To the surprise of absolutely no one, Los Angeles Lakers executive V.P. of basketball operations Jim Buss has made it perfectly clear that the team has no intentions of allowing franchise icon Kobe Bryant to become a free agent next summer. Bryant is making an incredible $30.5 million this season, but his return date from a torn Achilles remains in question.
The Lakers are absolutely right to ensure that they re-sign Bryant. After all, he was still an elite player before his injury last season, and allowing him to leave would be a public relations disaster. However, the Lakers need to be very careful with these negotiations, and they must ensure they only pay Bryant for the player he is, not the player he once was.
No one knows how well Kobe will bounce back from this injury, and at 35 years old it is fair to be concerned about his future. Bryant wants to play for a few more years, and he desperately wants a sixth championship to equal the total of Michael Jordan. The Lakers are going to have a massive amount of cap space this summer, and the potential list of free agents includes LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, as well as the Lakers’ own Pau Gasol.
The Lakers must be patient and see how well Bryant plays upon his return. They can’t afford to take the risk of handing him a big contract only to find out that he is not the same player. Furthermore, it would be a mistake for the Lakers to give Kobe another max contract, because he is likely to decline at least somewhat over the next couple years, and such a contract could cripple their future.
Another issue at play here is Bryant’s famous competitiveness. He is not going to want to play second fiddle to James or Anthony, and he is certainly not going to want to take a pay cut to help bring one of those players to LA. The Lakers have to hope that they can convince Bryant that such a move is the best way for him to get the sixth ring that he covets, and that his quest for a title will outweigh any pride over being the highest paid or the leading scorer.
The best course of action for the Lakers is to wait until the season is over to negotiate Bryant’s contract. It may be a nice gesture to re-sign him now, but it is a risk that the team can’t afford to take. They still need to tread carefully in these negotiations, and patience is essential.