Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports recently interviewed Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant about his future. The interview was pretty much what you’d expect with Bryant giving the kinds of answers he always does. What was unique about this one is that the most intriguing part was a question, not an answer.
Spears asked Bryant, “When you see the mammoth money that could be available to you as a free agent next summer, does that make it more attractive to continue playing?”
And Bryant answered:
“Zero. Zero. I’ve never played for the money. It’s never moved me. Money can come and go. I have a perspective about finances. The family is fine. What is more money going to bring other than more money? I have my family, I have my health and we’re comfortable financially and that is a massive blessing.
“I don’t want to undervalue the importance of generating any type of whatever. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m underappreciative of that or not thankful for that. But at the same, what is really important? What is the important thing? I never played for money. When I laced my sneakers up when I was a kid in Italy I wasn’t thinking about money. I had no idea how much Magic [Johnson] or [Larry] Bird got paid. I played it because I loved it.”
We’ll just say that Bryant’s answer is equally believable to his proclamation that the Lakers can make the playoffs this year and leave it at that. However, this article isn’t about the answer; it’s about the question itself. Could Bryant really make “mammoth money” in the summer of 2016?
Let’s think about this for a minute. Bryant has already made $303,238,062 in his career, per Basketball-Reference.com. And he’s making another $25 million this year. How much is “mammoth” money to a guy who’s already made $328 million?
A max deal offered by the Lakers would be worth $179 million. But let’s be realistic, he’s not getting a five-year deal for the max at his age. If he took the most he could for one season, he’d make $31 million. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that due to the TV deals and his history with the Lakers, he’s “worth” that to LA. I’m not suggesting that I think he is, but that portion of the argument is moot. Spears asked what he’d be worth in free agency.
So, that means to another team. And all that legacy he has with the Lakers isn’t transferrable to another team. It should go without saying, but that doesn’t mean it does: Bryant is worth more to the Lakers than other teams in the NBA. In fact, is he even worth half that to another team?
There are three motives I could see another team offering him a contract:
- They’re a contender in need of a scorer to get a title.
- They’re a young, developing team looking for a mentor, similar to the Timberwolves bringing back Kevin Garnett.
- They want to sell tickets and fill seats.
Let’s look at each of these motives in detail.
In Need of a Scorer
Kobe is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the league. That needs no more explanation than the fact that he’s the third all-time scorer. The problem here is that he’s no longer the same player he was in 2007.
Kobe is a man, not a superhero. He can’t will away the effects of age, and that’s become more and more apparent, both in the time he’s spent off the court and what he’s done on it over the last two seasons. Over his first 17 seasons, he missed just 66 games — an average of only 3.8 absences per season. That’s an amazing number for a man who’s been knocked around as much as Bryant has over the course of his career.
However, over the last two years, he’s missed 123 due to a variety of injuries to his joints and ligaments. The problem is that those are the kinds of injuries that come with time, age and playing time.
In the course of compiling his points, Bryant has logged a lot of minutes — 55,419 combined playoff and regular season. That’s fourth-most all-time. He needs just three to surpass Wilt Chamberlain and 748 to pass Jason Kidd. That would make him the all-time leader in non-bigs.
And when he’s been on the court, he’s hardly been sensational. Sure, we can look at the box score averages of 22.3 points, 5.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds and make the argument he’s still producing. That would be a highly specious, though, when you factor in the sheer volume of possessions he consumes.
Last year, he had a slightly above-average player efficiency rating (PER) of 17.6. But PER, while a minute adjusted stat is also an accrued one (meaning it’s about the numbers compiled, not just on/off or the like). Bryant used 34.9 percent of his team’s possessions while he was on the court to get that production.
By looking at a PER to Usage ratio, we can evaluate not just how much Bryant did, but how much he did in relationship to what someone using that many possessions should do. And frankly, that’s where things get ugly.
The chart below shows all 182 times since 1977-79 (as far back as Basketball-Reference goes) a player recorded 1,000 minutes and a usage percentage of 30.0. Over that span, only two players have recorded a lower PER to usage ratio than Bryant — Derrick Rose last year and Ben Gordon in 2004-05; Go Bulls! — and no one has recorded a lower effective field-goal percentage.
