Last month, the Los Angeles Lakers surprised many people by signing Kobe Bryant to a $48.5 million, two-year contract extension that will keep him with the Lakers until 2016.
According to ESPN Los Angeles, Bryant will continue to be the highest paid player in the NBA for the next two years and will retire as a Laker. Last Sunday, he played in his first NBA game since he tore his Achilles tendon in April. Despite this injury, the Lakers organization has much confidence that Bryant will be able to lead the Lakers to another championship before he retires.
Bryant will definitely increase the Lakers’ chances of doing well in the playoffs. Even though he had some conflicts on the court with Dwight Howard last year, Bryant led the team into the playoffs with 27 points and 6 assists a game at the age of 34. ESPN also says that this year, the Lakers have exceeded expectations by playing above 50% without Bryant. When Kobe returns, this year’s team should outperform last year’s due to improvements in team chemistry and added offensive boost.
Bryant is also willing to change his game and decrease his minutes from last year to increase his durability on the court. He said to ESPN “If [the same type of explosiveness that I had last year] is not there, then I’m ready to adapt and I’m ready to change that and slow the tempo down, change up the rhythm a little bit. Go to more of a ‘bump’ game. So, I’m willing and ready to adapt to whatever my body is telling me.”
Although Bryant should be rewarded for working hard and devoting time to the Lakers since the 1996 season, his contract extension reduces financial flexibility for the Lakers organization next year. According to the Grantland column on ESPN, the Lakers will have just over $25 million to sign one major free agent, such as New York Knick Carmelo Anthony, and other complementary players to avoid paying harsh luxury taxes. Even if the Lakers sign a major free agent for around $15-20 million, they will not have enough cap space to sign quality complementary players and will face the same problems as those in last year’s debacle, which was partially caused by the mediocre play from other players on cheap contracts.
If the Lakers choose not to sign a major free agent but instead choose to sign quality players that complement Bryant well, they will not be able to win the championship because of the strong competition from other teams. The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers are very strong teams in the Eastern Conference that can give serious headaches to any team in the NBA. The Western Conference is especially competitive this year, and it would be an accomplishment for the Lakers merely to qualify for the playoffs in one or two years. If the Lakers reach the playoffs, they will have to face teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs and will probably not do well in the series.
Because the Lakers will most likely be unable to win a championship, the team should focus on developing the skills of current players on the team. After Howard left the Lakers in July this year, the Lakers organization signed young, athletic players to inexpensive, one-year contracts in hopes of forming a decent team. Many of them are playing well and have rejuvenated their careers with the Lakers this year. For example, Nick Young, nicknamed SwaggyP, has been generating points as a 6th man, while Wesley Johnson is becoming an important defensive player who can make threes, block shots and very nice dunks. Players like them can be the future of the team after Bryant retires.
Although Bryant may not be able to win a sixth ring, he can certainly set up the framework for others to take his place and win the championships. Failures from last year’s Lakers team and the successes of other teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder demonstrate that player development, not money, wins games.
By ANDREW HONG