NBA superstars are underpaid compared to the revenue they generate for their teams and the league. This is a fact, the best players know it and have known it for a long time. It's just somewhat of a taboo thing to talk about publicly, given that they play a game for a living and make millions. Kobe Bryant, however, isn't one to shy away from taboo topics -- in Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated's revealing feature on Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers guard said he has his old-man honesty because he's "70 in basketball years."
About his two-year, $48.5 million contract extension, which he has defended before, Bryant had a lot to say:
KB believes players like him & LeBron are underpaid (put LBJ free market at ~ $75 mil). Believes important to set an example in contracts...— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) August 22, 2014
But, "that being said, I took a pay cut. I'm very very lucky to be w/ LA. They could have lowballed me, but that's not what they stand for."— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) August 22, 2014
And last one, from Kobe talking about the pressure for players to take less $$ to help a team win, when he feels that's unfair.... (contd)— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) August 22, 2014
KB:"As athletes, you get the pressure of playing for the love of the game.Of course we do.But do owners buy teams for the love of the game?"— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) August 22, 2014
We could go back and forth about what Bryant and the Lakers decided to do forever. Bryant is right that it's silly for players to be expected to take less than market value in order for the team to be successful. The reality of the salary-cap structure means, though, that his contract has put Los Angeles in a tough position competitively. Sports Illustrated quotes an anonymous general manager saying that Bryant has "zero" value on the trade market because of it, and the Lakers couldn't convince any big free agents to sign in the summer because there wasn't really room to improve the supporting cast. Does that make him selfish? I say no, but it obviously made things tougher on general manager Mitch Kupchak.
There's an easy contrast to be drawn with Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, who signed a three-year, $25 million deal this offseason. Bryant's point is that we shouldn't look at that as the standard, or a somehow more noble act than what he or LeBron James did. James, who made it clear from the outset of free agency that he wouldn't take any sort of pay cut, wound up signing a two-year max deal. He structured that so he could sign his next one under a new CBA, where he should be able to make more. That's just good business, and it's what Bryant is talking about when he says it's important to set an example. The owners already get a break on how much they should pay the best of the best, so there shouldn't be pressure on those players to sell themselves short in negotiations.