WASHINGTON — The Lakers are a better team with Kobe Bryant, obviously.
But will his two-year, $48.5 million extension ensure the Lakers enough financial flexibility to build a championship roster?
“I think we do,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Tuesday in a conference call from Los Angeles. “The challenges are there. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t make it easier for anybody. It’s restrictive and challenging. But yes, I do believe we can.”
Before Bryant’s signing, the Lakers only had three players under contract next season, including Steve Nash ($9.7 million), Nick Young ($1.2 million) and Robert Sacre ($915,243), leaving them with plenty of purchasing power to pursue some top flight free agents in the next two years. The 2014 candidates include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Luol Dang. The 2015 candidates include Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol. Bryant’s deal will enable the Lakers only to pursue one high profile free agent instead of two.
“You have to weigh what’s going to happen this summer, but everybody forgets Kobe will be a free agent this summer too,” Kupchak said. “We got who we feel is one of the top free agents this summer. We still have the ability to pursue other free agents or other opportunities between now and the trade deadline or this summer or the next summer based on our flexibility.”
Kupchak also defended in ensuring Bryant remains the highest paid NBA player.
“Obviously, he took a pay cut,” Kupchak said of Bryant, who will be paid $30.5 million this season and was eligible to be offered up to $32 million next season under the terms of the new CBA. “A substantial pay cut. A lot of people look at it and say, ‘Well, that’s not a huge financial pay cut,’ but it was a negotiation that we felt like was pretty quickly accomplished and fair on both sides. We’re comfortable.”
“We could compensate Kobe in the manner that we felt he deserved and at the same time be able to have that flexibility,” Kupchak said. “Substantial flexibility. We don’t have a minimum amount of flexibility. We have a lot of flexibility. Then you have to weigh it against, ‘OK, what do you think is going to happen this summer?’
As of right now, Kupchak conceded that doesn’t currently include Lakers forward Pau Gasol, whose $19 million contract expires after this season. He has averaged only 14.3 points on 42.1 percent shooting and 10.6 rebounds, while showing inconsistency on defense, though he’s still well remembered how he proved instrumental in helping the Lakers secure two NBA championships in 2009 and 2010.
“We have not had any discussions with Pau,” Kupchak said. “I’m sure I will. Where that leads, I’m not sure right now. A lot has to do with different variables. I’m not saying something won’t be considered. I’m not saying something will be. I’m just saying it’s not something that has come up.”
The Lakers are secure with Bryant’s future with the team, but they face endless questions on his actual play. The Lakers (7-7) will be without Bryant when they face the Washington Wizards (5-8) tonight at Verizon Center, and Lakers coach Mike D’ANtoni sounded skeptical he’d play during the team’s remaining week-long trip with stops in Brooklyn (Wednesday) and Detroit (Friday).
So why show as much patience with Bryant’s negotiations as he and the Lakers have shown with his recovery?
“Clearly, we had options to wait until the summer, which creates other kinds of challenges when you’re in an open market,” Kupchak said. “We could’ve waited two or three four weeks from now. Now you’re negotiating during the season with a player and that’s never a good thing either.”
“The bottom line is everybody expects him to get back on the court and to have a complete recovery. I don’t think anybody does not expect that. The gray area factor obviously is at 35 years old will change a little bit He’s acknowledged that it will. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’ll play in this league at a high level.”
The Lakers won’t practice again until Dec. 3 because of their travel-heavy schedule, leaving Bryant likely to work this week on individual workouts and sessions of two-on-two and three-on-three. Last week, Bryant participated in two full-court practices and one half-court practice against no defense in a series of shooting and strategy drills.
Although he noted he’s closely monitored those practices and a slew of other sessions kept private, Kupchak downplayed whether that weighed heavily into the Lakers’ change in sentiments in finalizing negotiations. In September, Kupchak suggested at his season introductory press conference that the process would start after Bryant would play.
“That’s not why we did it,” Kupchak said. “We looked at what he’s done for the franchise, what we think he can do this season and what he does two years from now. We factored in his progress … To say you decide on 2 1/2 practices, I hear where you’re coming from. But that’s not how I approached the whole thing.”
“A lot of it had to do with what he meant to the franchise. Not all of it. A lot of it thinks what we think he’s going to do this year and the next year and two.”
Bryant provided plenty, winning five NBA championships, appearing in seven NBA finals and becoming the NBA’s franchise leading scorer. The Lakers are also cognizant on how Bryant has enhanced the Lakers’ brand through ticket and jersey sales, global interest and their recent cable deal with Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
They’re also aware on what message Bryant’s extension sends to other top-flight free agents.
“Historically this organization has been good to its players,” Kupchak said. “I know they’ve been good to me. I think our reputation based on Dr. Buss’ ownership over the years has been a good one in taking care of players and being a destination place for players.I know our city is receptive to players. We have great fans here that really support the franchise. To know that as an organization looks after its players, I think that’s a good thing.”
“Dr. Buss really understood as well as anything. He wanted to win,” Kupchak said, referring to the former Lakers owner. “He wasn’t afraid to make a financial decision or business decision. But it always felt to the point where everybody knew he wanted to win. “I don’t think the people I work closest with with Jeanie and Jim has changed at all. We have to run this as a business and everybody’s aware of the legacy of the organization and they’re all competitive as their dad was.”
Bryant’s cut from the same competitive cloth. So what does Kupchak ultimately expect of Bryant’s play this season?
“I don’t think he’s contemplating nor do I think he’s ready to play right now,” Kupchak said. “I’m not saying in a week or two down the road, he might not be. But even if he did play, there is a period where the game at that level in during an actual NBA is quick and fast moving. You can’t sit out seven or eight months and hop back into it a game.”
Kupchak then suggested both Bryant will have to adjust his game, while the team will have to change how it uses him.
“I would expect us to monitor his time and he would need some time to acclimate conditioning,” Kupchak said. “You can work out all you want in a gym. But conditioning in an NBA game is completely different and the style of play. There’s going to be a feel out period where he’s going to have to decide along with our staff how he best helps the team.”
“I do expect him to have an influence on the game. He will be able to score and provide leadership and toughness to our team and confidence. We’ve had some stretches where we played really well. But I’ve seen times where you can use somebody who has great experience you can go to at certain times of of the game whether it’s the end of a period or end of the game.”
But can Bryant duplicate last season’s effort when he averaged 27.3 points on 46.3 percent shooting, six assists and 5.6 rebounds?
“It’s going to be a feeling out process. He will be back and he will play at a high level,” Kupchak said. “But I can’t begin to say he will average 28 or 27 like he did last year. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.”
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