Suffice to say that Bryant’s numbers were a bit padded. Some will argue that’s the result of a terrible Lakers squad and ask, “Who else was supposed to shoot it?” The fact that only Ryan Kelly had a lower effective field goal percentage (and only by .01 percentage points) suggests that the answer to that question is not as definitive as the rhetorical nature of the question suggests.
The bottom line is that Bryant arguably had the most inefficient season in the modern history of basketball. That’s not screaming “worth mammoth money” to me. Is he worth something? Sure, if he would take a significant pay cut (no more than $10 million) and show a willingness to work in a system.
But even then, there are severe trepidations, and another year could only magnify them.
So no, a contender isn’t going to pay him significant money.
A Team In Need of a Mentor
The Minnesota Timberwolves traded to bring back the aging Kevin Garnett, in part so he could serve as a mentor to the young squad. Then they extended him with a two-year, $16 million contract. Could another team offer Bryant “mammoth money” to come be a mentor?
I find that doubtful for a number of reasons. First, Garnett’s homecoming was just that. Wolves fans celebrated his return to the Twin Cities, and there’s a bit of a “feel good” story behind that. That’s the opposite of what Bryant leaving the Lakers would do.
Second, Garnett got $8 million a year; that’s hardly mammoth money.
Third — and most importantly — Bryant doesn’t look like mentor material. There were a series of incidents that happened last year to suggest that.
First, in a tied situation, Bryant “politely” asked his teammate from hindering him while he attempted (and missed) the game-winning shot. The Lakers ultimately lost the game:
There was an incident in January, where Bryant was calling for Jeremy Lin to foul Mike Conley, and Lin ignored him (paying attention to the coach instead) and Bryant berated him for it. Whether Kobe was “right” or not, it presents a young team with a dilemma of who to listen to when they’re getting conflicting signals between the star and the coach.
Then there was the incident where he berated everyone in practice:
While LakersNation.com tries to put a positive spin on things, it’s bad mentoring for a man to barely ever show up for practice and then berate everyone.
This isn’t a commentary on whether Bryant should have to come to practice. He’s earned his stripes and at his age, he deserves the rest. But does that mean I want to invite him to come and mentor my team? Not so much. We can talk all we want about how Michael Jordan was a “jerk” to his teammates too, but at least he was at practice to do it.
This is what it would be like if Allen Iverson had berated his team for not practicing hard enough, not M.J.
At the very least, Bryant could come to practice and participate specifically as a player-coach.
Finally, when this summer’s new Lakers were asked if they’d spoken to Bryant yet, there was the cricketsational moment:
Bryant’s actions show he has no interest in mentoring. Given that history, I’m not giving him mammoth money to come and mentor the future of my team.
Just to Sell Tickets
Alright, how about just for the sake of selling tickets. Would a team be willing to sign him just for the money he’d bring in? One could point to the Washington Wizards version of Michael Jordan to show how much having an all-time great can inflate ticket sales.
The only problem is that there’s some false equivalence in that comparison. First, as popular as Bryant is, he’s still not Jordan. But that’s a relatively minor quibble.
More important is the fact that Jordan had last been seen winning titles and winning the Finals MVP when he went out. Bryant has barely played the last two years, and when he has, he’s been awful (see above). There’s just not much appeal to seeing Bryant now.
I think there’s an excellent chance for a “farewell tour” with Bryant being a major selling point, but that’s this year. If he announced his retirement at the end of this season, he’d sell out about every road game, no matter how bad the Lakers are. Fans would flock to see him for the last time.
But how many times are you going to go watch him for the last time before you stop believing it’s really the last time? How bad does he have to get before you don’t even want to see him because he’s so far removed from what he used to be that it starts just being sad? How much of the sheen comes off if he’s not in a Lakers jersey for his last season?
This is Emmitt Smith with the Arizona Cardinals, not Jordan with the Wizards.
And what happens if he misses half the games in the season? The draw loses its appeal if he’s not playing.
Farewell tours have a shelf life. And Bryant’s expires this year.
If you have an atrocious team, and nothing to lose, maybe you gamble on a one-year deal worth $10 million with the hope he sells some extra tickets. But fans who buy season tickets are smart enough to know he’s not the same, and fair weather fans are going to give up on a lousy team by January, Kobe or no Kobe.
Summing up, the notion that Kobe is still “worth” a large contract, much less a mammoth one, is hard to swallow. Even with the ballooning salaries next year, he’s not getting an offer over $10 million. And if he does, he’ll look strange in a Sacramento Kings uniform.