Maybe Kobe can afford more attractive eyewear? (Bill Haber / Associated Press)
Auburn Hills — Kobe Bryant hasn’t yet played a game for the Los Angeles Lakers this season, nor will he suit up in his annual visit to The Palace Friday, but he did sign a two-year contract extension that has garnered plenty of attention — and a lot of grumbling about the contract’s value.
All one has to do is look around The Palace in recent years for a regular-season game compared to when the Lakers come to town, to find out whether Bryant is worth $48.5 million over the next two years.
The Lakers, and by proxy Bryant, have no idea about attendance woes that have plagued the Pistons in the last few seasons, or any other NBA town that’s going through a down period as far as fan support.
Love it or hate it, Bryant embodies the Lakers brand and is as much embedded with the franchise as Michael Jordan with the Bulls or Magic Johnson with the Lakers, or any other superstar this league has seen.
Half-full arenas become Lakers territory, sold-out facilities where even the most ardent fans of the home team make way for purple-and-gold-clad jerseys with Bryant’s number on it. There’s no basketball recession for the Lakers and none for Bryant.
While it’s difficult to estimate his actual value to the franchise — a task even more cumbersome when factoring in a salary cap — it’s not Bryant’s fault the financial structure is the way it is.
The collective bargaining agreement naturally restricts a player’s earning potential, the only professional sports league that does so.
The best of the best NBA players are underpaid, relative to their value to their teams and the NBA. The CBA makes it so players earn their biggest paydays at the end of their careers, and the beginning is a relative bargain due to the grandfathering of deals and the dreaded term, “max contract.”
Honestly, players like Bryant and LeBron James bring so much revenue to the NBA that their counterparts aren’t even team sport athletes. They’re as valuable to the Lakers and Heat, respectively, as the boxer sitting courtside at Wednesday’s Pistons game, Floyd Mayweather, is to his sport.
Look at the top annual and total contracts in sports, loaded with players from Major League Baseball, not the NBA, and the discussion about being “overpaid” should become more nuanced.
Nobody squints when Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander signs a contract that nets him an average of $25.7 million per season for the next seven years, or when the Tigers trade Prince Fielder with an eye toward having to give Miguel Cabrera a significant raise from the $20 million that he’ll make annually until 2015.
It could have been more
Bryant, although in the twilight of his illustrious career, has every right to command the $48.5 million, and could’ve taken more if he had chosen to.
It’s a delicate balance to analyze this, and one must include Bryant’s competitive ego, the same hubris that has driven him to the best overall NBA career since Jordan. Bryant — a complex figure, to be sure, because of his persona and various feuds since entering the NBA as a prep star in 1996 — can be difficult to root for, but his point about giving billionaires a discount is well taken.
The same crowd who bemoaned James taking his talents to South Beach to join fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can’t begrudge Bryant for this.
His contract didn’t give the Lakers enough salary cap space to sign two more superstar-caliber players in free agency, but one reason Bryant is loved by a segment of fans is because he wanted to do it his way, decorum be damned.
And the notion that Bryant chose money over winning is absurd — especially given the events of the proud Lakers franchise over the past 12 months.
Lakers have plenty to give
Did the Lakers value “winning above all” when selecting Mike D’Antoni over Phil Jackson after firing Mike Brown five games into the 2012-13 season, knowing that’s what it would take to retain Dwight Howard for years to come?
No, they chose D’Antoni and for all his offensive genius, he didn’t mesh with the team they should’ve been building, in the effort to knock the Spurs and Thunder from the top of the West.
It was ego and personality conflicts above winning, and no doubt Bryant saw that, which likely factored into his decision. No way should he be selfless enough for both his own benefit and the franchise when the franchise couldn’t get out of its own way to re-hire the winningest coach in all of sports.
So Bryant saw an offer from the Lakers and decided not to give any more money back from the cut he already was taking.
Nobody here is saying he should be applauded for giving a discount of sorts, but don’t cry any tears for a franchise that will make over $3 billion in the next two decades for a local TV deal alone.
Just recognize the game as such, and Bryant is winning, no matter if he never wins another ring.