No longer on opposite sides in the NBA’s premier rivalry, Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant continue to be connected. In this case, it has more to do with their professional circumstances than with their involvement in any epic Celtics-Lakers battles.
As Bryant works his way back from Achilles surgery, uncomfortable questions continue to swirl around the Lakers. The organization no longer carries the constant headache that is Dwight Howard, but losing the best center in the NBA has forced the Lakers to start thinking about the future — while pondering the mortality of one of their greatest stars.
Bryant and the Lakers have not opened negotiations to discuss Bryant’s contract beyond this season, according to a report, and the team is opting to hold off on talks until it is sure how Bryant has healed. That is not surprising, taken on its own. Bryant is 35 years old and has dealt with a number of injuries, most of which he has played through, in recent years. The Lakers would be foolhardy to sign him for another multi-year pact worth upwards of $30 million per year, healthy Achilles or not.
Yet without Pierce’s move to Brooklyn, the quiet in Los Angeles would not be much cause for concern. A year ago at this juncture, Kevin Garnett had just taken a gigantic pay cut to stay in Boston. Tim Duncan was set to begin a three-year, $30 million deal to remain with the Spurs. All over the place, iconic stars were taking discounts to stay with their adopted hometown clubs. Fans of some of the league’s most successful teams breathed sighs of relief.
Yes, there was the typical, big-name player movement. Ray Allen fled to Miami and Howard was en route to L.A., along with Steve Nash. Andrew Bynum was headed East to not play for the Sixers. The summer of 2012 was not boring, by any stretch.
But Allen, Howard and Bynum did not begin to approach the level to which Duncan and Garnett had come to be associated with their respective cities. Nash’s move was not entirely his choice; he was essentially asked not to return, as the Suns were looking to move on. Duncan and Garnett made it clear: If an elite, veteran star wanted to stay at home, he could do so, at the right price. Pierce, then in the final year of his contract, and Bryant, then entering the second-to-last year of his, seemed safe.
The trade that sent Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets changed everything, however. Pierce will take the court this fall wearing a color other than green for the first time. Bryant, who appeared to be justified in his assumption that he would be a Laker for life, now has to look at the possibility that the Lakers might actually blow up 17 years of relative success by letting Bryant walk next summer.
It’s a concern, though probably not one Lakers fans need to worry about all that much. Bryant is going to be terrifying to play against this season. Knowing what we know about Bryant, it would be irresponsible to argue that he will be anything less than monstrous once he gets back on the court. Fuel is everywhere. Around the league, people are doubting him. His own body is betraying him. Now that word has gotten out that even his own team is skeptical, it becomes harder to disagree with Metta World Peace‘s assessment that Bryant will lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals.
Given the likelihood that Bryant lights his opponents on fire this season, it is highly difficult to see the Lakers simply ushering him out the door and showing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to their seats at Staples Center. That’s not to say James or Anthony won’t be in L.A. — although teaming them up would be pricey, Mikhail Prokhorov making a complete mockery of the luxury tax proves nothing is impossible — but that doesn’t mean it has to happen without Bryant. If another title is to be won in Hollywood, Bryant will want to be there to help make it happen.
The wild card for next summer therefore is Bryant himself. He has always played to win at almost any cost, but he has also played to garner absolute respect at any cost. The $20 million question is which matters to him most. Is he ready to take a pay cut to Duncan or Garnett levels to give himself a shot at a sixth championship ring and an eighth Finals appearance, or will he be motivated by the Lakers’ implicit message that he no longer deserves to be paid like their premier player? Would he rather go back to Charlotte, where his NBA career almost began, or someplace like it, to lead a listless franchise into the playoffs, just to prove a point?
The safe money is on the former. Pierce’s move to Brooklyn, remember, was grounded in his reluctance to take part in a rebuilding effort. In that way, he and Bryant are wired the same. Bryant understands his legacy. More importantly, he understands what it takes to win. He and the Lakers may not have sat down to address his future in L.A. yet, but they will. Or at least they’d better.