Life After Kobe
Once the lockout resolves, ideally before the 2011/12 season is cancelled, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers will be headed into his 16th season. With his birthday on Tuesday (August 23rd), Bryant is now 33 years old . . . which in basketball terms might already be considered over the hill.
How long can Kobe remain an elite player, capable of giving his team a chance to win an NBA title?
For the Lakers, they’ve got an $83.5 million investment that says the answer is three years. Bryant will make $25.2 million this coming season (if it comes to pass) ramping up to $30.5 million in his final season under contract (13/14).
How Much Left in the Tank? – Some may bristle at the Bryant/Michael Jordan comparison but the two are among the best to play the game. To date, Kobe has five NBA championships to Jordan’s six.
Jordan was able to win his final title in 1998 at the age of 35. That year he averaged 28.7 points a game while shooting 46.5% from the field while playing in all 82 games.
Last season Bryant scored 25.3 nightly for the Lakers on 45.1% shooting. He didn’t miss a game for the third time in the past four years.
Strictly going by age, Bryant is still younger than Jordan was in 1998 but how about age in terms of mileage?
Not including postseason play, Jordan had logged 930 games over 13 seasons before his final title run to Bryant’s current 1,103 through 15.
Michael would go on to play two more years with the Washington Wizards but never saw the postseason after leaving the Bulls. Throughout his career, Jordan made the playoffs 13 times with 179 games played and a 46.2% championship rate (six for six in the Finals).
Bryant has made 14 postseason appearances (208 games), winning five of seven Finals and 35.7% of the time overall.
Another run would take Kobe through an additional regular season (82 games or less depending on lockout, injury, etc.) and postseason (16-28 games).
Bryant may be younger than Jordan was when he won his final ring but Kobe has already logged significantly more minutes than Michael.
All that said, age and minutes are not a determinate factor. Fellow Laker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played for 20 years until he was 42-years old.
Kareem helped the LA get to the NBA Finals in the final three years of his career. Even at 40, Abdul-Jabbar put up 19.2 points per game to help the 86/87 Lakers win the title. The next year he averaged 14.1 in the back-to-back championship and then finally 11.1 in what was ultimately a losing effort against the Detroit Pistons (with Magic Johnson and Byron Scott out with hamstring injuries).
Time will tell if Bryant has more Kareem in him than Michael . . .
Salary Cap Crunch – Of course the economics of the league have changed from Kareem’s time. If the salary cap stays (post-lockout) at $58 million, Kobe’s salary alone would take up 43.5%.
If a hard cap is implemented, the Lakers will face difficult circumstances with Bryant’s teammate Pau Gasol scheduled to make about $19 million a season over the next three. In the final season together (under contract), Bryant and Gasol will make a combined $49.7 . . . which is about $3 million more than the Sacramento Kings spent on their entire roster last year.
Adjusting to a hard cap without renegotiating Kobe’s salary may nearly be impossible for the Lakers, at least when it comes down to filling out a competitive roster. Under the current rules, there is no renegotiation.
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will dictate the team’s strategy but Kobe’s salary could be crippling under the new deal.
Additionally, Bryant is armed with a no-trade clause so the Lakers won’t be able to get out early from his deal unless Kobe endorses and approves the move.
Teammates Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom have contracts are not fully guaranteed beyond this coming season. Bynum’s $16.1 million in 2012/13 has no guarantee but given that the Lakers project him to be their next franchise player, cutting him outright is not in the plans.
Odom has just $2.4 million locked into his $8.2 million final year (2012/13) but if he’s not extended, the Lakers would try to move his cap-friendly contract to bring in longer-term talent.
A hard or harder cap may mean Odom becomes a cost-cutting casualty without remuneration.
If the new CBA doesn’t severely restrict LA’s spending power the issue becomes the sheer size of Bryant and Gasol’s combined deals.
Will the duo that got swept this past May by the Dallas Mavericks be stronger in a couple of years or have they already peaked? Can General Manager Mitch Kupchak find the right pieces to augment the current core?
Regardless, Kupchak will face limited flexibility when it comes to improving the roster.
The Lakers have $91.1 million invested in 11 players heading into the (hopefully) coming season and then $91.6 million the next (but with the options on Odom and Bynum).
The team’s tradable assets outside of Bryant, Gasol, Bynum and Odom appear to be limited. Odom would be the obvious piece to go if the team could get younger and deeper without sacrificing their ability to compete.
If Bynum is “untouchable,” perhaps moving Gasol becomes the necessary move.
Of course there’s always the Dwight Howard notion, that somehow the Orlando Magic center can direct a trade to Los Angeles . . . with pieces like Bynum and Odom heading east. Banking on that would be a stretch.
Still, the NBA is such a fluid league. There’s no right answer today and there’s no right answer tomorrow, especially with the lockout. The Lakers may not decide on a clear path for some time.
Beyond Bryant – Barring serious injury, Kobe may be able to continue his run as one of the league’s top players through his current contract. Word is that Bryant’s right knee (a chronic issue) has made significant improvements thus far this summer.
An extended lockout may give Kobe the extra rest he needs and a second wind for the remainder of his deal.
He’ll have to adjust to playing for Coach Mike Brown, who is well-meaning but absolutely unproven when held up to the Phil Jackson standard.
Brown struggled to deal with LeBron James’ large personality and Bryant isn’t exactly easygoing.
It may work immediately for the Lakers and Kobe ends up re-signing with the team beyond his current deal.
If Bryant is no longer a Laker after his contract expires, the team is currently slated to have an empty roster the summer of 2014.
It’s difficult to look that far ahead but if a player like Blake Griffin decides not to extend past his rookie contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, assuming the new CBA is somewhat similar to the current deal, he would be an unrestricted free agent the year the Lakers might have a mountain of cap room.
Any earlier may be difficult. As it is, the team has Ron Artest, Steve Blake, Bryant and Gasol under contract for the 13/14 season at $61.5 million. That’s a tough number to get around.
Ultimately 2014 is such a long way off but for LA, it’s a blank canvas.
The Lakers will certainly lock in contracts before then (Bynum, likely to be extended) but it may take some time for the rebuild to truly begin.
The team can look to shake things up before then with Gasol and Odom as pieces going out, but can the team remain in contention by doing so?
Look for the Lakers to try and sustain the current core built around Bryant for as long as possible.
Regardless, it’s going to be a near impossible task to replace him.