By Ben Bolch
9:42 PM EST, November 25, 2013
Was it the fadeaway jumper he made over Nick Young? The step-back shot that was too much for Xavier Henry?
The proof must have been on the practice court for the Lakers, who just committed two more years and $48.5 million to Kobe Bryant before really knowing whether their superstar will resemble himself in an actual NBA game.
It's one thing to look formidable in a controlled setting against teammates awed by your presence. The real test comes amid the angry chaos of double teams and flailing arms that await Bryant upon his return to games from a torn Achilles' tendon.
One gets the sense the Lakers gave Bryant an extension Monday that will preserve his status as one of the league's highest-paid players as a goodwill gesture, like a gold watch for his 20 years of service by the time his new contract expires.
But why do this now, so soon before fully knowing what they have in Bryant and months before gaining any sort of idea about which free agents would be willing to join him next summer in his quest for a sixth diamond-encrusted ring?
"I was pretty surprised by the timing," NBA salary cap expert Larry Coon said about the deal. "I don't see any reason from the Lakers' perspective to do it now, other than to do a solid for Kobe."
According to Coon's always trusty calculations, after Bryant's new contract, the Lakers could have as much as $28.46 million in salary cap space next summer. That would entail, among other things, waiving Steve Nash and using the so-called stretch provision on his remaining $9.7-million salary, costing the Lakers only $3.23 million in cap space next season.
Under this scenario, the Lakers would have room for one maximum-salary player, e.g., Carmelo Anthony, and another player making roughly $5 million. Not bad, but not nearly as good as the prospect of luring Anthony and another star from a free-agent class that may include LeBron James, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Luol Deng.
Plus, unless the Lakers are willing to load their roster with another mishmash of one-year rentals and slog through next season, Bryant's contract erases any possibility of landing one of the top available players in 2015. That's when Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol could be on the open market.
If the Lakers signed, say, Anthony next summer and no one else of note, Coon said, it would deprive them of the flexibility to add another maximum-salary player in 2015.
"Hardly enough for Kevin Love," Coon said of the cap space held by the Lakers in that situation. "Not even enough for Courtney Love."
Typically defiant, Bryant refused to take the approach of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, who accepted steep discounts in recent years to give their respective teams more resources to build around them.
Not that Bryant doesn't apparently think he did the Lakers a favor by signing a contract that will pay him $23.5 million in 2014-15 and $25 million in 2015-16, which amounts to a pay cut of 26.3%. A maximum contract would have paid Bryant $31.9 million next season.
"The offer presented to me by the lakers [sic]," Bryant wrote on Instagram, "ensures the ability to bring in max talent. #imjusttryintohelpuout lol #dontbslow #keepup #ringsbeforeall."
If Bryant really wanted to put a title ring first, he would have put his contract last, in terms of priority and dollars.POLL: Is Kobe’s contract extension a smart move by Lakers?
Instead the Lakers find themselves stuck somewhere in the middle, a spot that is becoming painfully familiar for a .500 team with a muddled future.
Does Bryant deserve the salary he's making the next two seasons? Absolutely, given he's anywhere close to his old brilliance.
Will taking those dollars give him the best chance to tie Michael Jordan with six championship rings? No way.
Bryant tweeted a picture of his contract Monday morning, evidence he had signed off on the possibility of ending his career without another title.
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