ensure the most future success possible.

So, in a way it’s karma. The Lakers chose Kobe 11 years ago.  And the Lakers may choose Randle, Clarkson and Russell next summer.

But what if Kobe miraculously has a bounce back season in 2015-16? What if he is the Lakers’ most productive asset?  Then the situation becomes much more complicated. The chances of Bryant taking less money or a reduced role would become slim to none. Kupchak’s dilemma would become whether to give Kobe a lavish short-term deal and a prominent role, or to let him walk.

I say let him walk, mend fences as best as you can, and build for the future. Oh, and of course, try to convince Kevin Durant to come to L.A.

Michael Jordan will always be remembered as a Bull, despite playing his last two seasons in Washington. Regardless of what happens, Kobe will always be remembered for his dominance while wearing purple and gold. Bryant’s relationship with the Lakers is set in stone, and will exist as long as his jersey hangs in the rafters.  It just might not end in storybook fashion.

photo via llananba