Kobe Bryant’s Contract Creates Big Problems for Lakers’ Future

*Note: This article is in response to a previous article submitted by the same author that featured factual errors concerning the CBA and Kobe Bryant’s contract information.

For sixteen years, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant has made his case as one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the hardwood. And while building his résumé as arguably the best of all-time, Bryant found his way to the top of the NBA’s pay scale.

Under the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the salary cap was set at $58 million during the 2011-2012 season. Bryant accounted for $25.24 million, or 43.5 percent, of the Lakers’ cap space last year. That astronomical amount solidified him as the league’s highest-paid player, landing him a whopping $4 million above Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, the league’s No. 2 money maker.

Now even though Bryant’s contract is a pricy one, the fact that Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum also rake in big bucks can’t be overlooked. Gasol and Bynum are set to make a combined $35.47 million in 2012-2013, not far ahead of Bryant’s $27.84 payday. Those three contracts alone put the Lakers over $5 million past the cap limit. Even the $7.72 million that the Lakers are slated to pay Metta World Peace in 2012-2013 has the team frantically searching for ways to unload the 2004 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Despite all of the other exorbitant contracts that the Lakers have on the books for the next couple of seasons, none of them is more of a burden than Bryant’s.

The first problem that Bryant’s pay poses is that it limits the amount of money that the Lakers have to sign free agents during the off-season.

With the majority of their salary divided amongst their ‘Big Three’ (Bryant, Gasol, Bynum), there’s little wiggle room when it comes to adding more talent to the roster. Even after bidding farewell to Matt Barnes and clinging to cheap labor like Darius Morris and Devin Ebanks, the Lakers have only the mini mid-level exception (three years starting at $3 million) to offer free agents since they’re so far over the limit. They also have the veteran minimum to work with, but not many quality players will choose to play with the Lakers for that kind of money when they can find more lucrative deals elsewhere.

Even though the Lakers recently landed veteran point guard Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade with the Phoenix Suns, using that avenue to add talent won’t be an option for much longer either. Assuming that they’ll be $4 million above the tax level, the Lakers will lose the ability to acquire free agents via sign-and-trade starting in 2013-2014 per new CBA regulations.

The second, and potentially scarier, problem with Bryant’s hefty price tag is the looming NBA luxury tax hike.

Under the old CBA, teams over the luxury tax paid $1 for every $1 they were over the salary cap. Under the new CBA, the penalties become crippling for teams that like to overspend like the Lakers. Starting in 2013-2014, the luxury tax will be raised for each $5 million that a team goes over the salary cap. The first $5 million will be taxed at $1.50 per dollar, the next $5 million at $1.75 per dollar and the next $5 million at $2.50 per dollar. Once past the $15 million mark, the team will be taxed $3.25 per dollar and an additional $0.50 per dollar for every $5 million beyond that point.

To make matters even worse, if a team was considered a repeat offender in that they paid the luxury tax in four out of the last five seasons (starting in 2011-2012), they would pay an additional $1 per bracket. The stages would then increase from $2.50 to $2.75 to $3.50 and so on. In essence, the NBA wanted to do everything in their power to dissuade teams from being over the salary cap.

Let’s use the most-recent figures as an example: in 2011, the Lakers paid a luxury tax of $19.9 million. With the new CBA luxury tax rules in effect, they would have paid $44.67 million. With the way that the Lakers’ 2012-2013 payroll currently looks with a roster that isn’t even completely filled out, they would be paying upwards of $80 million at season’s end. Luckily for them, the luxury tax won’t kick in for another year so there’s still time.

The worst part: the Lakers’ options are limited as to how they can remedy the situation. The CBA doesn’t allow for players to restructure their contracts, meaning that Bryant can’t even opt to cut down on the almost-$60 million that he’ll make over the next two seasons.

With a no-trade clause in his contract, Bryant isn’t eligible to be shipped out of town, either, whereas Gasol and Bynum are both potential trade tools. Even if trading Bryant was possible, it’s not likely another owner would be willing to inherit his contract anyways.

The only conceivable option is using the amnesty clause, which allows a team to completely erase a player’s salary cap and luxury tax hits from the record books. Although unlikely, if the Lakers did hold on to their amnesty option for another season, they could use it prior to the 2013-2014 campaign to waive Bryant and save themselves the $30.45 million that would have gone towards the cap and taxes. It’s hard to imagine that the Lakers would dare cause that kind of uproar, but the thought will surely cross some minds in the Lakers’ front office when the time comes.

No one doubts that Bryant deserves every cent that he receives from the Lakers. But to say that his figures aren’t detrimental to the team is childish.

The 14-time NBA All-Star will be eating up over 50 percent of the Lakers’ salary cap in 2013-2014, meaning that they’ll either have to gut their roster and fill it with inexpensive players (you get what you pay for in that scenario, though) or face the financial slaughter that is the new luxury tax.

It may not be the route the Lakers want to take, but is holstering the amnesty clause and avoiding a huge PR disaster worth the tens of millions of dollars that Bryant will cost them in luxury taxes? I guess we’ll find out next off-season.