You get it. You see the big picture. That’s the problem with people these days - they only see the narrow view. - The Wire
After tearing his rotator cuff earlier this week, it looks like injury will end Kobe Bryant’s season for the third consecutive year. He ruptured his Achilles in 2013, broke his leg in 2014 and now may have to miss the rest of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery. He has played only 41 games over the last two seasons and has not looked nearly like himself in that time. If he comes back next season, he will be a 37-year-old in his 20th season in the league.
Long story short, it looks very unlikely that he will ever be able to live up to the two-year $48 million extension he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, a move that was almost universally pilloried at the time. In an era where payroll efficiency has become the Holy Grail, the Lakers committed the gravest sin of all - they were paying their best player for whom he had been and not who he would be. This, as critics never ceased to point out, was no way to run a franchise in the modern NBA.
If you are trying to win as many games as possible while spending the least amount of money, which has become S.O.P. throughout the league, spending that much money on a 36-year old never made a ton of sense. However, there’s a lot more to running a franchise, particularly the NBA’s most glamorous franchise in one of its biggest markets, then maximizing the bottom line on an annual basis. The Lakers didn’t give Kobe $50 million to win games. They gave him $50 million to sell tickets, boost TV ratings and pacify a massive fanbase used to competing for championships every season. Most of all, it was a gesture of appreciation for a global icon who had been the face of the franchise for over a decade.
In most other lines of work where one employee can create that much revenue, a guy like Kobe Bryant is called a “rain maker”. When a prominent investment banker or corporate lawyer or headhunter decides to hang it up, their firms often give them “golden parachutes”. Just because they were moving on didn’t mean their past work would be forgotten. The company didn’t just move them as efficiency-maximizing widgets - their employees were a family and family takes care of each other.
Whatever Kobe does when his playing days are over, he will always be a Laker, in much the same way as Magic Johnson and James Worthy. After making nearly $280 million in salary over the course of his NBA career, did he need the extra money? Obviously not. However, when you are playing the business game at the level those guys are at, that money can fund a startup, seed an endowment or become an equity stakeholder in the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those are the kind of doors that open for you when you lead championship parades in Los Angeles.
Why is that important? In a business where rain makers can choose where they want to work, it’s never a bad idea to cultivate a reputation as a place that takes care of its employees. The Lakers may not have had much of a chance with Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, but if they come calling to Kevin Love this offseason, he will at least have to listen.
The pitch is simple. Why should Kevin Love spend the rest of his career playing in Cleveland, where he will always be the third wheel? If the Cavs don’t win a championship, who is getting the blame? The favored sons who grew up with the franchise (LeBron and Kyrie) and who hold the ball most of the game? Or the hired gun whom they had to mortgage the future to bring in? The Cavs have been most effective with LeBron James at the 4 and a rim protector at the 5, which makes Love an uncomfortable fit.
If Love comes to Los Angeles, he instantly becomes the face of the franchise. Instead of trying to pound a round peg into a square hole, the Lakers can set up their team to maximize Love’s strengths in the same way the Minnesota Timberwolves did. He may never be an even average defensive player, but a competent organization can build an elite team around a big man who averages 26 points, 14 rebounds and 4 assists a game on 46% shooting, including 37% from 3.
I am writing this on a soggy Friday morning in Dallas, where the high will be 50 and the low will be 37. The forecast in Cleveland calls for a high of 34. Here are the projected high temperatures in Los Angeles over the next week - 77, 81, 79, 73, 70, 79, 75. Basketball players love to sign in places like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Miami because they are built like Bedouins - tall and long with bodies designed to dissipate heat, not absorb it. To survive a winter in Cleveland or Minnesota, you want to be built more like an Eskimo.
