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He’s a liar. He’s a cheat. He ran Shaq out of town. He’s disloyal. He killed the Lakers.
For years, these were the allegation throw out at Kobe Bean Bryant from fans and media alike. Now they are (finally) being hurled at his owner. It has been popularly accepted that Kobe had broken up the Lakeshow dynasty. He said nothing to dispute this. As his team continued to struggle, as the front office continued to trip over themselves, Bryant was the good solider and continued to take the heat for the Lakers’ very obvious, very public failures. So long as the Lakers fans and head brass supported him, Mamba would keep his mouth shut and play ball, no matter how dysfunctional his team was.
That changed Tuesday. Bryant opened the LA Times to see that a Lakers “insider” had blamed him for getting rid of Shaq. Camel’s back, meet straw. Feeling betrayed, 24 was pissed off and launched into a series of interviews and demands that flipped back and forth from Trade Me/Trade Me Not. He got out the Festivus pole and aired grievances. Telling his version of the truth, he put the Lakers’ dirty laundry on display.
So, now what?
Like Vinny Chase before him, Bryant’s got principles. He believes he was deceived when he resigned and that LA has no plans to build a winner around him. The fact that Lakers’ officials have not disputed any of his claims is admission by silence. There has been criticism of Mamba discussing this lost trust so publicly, that he is throwing management under the bus. In response to this I say, “I should hope he is!” If you can find a more dysfunctional, mismanaged front office than the one at 1111 San Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, I would like to see it. Isaiah is a worse GM than Mitch Kupchak, as are Kevin McHale and Billy Knight. But the Lakers’ state of affairs is far more screwed up; at least in those other situations you know who is responsible for the team’s awful, illogical decisions. In Lakerville, there is a three-headed monster of Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and Kupchak running the show. So who is to blame for trading Caron Butler, for drafting a high-schooler, for not getting JKidd, Boozer, Tru Warrior, or BDiddy? As Kobe so accurately put it on Monday, “There is nobody on this planet that thinks we can contend for a title with this current team.” Major changes are necessary if the Lakers are going to even get a whiff of the late rounds of the playoffs. Major changes does not mean more signings like the VladRam disaster last summer. Team officials seem either reluctant to make the changes necessary to win, or simply don’t know how to go about doing them. Kobe would likely restructure his max deal if it meant the team would go after a big splash in free agency or via a trade. The problem there is the fact that the NBA, unlike the NFL and MLB, does not allow a player to restructure his deal in order to take less money under any circumstances. Don’t get me started on how moronic that rule is. Nonsense or not, that is the NBA’s decree and it effectively limits the potential for a superstar earning max cash to team up with a stud free agent. That paints the team into a very tricky corner that they should have seen coming: if they aren’t going to build a team to win right now, Kobe wants out. Would they ever trade their meal ticket? I have my doubts, but let’s take a look at the potential best outcomes for all parties involved (Kobe, the NBA, the Lakers, and the Media).
The Best Situation for Kobe: Kobe to Phoenix for Marion, Barbosa, Thomas and the Suns first-round picks in 2006 and 2007. The Suns were a Robert Horry hip-check away from a title this year. One would assume that adding the best player in the NBA to the mix, while holding onto Nash and STAT, theoretically wins them multiple titles. Even if they cave and have to give up Diaw and even if Nash only hangs on for another two seasons, the team would still be set up perfectly for the future after 2009: Amare would be hitting his prime, Kobe would only be 31, and they would have whoever they take with Atlanta’s pick next year is a disgustingly loaded draft. That, my friends, is the blueprint for a dynasty. This would be particularly ironic since many believe that the Lakers had been saving cap room to try and sign Amare two years ago. To watch Kobe pile up rings out in the desert would make Jerry Buss’ head explode. There’s a nice thought actually.
