When Kobe Bryant tore his achilles tendon seven months ago on April 13, it marked a fitting conclusion to a disastrous season for the Los Angeles Lakers. There was talk of the team using the amnesty clause on its veteran guard, saving $30.4 million in salary cap space for the 2013-14 season and allowing the Lakers to focus on the deep 2014 free agent class—which is slated to feature LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, among others. (It’s reportedly what former Lakers center Dwight Howard wanted, but we all know how that one turned out.)
Instead, Los Angeles has doubled down on its 35-year-old franchise player, and will pay him a reported $23.5 million for the 2014-2015 season and $25 million in the 2015-2016 campaign. Pundits have balked at the extension not only because it limits the Lakers’ options for the upcoming offseason (they’ll only have cap space for one max-contract free agent) but also because Bryant has yet to return from last summer’s surgery on his torn achilles—an injury that has ended more than its fair share of basketball careers. There’s no way of knowing with any degree of certainty whether Bryant will even resemble the player he was prior to the injury, especially at his age.
But the deal reaffirms the remarkably close relationship that Bryant and the Lakers have cultivated during the course of his 17 years in Los Angeles—one that seemed all but impossible six years ago. In 2013, however, no NBA player is more closely associated with his team than Bryant is with the Lakers, and it’s a safe bet that no player exerts as much influence over a team’s personnel decisions as Bryant does with the Lakers. Bryant wanted to be a Laker for life and now, if his proclamation is to be believed, he will be. The biggest surprise is that this news comes as a surprise to anyone at all.