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Extension Candidate: Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant isn’t going anywhere. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court yet this fall, but the 15-time All-Star will play for the Lakers this season. And despite the fact that unrestricted free agency is looming in 2014, he’ll play for the Lakers beyond this season, assuming he wants to continue his career, which looks like a good bet.

The inevitably of Kobe remaining in Los Angeles removes a little of the drama from extension talks between him and the team, as well as from his looming free agency. But even if we’re 99% sure of what the end result will be, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get there smoothly. Kobe and the Lakers are in a unique situation right now, and negotiations between the two sides could proceed in any number of directions.

The first key factor to consider is Kobe’s health. Much has been written about how difficult it is for players to recapture their previous form following Achilles injuries, particularly players at Bryant’s age (35). And equally as much has been written about Kobe’s otherworldly drive and work ethic — in other words, if anyone can return from an Achilles tear without losing a step, the longtime Laker is a pretty good candidate. Still, the Lakers will likely hesitate to engage in serious discussions until the team sees that Kobe is once again healthy and productive.

Assuming that happens at some point before the spring, the next question is whether Kobe will sign an in-season extension or wait until free agency to ink a new deal. Lakers co-owner and executive VP Jim Buss recently vowed that his star wouldn’t become a free agent, and an extension would certainly have benefits for both sides. For Kobe, who is unlikely to sign for the full five years he could get as a free agent, adding two or three more years to his current contract seems reasonable, and it would allow him to avoid the uncertainty of the free agent period. For the Lakers, it would mean they wouldn’t have to negotiate with their franchise player next July at the same time the club hopes to negotiate with other marquee free agents.

Of course, the question that dwarfs the others involves – surprise! – money. Bryant is making an incredible $30,453,805 this season, a figure that won’t be matched by another player for years to come, due in part to the limitations of the new CBA. Kobe will be eligible for yet another raise, but it’s more likely we’ll see his salary start to head in the other direction. But how low will Kobe be willing to go?

In the summer of 2012, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett both hit free agency at age 36, the same birthday Kobe will celebrate next August. Duncan and Garnett were coming off salaries of $21MM+, significantly less than Bryant’s, but still figures that exceeded the maximum. On their new deals, Duncan and KG signed for annual salaries in the $10-12MM range, a pay cut of about 50% in both instances.

That sounds about right to me for Kobe, depending on how strong he looks coming off his Achilles rehab. Something in the neighborhood of $10-15MM per year would allow the Lakers to retain plenty of potential cap space to pursue other free agents. It also wouldn’t represent too massive a pay cut for Bryant, who has said he still intends to negotiate the best deal possible.

Eric Pincus and Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times suggested over the summer that perhaps Kobe and the Lakers could work out a deal that would see Bryant sign a one-year, minimum salary contract in 2014. Los Angeles would still hold Kobe’s Bird rights, meaning the club could sign him to a max-salary contract in 2015. The end result would still be an annual salary in the $10MM neighborhood for those two seasons, but his paltry ’14 salary would give the Lakers a ton of cap room to add free agents or make trades. Of course, this type of prearranged move technically isn’t allowed by the NBA, and it’s risky to assume that the Lakers could convince the league to allow it. After all, we saw the NBA shut down the idea of the Celtics and Clippers circumventing league rules this summer to allow both Garnett and Doc Rivers to move to L.A.

A more traditional contract is the likely outcome for Kobe and the Lakers, but how they arrive at that deal is still anyone’s guess. Here’s my guess: Bryant returns to the court this season and remains very effective, if not quite the same dominant scorer that he was before the injury. Sometime before next July, I expect the two sides to announce an extension that will keep Kobe under contract for two or three more seasons, at around $15MM annually. That looks to me like a fair middle ground between the Lakers having to keep Kobe’s $32MM cap hold on their books next July, or the former MVP being forced to accept a mid-level deal or worse.

As we’ve seen with Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, Phil Jackson, Dwight Howard, and others in L.A. over the last year and a half, things rarely play out that cleanly when it comes to the Lakers. Impending free agencies for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony may draw more attention this season, but Kobe’s will be a fascinating case to watch.

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