Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Forget all that stuff about Kobe Bryant returning from an Achilles' tendon injury this season. It'll happen at some point.
The real question involves next season. He might not return at all to the Lakers.
Bryant is entering the last nine months of his contract, a season worth $30.45 million before he can become a free agent in July.
He has known only one team in his 17-year career and often says he'll be a Laker for life, but will that be the case?
The Lakers haven't opened contract negotiations with Bryant, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, taking a wait-and-see approach as he recovers from his injury.
Bryant, 35, has done incredible things for the franchise, pushing it to five championships and two other NBA Finals appearances in his 17 seasons. His jersey is continually among the league's top sellers, his first name easily recognizable even with non-sports fans.
But the Lakers are already salivating over their salary-cap space next summer. Only Steve Nash, Robert Sacre and Nick Young are on the books for 2014-15, meaning a spending spree awaits with potential free agents LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Luol Deng, Dirk Nowitzki, Danny Granger and Marcin Gortat. Restricted free agents next July include Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe.
If Bryant asks for the maximum 5% raise over his current salary, he would earn $32 million in 2014-15. The Lakers won't pay him that much, especially as he comes off a torn Achilles', because it would seriously dent their salary-cap space. Bryant alone at that cost would take up almost half the estimated $62.5-million cap for NBA teams in 2014-15.
If he took a dramatic pay cut and asked for $10 million to $12 million for 2014-15, it would give the Lakers space to add two top-level free agents next summer.
How much does he want that sixth championship ring?
Bryant could not be reached for comment. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak declined to comment for this story.
Bryant's contract can be extended any time before July. Otherwise, he becomes a free agent.
"How long and for how much do you keep Kobe around?" NBA salary-cap expert Larry Coon said. "What's the line between loyalty to him and loyalty to making the franchise a winning team? They want to maximize their cap room. Having Kobe on the books at a big salary would really cut into their signing ability."
Bryant has almost left the Lakers twice, as a free agent in 2004 and as a frustrated still-under-contract player in 2007.
After coming whisper-close to signing with the Clippers, he returned to the Lakers thanks to an eleventh-hour discussion with Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
And in the summer of 2007, he demanded to be traded but grudgingly came back to what he considered a team in decline. He was rewarded in February 2008 with the Pau Gasol trade that led to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, two of them successful for the Lakers.
This time, Bryant's leverage isn't as strong. He was statistically brilliant last season — 27.3 points, six assists, 5.4 rebounds a game — but age and health are factors for 2014 and beyond.
He says he wants to play three more years, but nobody knows how he'll look coming back from the injury sustained in mid-April.
Will he lose an inch off his vertical? Two? None?
"If he comes back as 70% of the player that he was, how much money is that worth [next year]?" said Coon, who runs the heavily referenced basketball industry site cbafaq.com. "He's in a big-market franchise where the fans are fickle. He's in a situation where every few years they have to wipe the slate clean and improve on the fly. That's what the Lakers have always done. They're not a team that drafts players and develops them. They sign players."
Training camp opens Saturday for the Lakers. Bryant won't be ready physically.
His presence at next year's camp depends almost entirely on something markedly different — money.