Nowitzki and Bryant have a lot in common. Both are all-time NBA greats. Each has an impressive resume that puts them near the top of their positional rankings. Both are NBA champions. And most impressively, in an era where it’s becoming incredibly rare for a player to spend more than a decade with his team — much less his entire career — both Nowitzki and Bryant have never donned another jersey except for the one they put on as a rookie.
At this point in their careers, the biggest difference between the two is in the size of the paycheck.
In November of 2013, the Lakers re-signed Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million contract extension in what’s expected to be the final deal Bryant ever signs in the NBA. Less than one year later in July of 2014, the Mavericks re-signed Nowitzki to a new three-year, $25 million deal.
In other words, Bryant is making three times what Nowitzki is as both look to leave their mark on a game that neither will play forever.
After signing his deal, Bryant smartly and ferociously defended his position to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
“Most of us have aspirations for being businessmen when our playing careers are over,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports in a corridor of the Verizon Center. “But that starts now. You have to be able to wear both hats. You can’t sit up there and say, ‘Well, I’m going to take substantially less because there’s public pressure, because all of a sudden, if you don’t take less, you don’t give a crap about winning.’ That’s total bull—-.”
Translated: The sole thing guaranteed in the NBA is the cold hard cash.
After Nowitzki gave the Mavericks the gift of a lifetime and took less than his market value, here’s what’s happened: He’s seen Chandler Parsons — who wishes he could have half of Dirk’s accomplishments — get paid twice as much as he does. He saw Dwight Howard spurn his franchise and sign with the Houston Rockets instead. He watched as LaMarcus Aldridge chose the San Antonio Spurs’ legacy. Most recently, he’s seen Monta Ellis walk out the door and head to the Indiana Pacers. He’s also played on a roster that features a revolving door at the point-guard position and doesn’t currently feature a set starter on the roster. And most recently, he’s seen DeAndre Jordan walk in and out of the door only to waltz his way back to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Since winning their 2011 championship, the Mavericks have made a permanent residency on Mediocrity Island. That’s purgatory in the modern-day NBA and Dallas’ path out doesn’t appear to be all that clear.
While some will be quick to point to the differences in how the two franchises have performed in the regular season since both franchise icons signed their current deals, both Bryant and Nowitzki are only playing for one thing at this stage of their careers — and it’s not a playoff berth. And while Bryant has struggled with his health since returning from a devastating Achilles injury and Nowitzki has remained mostly healthy, neither team has been able to land the marquee free agent that both have been in search of over the last several offseasons.
While Los Angeles has Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and now D’Angelo Russell on the roster and a clear, tangible path toward the future, Dallas has an aging Nowitzki amongst several question marks. Parsons is coming off a knee injury that required subsequent offseason surgery. New free-agent import Wesley Matthews is still rehabbing from a torn Achilles. The Mavs have downgraded at center to Zaza Pachulia and a tag-team of Raymond Felton and Devin Harris at point guard. Maybe Deron Williams comes if he’s bought out, but Williams isn’t saving anything.
Where Dallas has made an effort to build its roster around Nowitzki in his final years given its cap flexibility as a result of Dirk’s contract, Los Angeles has been forced to look beyond the Bryant era as a result of the contract given to Kobe. And if Randle, Clarkson and Russell all mature into the players they’re being projected to be, the Lakers are going to rebound from this much better than the Mavericks.
The psychology of how the brain works plays a part in how we make decisions. Would you rather take a larger guaranteed outcome with the possibility for a little more or a smaller guaranteed outcome with the possibility for a lot more? Imagine you’re on a game show and you get to pick your prize. Behind one door is $5,000 cash and a trip for your family of four to go to the Bahamas. But behind the other door is a mystery prize that could be anything. You’re getting something for appearing on the show either way. What decision are you making?
Bryant and Nowitzki are different players who have played very different roles on their respective clubs, but it’s hard to ignore the obvious comparison between the two when it comes to their career arcs and salaries. No one making millions of dollars is underpaid but, in the context of the NBA industry, Nowitzki should be making more annually than guys like Robin Lopez ($13.5M) and Lance Stephenson ($9M).
Both are immensely loyal to their franchise. Each will never turn his back against whatever path his team takes. And while Bryant and Nowitzki will each go down as among the best to ever do it, perhaps those who criticized Kobe’s position while lauding Dirk’s will consider a new perspective.