Henry Abbott wrote a thought-provoking piece on TrueHoop Tuesday considering if or when Kobe Bryant's massive contract will become a burden on the Los Angeles Lakers. As I'll not soon forget, the Lakers were dutifully swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the second of the NBA playoffs last May ... and the Lakers hadn't exactly looked sharp in a 4-2 win over the New Orleans Hornets in the first round. A central storyline leading away from the inglorious dismissal was how Andrew Bynum fits in the team offense going forward, and whether his insistence on being honored will send the franchise into crisis mode.
Abbott's look is a bit different. It follows on work from Kevin Pelton on what we ought to expect from Kobe on the court from here on out. At the end of the season, Pelton had projected that 71 percent of players who had seasons most similar to Kobe's 2010-11 saw per-minute production decreases in the next season. Both Abbott and Pelton note that Kobe has racked up a ton of miles, well more than Michael Jordan had at this point in his career, and that injuries have taken an increasing toll.
But ... a burden? How bad do we think Kobe will get over the next three years? (Kobe is due $83.4 million through 2014.)
Jordan is the only sensible comparison, something Pelton seems to agree with by calling other players in Kobe's similarity cadre (like Vince Carter) "superficially similar." What does Jordan's age curve around this age look like? Where is Kobe starting from, since Bryant is certainly not as good as Jordan was?
Again, Kobe is starting a much lower level than MJ had been at around age 31 and 32: Jordan was an MVP having some of the greatest seasons ever, Kobe is an All-Star who hasn't played at legit MVP level in years. But even MJ saw a sharp drop in production (as measured by PER) at ages 33 and 34. By his standards, the drop didn't really matter: he was still the best player in the league, and the Chicago Bulls were still unstoppable. Kobe doesn't have that luxury, but if he downgrades to the same level that MJ did, it seems he'll still be pretty good, All-Star level.
In the current NBA, is an All-Star worth $30 million? No, and Abbott's absolutely right that if Kobe weren't Kobe, we might be talking about that recent three-year extension (the one he'll be playing on for the next three seasons) as an anchor. But unlike some of the other best-paid players in the league, Kobe isn't woefully underplaying his salary. He's just not quite living up to it.
But let's not forget how comparatively outrageous Jordan's salary was at the end of his Bulls' career. MJ made $33 million in 1998; that salary was bigger than the total team salaries for 19 franchises. The average player salary was $2 million; MJ made 16 times that. Kobe, at his salary peak in 2013-14, will make about six times the average salary. While the salary cap was definitely looser in MJ's day (almost unrecognizable), that's still real money Jerry Reinsdorf was paying out. Because MJ was so powerful on the court and at the gate, these questions Abbott asks of Kobe were never approached. They couldn't be.
For better or worse, Kobe has that MJ aura around him, and -- as Abbott himself admits at the end of his piece -- the Lakers would become laughingstocks if they were to make Bryant an amnesty casualty. The Lakers could be thwarted by a hard cap, by Andrew Bynum's pushy ascension, by a revenue sharing dagger, by Mike Brown -- to me, Kobe underplaying his contract by a devastating amount seems like a relatively minor worry.
That said, no one would be more happy to see the dynasty fall apart than I. Bring on the Horsemen!