The Best Situation for the NBA: Kobe to Chicago for Deng, Gordon, Nocioni and the Bulls first-round pick in 2006 (#9). Kobe’s MJ impersonation comes to its full fruition as he lands in the Windy City with a team capable of competing for titles. The amount of press this would generate in the pre-season would be unparalleled: the closest guy we’ve seen to Jordan coming into Money’s backyard to regain the throne. Mamba ending up in a major market and on a team that could dominate the East for several years would make Dictator Stern very pleased. This trade would also bring some desperately needed marquee value back East and would go a long way to balancing out power. Further, the mere potential of Kobe going head-on against Bron Bron and Flash for several years (that is, if Miami can make the playoffs’) is too good to believe from a League Marketing standpoint. And, just to complete the massive groin-kick this would be to the Lakers, there would be a chance to have Phil quit his post in LA and come home to the Second City. Paxson loved playing for PJ once upon a time, so why not hand him the reigns again? It almost fits too nicely.
The Best Situation for the Lakers: Kobe stays put. The Lakers are not just a basketball team; they are an entertainment institution. The soap-opera nature of the organization exists for a reason: drama sells tickets. Moreover, stars sell tickets. And unless the Lakers are trading Kobe for LeBron straight up (which wouldn;t work under the salary cap anyways), they would not be getting back equal star value. Mamba, love him or hate him, puts asses in the seats. He is the biggest individual draw in American team sports. Even if fans go hoping to watch him fail, they still show up in droves. You think Ari Gold is forking out $12,000 a seat to watch Lamar and the spare parts they get back for Bryant? Without Kobe, the LA crowd, even Jack, will migrate elsewhere to see and be seen. I doubt they all go to a LA Galaxy game, but they sure as hell don’t come back to Staples. This is why Dr. Buss resigned him in the first place, why he lied about rebuilding. Buss can’t get away with charging thousands of dollars for seats without offering up the biggest star in the game in return. Moreover, if you are Mitch Kupchak, you really, really do not want your legacy to be “The guy that traded Shaq AND Kobe.”
The Best Situation for P.T.I.: Kobe and Cook for Wade, Walker and Haslem. I recognize that this would never, ever happen, but hear me out. Wade, great as he is, is extremely injury prone. This shoulder injury is not the first, and I suspect not the last, major issue that will come up for Flash. We’ve seen him injure his hip, his ribs, his ankle, his shoulder, and his knee over his career, doing so in the playoffs each of the last three years. You could make the case that if he doesn’t injure his ribs in the East Finals two years back that Miami would have won back-to-back titles. It is my biased opinion that this knack for suffering will catch up to the golden boy sooner rather than later. In my best estimation, Wade’s career ends up being a much better version of Penny Hardaway’s. His reckless, all-out style of play simply opens himself up to the potential for disaster too often and this will only get worse once Shaq is gone. Fall down seven times and maybe he doesn’t get to stand up eight, you read me? Knowing this, Riley trades him for Kobe. The rest of the pieces listed are needed only for salary purposes as Wade is still considered on his rookie salary. Imagine the intrigue and curiosity we would all feel if this actually happened. ESPN would probably have to start a new channel that’s exclusively dedicated to following this team around. Kobe and Shaq, Part 2. For hype purposes, would any other NBA topic even matter? With Diesel and Mamba both only having two years on their contracts, they wouldn’t have to coexist for very long and would recognize this as a very real opportunity to bring home the only thing they both want: another ring. From there Shaq retires and the Heat have his $20 million salary come off the books and reload around 24 for another few years.
Obviously the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of Kobe staying pat and the Lakers responding by signing Grant Hill for the mid-level exemption and overpaying in a trade for JO or (more preferably but less likely) KG. Does that make the Lakers title contenders? It’s hard to tell given how much they’d have to give up to get either superstar (most likely a package that features Bynum and Odom). One thing we can be sure of: Kobe will no longer sit pat and stay quiet if the organization remains insistent on wasting the prime of one of the best ten players of all time. Buss says he wants Kobe to be a Laker for life. Buss needs Kobe to be a Laker for life so he can continue to sell tickets. But the good doctor needs to realize that without serious activity and significant roster turnover, 24 will walk in two years and leave the Lakers with nothing. Then again if he trades Kobe while still in his prime he risks having him come back looking to drop 81+ every time out against LA. Call that the Clipse scenario: Hell hath no fury like a Mamba scorn. This fact used to work to the Lakers advantage, as he’d take his wrath out on competitors. Now the world most deadly snake, and basketball biggest name, might pounce on them.
Your move, Dr. Buss.