Before the anticipated 2010 free-agent bonanza that could include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amaré Stoudemire and Chris Bosh, there could be one free agent on the market who, if he chooses to switch teams, would significantly shift the balance of power.
I'm talking about Kobe Bryant.
It seems like only yesterday that Bryant had the city of Los Angeles holding its collective breath while he debated his future. In July 2004, Bryant was the subject of daily speculation as he kept the Lakers waiting while flirting with the Bulls, Nuggets, Knicks and (gulp) crosstown Clippers as a free agent.
In the end, Bryant elected to remain a Laker, a decision that initially looked dubious -- with the lottery season in 2005, the back-to-back first-round exits in '06 and '07 and the will-he-or-won't-he-be-traded saga last offseason -- but now has paid major dividends, as the Lakers are the defending conference champions and a favorite to win the NBA title.
But as Los Angeles prepares to begin a training camp that will be filled with more love than Woodstock (Kobe will praise Andrew Bynum, Bynum will praise Pau Gasol and Phil Jackson will praise everybody), there will be a rather large elephant lurking in the room: After the season, the 30-year-old Bryant can opt out of the final two years of his contract (worth $47.8 million) and become a free agent.
"He's going to opt out," an Eastern Conference general manager said. "He's going to want to see what the market is. He's going to want to flex his muscles."
Even if Kobe does opt out, however, very few executives believe that he would leave the Lakers, who would be able to offer him a six-year deal worth about $150 million.
"He will definitely re-sign," an East personnel executive said. "This isn't five years ago. He's the unquestioned leader of an elite team and he's playing in a city that loves him."
If Bryant were determined to sign elsewhere, he would face a limited market. Based on a projected 2009-2010 salary cap of $61-62 million, and the potential renouncing of certain players, only a handful of teams will have the cap space to make Bryant a realistic offer (in addition to the overseas option):
• Oklahoma City: No chance. The Thunder could have $25 million in cap space next year, but they have a young roster and are primed for rebuilding. It's hard to see Bryant's leaving a contender in Los Angeles for a team in transition in a much smaller market.
• Portland: Intriguing but doubtful. To be sure, adding Bryant to an up-and-coming team built around Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy is exciting to consider. But the Trail Blazers have made a commitment to Roy, the 2007 Rookie of the Year, at shooting guard, and though they could conceivably shift him to either point guard or small forward, it's not something they are eager to do.
Moreover, a sizable chunk of the Blazers' cap space depends on the future of Darius Miles, who signed with Boston last month after missing the last two seasons with a knee injury. If Miles plays 10 games with the Celtics this season, his $9 million salary -- which the Blazers cut from the books after getting a rare career-ending injury exception for Miles -- will count against Portland's salary cap. Though the Blazers could have some $15 million in cap space even with Miles, it might not be enough to entice Bryant.
• Memphis: See Oklahoma City. While the Grizzlies have the potential for about $20 million in cap space, Bryant isn't about to leave L.A. for a chance to tutor O.J. Mayo and Co.
• Europe: The summer buzz centered on the tantalizing possibility that a first-tier NBA star like Bryant could be lured to Europe by a $50 million annual salary. "Fifty million is a little ridiculous," the East general manager said. "Thirty million is probably the limit. But if that's a $30 million net [after taxes] salary for one season, that's the same as a $60 million contract in the U.S."
While Bryant seems like the perfect candidate for a European excursion -- he lived in Italy for seven years as a youngster, speaks fluent Italian and has extraordinary worldwide appeal -- it's doubtful that he would seriously consider a move. More than any player in the NBA today, Bryant defines his career by championships (he has three). And if he remains with the Lakers, he has a legitimate shot to make a run at Michael Jordan's total of six rings.