Massive Kobe pay cut may help Lakers; it also may be unlikely

LOS ANGELES — In the real world, a pay cut signals bad times. It signals hardship, a difficult period for a company and its employees.

Basketball isn’t the real world, but the above description sounds a bit like the Lakers right now. They can’t win with some of the massive paychecks they owe, and they won’t win in the future if they keep doling them out.

But on Wednesday, Kobe Bryant, the owner of the largest of those paychecks, went a long way in dispelling the notion that any major reduction in salary would be coming his way. His deal expires after next season, but at his camp in Santa Barbara, Bryant told fan site Lakers Nation that he’s not taking a massive pay cut – or perhaps any pay cut – for 2013-14. “Nah,” he told the site. “I’m going to try to get as much as I possibly can.”

Well, then.

Here’s the thing: Among elite athletes, large pay cuts are voluntary. They keep great teams together and allow them to move forward and evolve. Kevin Garnett took one in Boston. So did Tim Duncan in San Antonio. In fact, Duncan’s decision played a large part in getting his Spurs to the NBA Finals this past June, when they came within a shot of winning.

Too often, players are paid as much for past production as they are for what they’ll bring in the future. Contracts are often back-loaded; for instance, Bryant will make more next season, $30.5 million, than he has in any year in his career, no matter that he’ll be coming off a devastating Achilles tear and will likely miss time at the beginning of the season. Players are paid for their names and resumes, which seems respectful and right, until of course one considers that a player with a 15-year resume is downright old by NBA standards. A player with a 15-year resume may not be able to single-handedly lead his team to a championship.

Realistically, it’s of no surprise that Bryant isn’t publicly clamoring for a minimum salary a year in advance. That’s a terrible precedent to set, especially for one of the most competitive men in the NBA. At the same time, there are several realities looming: Bryant’s paycheck has the potential to be extremely restrictive, and this should be more about winning and less about individual income.

Let’s assume, now, that next season is a wash for the Lakers. In the summer of 2014, they can have an extraordinary amount of cap space and the ability to throw money at big-name free agents, the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. In theory, they’ll still have Bryant, who now hopes to play for three or four more years. He’ll be their leader, their veteran. He’ll also be accustomed to the biggest paycheck on the team.

Bryant could earn up to $32 million in 2014-15. It’s unlikely he’ll get that much, simply because 36-year-olds don’t tend to sign max deals, but even if he makes $20 million that season, the Lakers’ much talked-about flexibility will be severely limited. For the team to make the significant moves it’ll need to make, it will likely need Bryant to sacrifice a solid chunk of what he’s making.

By his words Wednesday, Bryant doesn’t seem to want to budge, or at least he won’t go into contract negotiations with the intent of caving in. That’s his right, of course, and it doesn’t at all make him a bad person; he’s one of the best players in the history of the franchise, if not the NBA.

But this is the man who insists he’ll be back for the first Lakers’ game this fall when his rehab plan dictates weeks more recovery time. This is the man who has played the seventh-most minutes of anyone in NBA history, and yet he’s trotting out for more. This is the man who might see a pay cut as representing everything that’s terrifying: mortality, decline, age.

It’s hardly a surprise that the idea of less money seems anathema to him.

It’s Bryant’s right to say these things. He has earned the right to demand gobs of money and the Lakers’ unwavering devotion. But let’s call this what it is: It’s about what Bryant wants, not what he needs.

The best line of the post in which Bryant discusses the pay cut that won’t happen comes when the author lauds him for being a “financially savvy individual.” (Insert snort, laugh, chortle, incredulous emotion of your choice here.) This is not about being financially savvy. Bryant is set up for life, and if he says otherwise, that’s false. Plus, even the tiniest of deals would pay him upwards of a million dollars, and he could still make much more than that without completely crippling the team.

Call it what it is. Bryant has earned his future paychecks, in the sense that he’s one of the league’s greatest active players. He’ll get his money, most likely, far more than the minimum deal that would set the Lakers up for success.

But this is not a reason to pat him on the back. Way to go, Kobe. Financially handicapping your team again was the right business decision. You must have gone to Wharton to learn these skills. Not quite.

It’s reality. Bryant doesn’t have to take a minimum salary, or even a massive pay cut. The Lakers don’t have to pay him what he wants, either. However legacy and the past dictate that he won’t, and they will, and if Bryant doesn’t want to sacrifice, then that’s that.