The fundamental debate among Lakers and hoops fans generally isn’t whether Kobe Bryant has $48.5 million in value to the Lakers — he has that and much more — but whether in a league with a salary cap and luxury tax restrictions it would have been smarter for Bryant to take* a far more substantial pay cut, freeing up more money for the Lakers to form a better team around him. The math is simple and cannot be debated: Every dollar spent on Kobe is one not used to acquire other talent. Yes, L.A. still has enough space to sign a max level free agent this summer or next, but they need more than one superstar to vault back into title contention. Kobe’s contract makes assembling that roster more difficult.
*And/or the Lakers demand…
The strong implication, of course, is if Kobe truly valued winning above all else, he’d have gone Duncan and left a lot more money on the table. It’s at this point Bryant’s defenders bust out the following line of argument: Why should he voluntarily take a pay cut? How many of you would voluntarily take less at your jobs? Why is it fair to criticize Kobe for doing exactly what Joe Q. Clockpuncher does every day?
First of all, your job isn’t like Kobe’s. Your income isn’t like Kobe’s. You haven’t earned a hair under $280,000,000 in salary over the last 17 years, not counting endorsements. Yes, counting another person’s money is treacherous business, but pretending context doesn’t matter is absurd. Extraordinary wealth provides options. Us Weekly’s claims notwithstanding, stars are not always just like us, even if they sometimes shop for their own groceries or tie their own shoes.
Moreover, it’s a fallacy to say regular folk don’t regularly sacrifice salary in the name of other priorities. People turn down jobs because it requires them to move their families. They might say no to a more lucrative position with a longer commute, or other obligations shaving away family time. They might back off a more profitable path because the grind is bad for their health, psyche, or close relationships. In my teaching days, I worked with plenty of people who could easily have found higher paying work, but didn’t because they found their chosen profession more rewarding. And so on. While money is often tops on the priority list, understandably, it doesn’t have to be and often isn’t.
The narrative on Kobe in the last few seasons always starts with his thirst for more rings. The obsessive drive for six, or seven, or eight. Given a unique opportunity to facilitate that process at the expense of income, Kobe took the money. Argue, as Kobe does to Yahoo! Sports, that all he did was take what the Lakers offered, and was sold him on a vision where he gets paid and they still build successfully around him. Maybe, but he knows the modern NBA doesn’t let players have it both ways. We don’t know to what degree the Lakers probed the possibility he’d take less. Maybe they never pushed him to take a lower number, instead just opening the vault and let him walk in. (One of a few questions worth asking the higher ups. Another: Why not wait for Kobe to, you know, play a few games following Achilles surgery before extending him? Where was he going?) Other factors could be in play, too. Clearly Kobe believes any team he plays on has a chance to win a title, so he might not frame the issue in the way others do. Maybe he and the Lakers both looked at the tea leaves and decided the roster couldn’t be successfully reconstructed over the next two years, making it sensible for the Lakers to pony up for their icon and letting Kobe look at the $15-20 million he received over expectations as payment for sustaining the brand in non-title years.*
Could be a combination of all that stuff.
There are plenty of questions in the wake of Monday’s news, for both the front office and Kobe. But in breaking it all down, people should avoid two things: First, don’t pretend Bryant’s extension doesn’t make it harder for the Lakers to rebuild this summer and next. Second, don’t pretend his choice was just like ones regular people make daily, or that financial gain is the only thing people ever choose.
*I forgot a big one, that Kobe could simply value strongly the principle of being paid as close to his value – on and off the floor – as possible. A totally legitimate belief, but one at odds with the notion of creating the best roster around him.