Kobe Bryant shows involvement with Lakers' off-season moves
Appearing as relaxed as he ever can be, Lakers guard Kobe Bryant sat back during his exit interview in June full with smiles and little worry. He shared his plans to attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, admitted that he planned to take it easy this summer to rest his assorted injuries and even acknowledged some of his vulnerabilities during Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
At the time, I noted that Bryant's changed demeanor perfectly reflected how winning a championship helped soften his sometimes gruff exterior and revealed that he's human after all. Bryant's laid-back attitude couldn't have been more prevalent than when The Times' Mike Bresnahan asked him what off-season moves he thinks the Lakers need to make to secure a third consecutive title.
"You know what, to be honest man, I don't even stress myself out thinking about that," Bryant said. "I don't have to. Mitch [Kupchak] has put together a hell of a squad, man. So my job is done. I did my part. Now he's going to do what's best for the organization and the team and helping our chances win another one. I have all the confidence in the world that he can do it."
Kupchak surely did. He helped keep the Lakers largely intact with the team re-signing Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher and Shannon Brown, picking up free agents Matt Barnes, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff and drafting Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, both whom have a chance at landing a spot on next season's roster. The only losses entailed Jordan Farmar going to New Jersey and the team letting go of Adam Morrison, Josh Powell and D.J. Mbenga -- departures that will really have only a marginal impact on the Lakers.
But as far as Bryant staying out of the process? Well, it didn't really pan out that way. Bryant didn't go on a radio tour like he did three years ago. He didn't appear on a fan-made video that featured a profanity-laced rant on why Andrew Bynum should be shipped out. But he remained occupied enough with the team's off-season moves to make an impact. This isn't to discount anything Kupchak did in putting together the 2010-11 roster. But clearly, Bryant's fingerprints are found in numerous deals.
Calling Derek Fisher
Fisher and the organization unanimously agreed that it'd be best for him to re-sign with the Lakers, citing his leadership, his five rings and his playoff performances that propelled the Lakers to a second consecutive title. But the two sides had disagreed over how to measure that in dollar figures.
Bryant predicted during his exit interview that Fisher would be back, but he expressed irritation that the two hadn't reached an agreement. The Times' Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner reported at the time that The Lakers initially didn't want to pay Fisher anything more than $2.5 million for one season, while Fisher, a 14-year veteran, wanted to make a similar figure as last season ($5.048 million) with a multi-year deal.
"We need to have him back, it's as simple as that," Bryant said at his basketball camp in Santa Barbara about the teammate who has been with Bryant since 1996, winning five titles together and establishing a close relationship. "It's not a question of if he will be back; it's a matter of when ... I don't care what [the cost] is. They need to work that out and get him back because his significance to our ballclub and to me cannot be understated."
Likewise, it couldn't be understated enough on why Fisher ultimately agreed to a three-year deal believed to be worth about $10.5 million, including a player option in the third year. In his statement, Fisher highlighted Bryant's influence as a significant reason why he decided to stay with the Lakers.
""At the end of the day, there's one person I could not turn away from. Kobe Bryant asked me to stay but supported whatever decision I made," Fisher said in a statement. "He and I have played together for 11 seasons, came into the league together as kids; he has been loyal to me even when others had doubts."
Possible Raja Bell acquisition
Bryant's willingness to meet with Bell over dinner four years after getting clotheslined by him truly speaks to how Bryant favors winning above all else.
Ultimately, Bell canceled the dinner meeting and chose Utah, valuing security over the lure of a championship ring. But the Lakers wouldn't have been in such a strong position to attract Bell if not for Bryant. The Lakers could offer Bell no more than $1.77 million from their mid-level exception, but found themselves in a strong position despite Bell fielding offers from Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, Portland and Utah.
""I think [Bryant] has a lot of respect for Raja and Raja has a lot of respect for him," Bell's agent, Herb Rudoy told The Times' Bresnahan during free agency. "I think they would rather play with each other than against each other."
Ultimately, Bell much preferred trying to help Utah to a title run after making the playoffs four consecutive years mainly, as he told the Salt Lake Tribune's Ross Siler, that a championship doesn’t hold the same kind of weight in your heart if you’re just kind of along for the ride and you didn’t get to compete and put your blood, sweat and tears into it as much as the next guy. Even if Bell canceled the dinner plans, the fact he was initially open to it showed his evolving respect for Bryant.
"Kobe was very cool about it," Bell told Siler. I told him my situation and we talked about it for a minute. He thought it was a no-brainer for me also. "I know Jazz fans might not want to hear it, but Kobe and I are actually on pretty good terms."
Texting with Matt Barnes
Bryant applied the same logic toward embracing Barnes as he did with Bell.
"He told me anyone crazy enough to ... mess with me is crazy enough to play with me," Barnes said of Bryant, referring to when he testily guarded Bryant in a regular season game last year and pretended to inbound the ball toward his face. "Let’s get it done. He’s one of the best competitors to play the game. I played with a lot of the same fire he does. Finally after eight years in my career, I’m finally done guarding him except in practice. I’m glad he’s going to be on my side hitting those game-winners rather than hitting them on me or see him hit them on my team."
As soon as Barnes told Bryant his interest in becoming a Laker, Bryant immediately texted back. Barnes had grown up rooting for the Lakers, idolized Magic Johnson and longingly respected Bryant from afar even through those contentious matchups. Bryant's immediate response demonstrated the feeling was mutual. The conversations temporarily stopped once it appeared Barnes would join Toronto after agreeing to a two-year, $9-million contract through a sign-and-trade, but the deal fell through after the league's salary-cap rules prevented the Magic from offering that money. The two immediately picked up the texting, a factor Kupchak said "didn't matter" in securing Barnes, but one he acknowledged helped keep the GM in the loop. "His approach was kind of like, 'This is what I’m hearing,' " Kupchak said of Bryant. "He never said, 'What are you going to do, this is what I want you to do.' It was, 'This is what I’m hearing.' Apparently, they had a dialog that went on for quite some time."
As detailed above, Bryant had plenty of dialogue with plenty of potential and current teammates. So much for taking it easy this summer. But thanks to Bryant's efforts, the Lakers are even more strongly suited to three-peat.
-- Mark Medina
Follow the L.A. Times Lakers blog on Twitter: twitter.com/latmedina. E-mail the Lakers blog at email@example.com
-- Photos (from top): Lakers guard Kobe Bryant catches his breath during Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
-- Derek Fisher strongly credited Kobe Bryant for convincing him to stay with the Lakers. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times -- Kobe Bryant and Raja Bell have a contentious history together, but that didn't stop Bryant from trying to persuade Bell into joining the Lakers. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
-- Derek Fisher strongly credited Kobe Bryant for convincing him to stay with the Lakers. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times
-- Kobe Bryant and Raja Bell have a contentious history together, but that didn't stop Bryant from trying to persuade Bell into joining the Lakers. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times
-- Lakers forward Matt Barnes communicated with Bryant frequently via text message during free agency. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press