With Kobe Bryant, the Lakers made the easy choice

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Faced with choosing between an easy mediocrity and a difficult one, Lakers management chose the one featuring Kobe.

The Los Angeles Lakers announced Monday they had reached an extension agreement with Kobe Bryant. Reporters pegged the number at $48.5 million over the next two seasons. (He's making $30.5 million this year.) He has not yet played this regular season after tearing his Achilles tendon in April. He is 35 years old.

***

KOBE IS NOT GREEDY

The way Bryant tells it, he didn't even press for such a high dollar figure. The Lakers just gave it to him.

"This was easy," Bryant told Yahoo Sports on Monday night. "This wasn't a negotiation. The Lakers made their offer with cap and building a great team in mind while still taking care of me as a player.

"I simply agreed to the offer."

That has a high likelihood of being exaggerated, as Kobe's agent, Rob Pelinka, is one of the more aggressive in the NBA. To discount his work to get a 35-year-old coming off of a major injury $48 million is unfair. What Kobe is likely trying to do is nod to the Lakers' generosity and trust; Bryant has seemed to value loyalty highly over the years. This is Kobe rewarding Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and owner Jim Buss for their largess.

And it is some largess. Kobe will likely be the league's most highly-paid player again in 2014-15. He'll clip Joe Johnson by about $200,000 in 2015-16. That season, Kobe will be 37 years old.

But Kobe is not greedy. The Lakers know all of the info they need to know: his age, his physical condition, his commitment to work, his numbers, his teammate needs. The Lakers know that and offered him this amount of money after some level of negotiation. Would it be better for the Lakers if Kobe took even less, like $20 million or even $15 million? Of course. But Kupchak and company think they can build another great team around Bryant at this salary level. That might be a dubious belief, but the Lakers believe it. To suggest Kobe volunteer to take less than what is offered is presumptive and, frankly, useless.

THIS IS NOT A MAJOR RISK FOR THE LAKERS

To consider this deal a major risk for the Lakers, one would have to show another path out of mediocrity for the Lakers. Without Kobe, this team is ugly. If the Lakers let Bryant find a new home in July 2014, when he was scheduled to become a free agent, the only thing Kupchak would be able to sell is the logo, the city, the history. Without Kobe, the Lakers would have had only Steve Nash and Robert Sacre on the books for 2014-15. Only one franchise in memory has sold a major free agent on a blank canvas, and that was the Heat and LeBron James. And by the time James picked Miami, the blank canvas had been filled with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Other teams that came into 2010 will gaping salary holes ended up with Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Travis Outlaw.

The smarter play would be to build for the future slowly. Unfortunately, the Lakers traded an unprotected 2015 pick to Phoenix in the Nash deal and a top-five protected 2017 pick to Orlando in the Dwight Howard deal. Building slow and young while missing two key picks is difficult.

It doesn't particularly matter that Kobe will be the highest paid player in the league, because the Lakers have the highest revenue in the league. The team makes $150 million per year just on local TV rights. Consider a comparison with the Bobcats, who make a reported $7 million annually from TV rights. That contract covers half of Al Jefferson's $15 million salary. The Lakers' TV deal can take care of Kobe's $24 million in 13 games. The Lakers, along with a few other teams, play with different rules when it comes to costs. The improved luxury tax will indeed make it more painful for the richest clubs to heavily outspend their rivals, but the ability will still be there. It's all a matter of the owner's stomach. Jim Buss can stomach paying Kobe this much, and the bottom line can easily support it.

The Lakers could have let Kobe walk in July, renouncing him to remove his cap hold so the team could chase hard after the top free agents. But what if the Lakers ended up with nothing, a real possibility? What is LeBron quickly re-signed with Miami and Carmelo Anthony with New York, leaving restricted free agents and second-tier options? Just because this is the Lakers doesn't mean that they don't have to overpay free agents. And how bad would the backlash in L.A. be if the Lakers struck out and Kobe signed a reasonable deal with a contender? Forget about whether Kupchak would survive -- would Buss survive? Would L.A. turn against him permanently?

That's a risk. Kobe failing to live up to huge contract? Eh, it happens. At leas there will be records to chase through 2016, and we know Kobe will get that building full again.

But the Lakers becoming totally irrelevant for a couple of seasons while Kobe competes for a title elsewhere? That's a doom you can't blame Buss and Kupchak for avoiding at all costs. Even $48.5 million.

***

KOBE IS DONE WINNING TITLES

Let's throw an asterisk on that: Kobe is done winning titles unless he strings together a couple of ring-chasing seasons at the end of this contract. I can't imagine Kobe as a ring-chaser, so I'm choosing to believe it won't happen. (I can see him taking a series of one-year deals with the Lakers. I see the Lakers really, really far away from title contention in the near future, though.)

The Lakers aren't going to pick high enough in the 2014 draft to get an immediate superstar; they're 7-7 before Kobe's return, and there are some much worse clubs in the league this season. Instead, L.A. will likely pick between No. 10 and No. 18, with the opportunity to pick up a nice chip. Nash is nigh impossible to trade given his salary ($9 million in 2014-15) and health outlook. Pau Gasol, bless him, isn't going to pull a major asset on the market. Neither is anyone else on the roster.

As for this coming summer, LeBron James is not joining the Lakers. It wasn't happening no matter what the Lakers did with Kobe. It's just not happening. Dwyane Wade is also a big fat 'no.' Chris Bosh is quite unlikely. The other major name attached to the Lakers is Carmelo Anthony. He'd be giving up some salary and his (purported) hometown to join Kobe in L.A. At his price, too, the Lakers would be limited on who else they could bring in. Is Melo and Kobe a championship team? Stop laughing, I was asking a serious question. The Lakers would probably have to trade whoever they pick in 2014, along with Nash's expiring (in 2015) deal to piece up another piece. To free up the space for Melo, the team would have to either renounce Pau or sign him for something like $4 million.

The other player mentioned frequently is Kevin Love, who chose L.A. for one year of college and is a free agent in 2015. The problem, of course, is that to preserve cash for Love or another 2015 free agent, the Lakers can't sign a big name in 2014. This season is on the rails to mediocrity. And Kobe, Kupchak and company are supposed to concede another season to the same fate on a prayer? The Lakers don't do patient.

We've established that the Lakers have little in the way of trade assets. Regardless, even if Kupchak can (again) squeeze manna from lemons, the Lakers are not a Gasol '08 trade from contention. It would take a league-shaking move or multiple excellent trades to get Kobe the pieces he'd need to catch up to the Spurs, Thunder, Warriors, Blazers, Rockets and Clippers over the next few years (to say nothing of the Heat and Pacers).

Lakers fans can and should believe that Kupchak can do it, that Kobe can convince other stars to join him in a quest for No. 6, the Jordan equalizer. But faith and hope are nice distractions from reality. Fans who believe the Lakers are exceptional, that L.A. has a different set of rules, will need those distractions as the crushing rationalism of what's real comes to pass over the end of Kobe's incredible career.

***

Kobe was done winning championships as a featured star no matter what happened. This extension just marks the path the end of his career will take. It's a commendable one marked by loyalty, comfort, fealty to L.A.'s legions of Kobe devotees and a helluva lot of money for everyone involved. That's a better resolution for the Buss family than the tumult and aggravation a more fiscally-responsible, long-term plot without Kobe. Here's to the pleasant 41-41 seasons ahead.

More from SB Nation NBA:

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The Hook: Sometimes the tank chooses you

Kobe Bryant signs massive 2-year extension with Lakers

The Hook: Blaming Chris Grant as Cavaliers flounder

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