The weather is only the beginning. Would Nick Young be dating Iggy Azalea if he played for the Clippers or the Suns? That might not mean anything to family men in their 30’s like LeBron or Carmelo, but Kevin Love is only 25. And when the long knives come out in Cleveland, which they will, the grass in LA will only look greener. The Lakers can pitch Love on an organization that doesn’t sell out its marquee player and isn’t going to badmouth his character to make themselves look better. He played at UCLA. He knows the deal. How many bullets have they taken for Kobe over the years to protect his image?
The big difference between the Lakers and most of the organizations in the NBA is they are still a family business. Jerry Buss bought the franchise in 1979 and controlled it until his death in 2013. When you are in charge for that amount of time, your perspective changes. Players, no matter how great, come and go. Coaches too. Teams rise and they fall. The franchise is the only thing that is constant - how you run your organization, how you treat people, what you value in players. Don’t let your coach be the GM. Don’t let your GM trade for his own son. Hire competent PR people and don’t let your franchise player star in a series of advertisements that are neither funny nor clever and are ruining his image due to over-exposure.
Since there is no NFL team in LA, the Clippers are the Lakers only real competition. Maybe Steve Ballmer changes that or maybe he doesn’t. A lot of people within Microsoft view him as a guy who rode the wave Bill Gates and Paul Allen created and then promptly ran the company into the ground.
Over the last 30 years, the Lakers have been in the unique position to capture the hearts and minds of one of the biggest and most important cities in the world. Every fanbase in every city in the NBA wants to see their team on TNT and ESPN and ABC - the difference is there are more people in LA than almost anywhere else. If you think consistent losing is going to keep them off national TV, take a look at how many times the Dallas Cowboys have been on Sunday Night Football over the last decade.
The point is that if Kevin Love won’t take their money, someone else probably will. This isn’t the Knicks, a franchise that has been run into the ground for generations. This is a team that expects to win championships and has the resources to make it happen.
That was the most laughable part of all about the backlash to Kobe’s final contract - running the Los Angeles Lakers is literally a license to print money. They made $293 million in revenue last season. Jerry Buss bought the team for $20 million and Forbes just valued them at $2.6 billion. The Buss family is sitting on an ungodly sum of money and the blood, sweat and tears of guys like Kobe Bryant is what made that possible. The $50 million they gave Kobe as a going-away present? It’s like the owner of a restaurant letting a manager keep the take from the night shift.
Nor did it make a ton of sense for them to go all out on competing this season. They could have broken up the $25 million they gave Kobe to sign a bunch of mid-level free agents, but all that would have done was put them in the outside looking in of what should be an insanely brutal race for the 8th seed in the West. When you consider how stacked this draft class is and that the Lakers pick is only top-5 protected, their goals for this season become pretty obvious. Losing a bunch of games to draft Karl Towns or Jahil Okafor is what Old Face Andre from The Wire would call “taking the long view.”
If the Lakers do end up keeping their pick, you can bet on one thing. They are going to draft an athletic big guy who can play basketball because those guys are the hardest players to find. That’s what they do when they are high in the lottery, whether it’s Andrew Bynum in 2005 or Julius Randle in 2014. Put Randle and Towns together and make a run at a few younger free agents like Goran Dragic and Tobias Harris and all of a sudden the Lakers have a pretty exciting young team in a good position to pounce when the salary cap is expected to explode upwards in 2016.
Maybe everyone who is rumored to hit the market stays with their team, but player turnover is fact of life in the modern NBA. And when marquee free agents are looking at where they want to sign and what they want to do with the rest of their life, they will remember how the Lakers treated Kobe Bryant, a guy whom most of them grew up idolizing. If this is it for Kobe, there’s no reason to feel sad. There isn’t a superstar in the league whose gotten a fairer shake from his franchise over the course of his career.
That’s how a family business like the Lakers competes against the hedge fund and private equity guys who are taking over the NBA. If you think one of them is giving a “depreciating asset” $50 million on his way out the door, Adam Silver has some exquisitely prepared financial statements detailing how much money they are losing to show you.