Kobe Bryant shows his value in Carmelo Anthony pitch.

USATSI_6878878  Kobe Bryant is a closer.

We’ve known that for, oh, 18 years now. So having former New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony in L.A. for days on end as his free agency fate hangs in the balance is the equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers star being handed the ball with a few seconds left and a two-point deficit to overcome. He doesn’t make every one of those shots, but there’s no one you’d rather have shoot it.

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Yet as the Internet acted like the Internet, with conflicting reports flying around aboutwhether Bryant and Anthony had played pick-up basketball with Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love at UCLA, the truth got lost.

The Lakers, not Bryant, are keeping them in this game.

Despite the dysfunction that has unfolded in Laker Land the past few years, the front office’s strategy is starting to make real sense. Sort of.

The ultimate outcome of the Anthony courting will determine how this truly Laker-esque approach will be remembered. But this question — “What were they thinking?!” — can, finally, be answered.

First, the Bryant extension. Yes, the two-year, $48.5 million extension he signed in November limits the Lakers options. One could argue, as Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times did, that they could bring two superstars of Anthony’s caliber to the Lakers if only Bryant’s deal wasn’t clogging up nearly 40 percent of the team’s projected room under the league’s salary cap (estimated at $63.2 million for next season).

But the decision to give 36-year-old Bryant a monstrous deal before he came back from his devastating Achilles tendon tear (and before he fractured his knee upon his return) sent the strongest of messages to all NBA superstars that the Lakers still were the Lakers. Los Angeles is, even with owner Jerry Buss gone, a place where superstars are appreciated to the fullest and where someone such as Anthony could expect the same treatment.

That’s a useful part of the pitch because Anthony’s decision to leave the New York Knicks would cost him the fifth year on a contract. That’s a difference of more than $30 million. But the Lakers’ history — as reinforced by Bryant’s deal — might persuade Anthony that the team wouldn’t get cheap on him when he was a free agent again at the age of 34 or earlier if his contract had opt-outs.

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Eddie Johnson examines Carmelo Anthony’s free agency options.

Conveniently for the Lakers, big payouts for mega talent falls in line with the superstar subplot of this free agency. LeBron James has made a max deal a priority because, well, the best player should be given a max deal. After the lockout, there was growing resentment among players about the idea that stars should take pay cuts for the betterment of the team and, by association, the owners. That doesn’t mean Anthony will wind up in purple and gold, but it’s a key component.

Second, there’s Pau Gasol. Casting a Lakers star aside at the February trade deadline just to clear his salary would have ruined their summer sales pitch, so the Lakers refused to move the four-time All-Star forward without securing a first-round pick in return.

And now Gasol is considered a key part of the equation, with the real prospect of him re-signing to join the Anthony-Bryant Lakers.

None of this means Anthony will become a Laker, as the smart money still rests with him re-signing with the Knicks. Still, the Lakers went from long shots to playing a fascinating role, perhaps serving as leverage to get Knicks president Phil Jackson to cooperate in a sign-and-trade with the Chicago Bulls.

Most important, if Bryant is able to hit the game-winner, the work done by general manager Mitch Kupchak and sibling owners Jim and Jeanie Buss shouldn’t be forgotten


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