Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - One of the most difficult questions a professional sports franchise faces is how to handle a mega superstar toward the end.
Does a franchise reward an iconic player for years of service, or do you treat it like cold-blooded business? Or, is there a happy medium?
The Buss family, Mitch Kupchak and the Los Angeles Lakers left little doubt about which column they fell in regarding Kobe Bryant. They signed the future Hall of Famer and top 10 player of all time to a two-year extension worth a reported $48 million.
The Lakers elected to make Bryant the highest paid player in the sport.
"We made him the highest-paid player in the NBA because we felt like it was the right thing to do." Lakers executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss told EspnLosAngeles.com.
The Lakers believe in rewarding. It's a perfectly acceptable principal to adhere to, especially when your name is the one on the checks.
It doesn't make it the prudent thing to do.
Business-wise, Bryant means more to Los Angeles basketball than any price tag put upon him. He has been the face of the franchise in the post Showtime Lakers and it has been a remarkably successful run. Bryant has out-distanced Shaquille O'Neal or Phil Jackson. The Lakers have always been one of the NBA's elite organizations and they are swimming in money.
Bryant has endured some tough times, which, honestly, he's created. He butted heads with both Shaq and Jackson, had the whole Colorado incident and even demanded a trade at one point.
But, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Pau Gasol, Bryant and the Lakers corrected things and won two more titles.
That was three seasons ago and Jackson was at the helm.
The Lakers are inching towards irrelevance, which is unacceptable for a Los Angeles based franchise, let alone one that bears the name Lakers. At 7-7, the Lakers are going to be in a dog fight just to make the postseason, where they'll get eliminated quickly by the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, or, gasp, the Los Angeles Clippers.
And the head coaching situation has been a nightmare. Mike Brown did well in one season, then struggled early and got canned. While everyone assumed Jackson would put down his philosophy books at the Montana ranch and reclaim the throne, Buss spurned his sister's boyfriend for Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni's system has scored a lot of points. It has won nothing in the postseason.
But Bryant plugged along. He fell over backwards to try and give the keys to the empire to Dwight Howard and got rejected. Had to be hard to take for the captain of the football team to get shot down by the head cheerleader. Bryant got the Lakers to the postseason, but tore his Achilles tendon before the playoffs.
That's five rings and 18 seasons. During that time Bryant inched up the all- time scoring chart, put his name in the conversation with Michael Jordan as the new-school representative in "best player ever" talks and the Lakers were perennially among the very best.
That is not the Lakers that take the court at the Staples Center these days. This group, which is waiting for Bryant to return from the Achilles surgery, is average. They still don't defend, but can score and are getting baskets from a reliable bench.
The current group of Lakers does not provide a single building block for the future. Gasol is also a free agent and won't be back with the team. The franchise could've rebuilt, although that's not something the Buss family and Lakers ever seem interested in trying.
Not that they've ever really had to. The Lakers missed the playoffs once with Bryant, but with the Mamba rehabbing, a second lottery trip looms very real on the horizon.
With Gasol's money coming off the books, and with Bryant also technically a free agent, the Lakers could've been major players for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the offseason. This Bryant contract limited the chance of those three playing together. That was never realistic, but the possibility existed.
The Lakers could've swung for two max guys and what they decided was that one of them would be Bryant. At 35, and with over 54,000 total minutes between the regular and post seasons on his surgically-repaired, and spun-blood legs, the Lakers decided that any realistic chance at a title would have to include Bryant.
But did he have to be the highest paid player in the sport still? Yes, Bryant was remarkably productive last season before he got hurt, but that contract effectively ends any chance at building a roster next season. They'll have room for a max guy, but Bryant agreeing to $24 million or so a season, robbed the Lakers of flexibility.
In a bidding war with no other team just before Thanksgiving, the Lakers rewarded Bryant for years of service with no regard for the future of the organization.
Teams certainly would've called Bryant after the season, if, for no other reason, than to do due diligence. But this contract essentially slammed the door on even the faintest, remotest chance that Bryant would ever leave the Lakers.
"This wasn't about what somebody else would pay him or outbidding anyone for him," Buss said almost six months before he really needed to make a move on Bryant.
Loyalty is great and all. Couldn't Bryant have shown some of his own? You can't begrudge someone for accepting all they can get, but precedent exists in other sports and in basketball.
There have been stars to take less money and help their team. Tim Duncan's last contract was for three years and $30 million. The Spurs went to the NBA Finals last season and Duncan was First-Team All-NBA.
Players like that, though, are few and far between.
Bryant will leave the Lakers, assuming he does when this new deal expires, with over $327 million of Buss family money. He earned that, no question. This new contract is a reward for all that Bryant has done.
It's in no way reflective of the player Bryant will be for those two seasons, but that's his haul in salary alone when he leaves.
What Bryant probably won't leave with is another NBA title. He could've come closer if both sides would have exercised some smarter business sense.