Phil Jackson doesn't want to believe it. Neither does Jerry Buss, who Kobe Bryant flew all the way out to Barcelona to confront. The Lakers know they may take a hit at the gate, and may even lose a few fans because of this. Bryant's influence has become that great.
That's why they've got to let him go.
|Kobe Bryant in a Knicks jersey? Maybe the Bulls? (AP)|
Bryant threw his first tantrum after the Suns pushed the Lakers right out of the postseason, then followed it up by not even making it to June before saying he would never play for the team again, and has reiterated his position.
The Lakers have enough of a following to start over with a new nucleus. As it is, the current Kobe-led one is entertaining but yielding little more than .500 finishes. That they are the Lakers allows them to let this drag on long enough where they won't lose face, but at some point, you figure Buss will tire of letting his organization get called out by its star.
If they can't get Bryant a stud like Kevin Garnett or Jermaine O'Neal, they have to let him go. Seriously, can you imagine having Bryant come back to L.A. to play with the berated Bynum? That could stunt the kid's development forever.
At this point, you either admit that Bryant is L.A.'s real GM, do whatever it takes to pry him an All-Star big man, and smile a toothless smile when you introduce his new running mate or you move your icon, no matter how crazy it sounds.
You just can't trade him anywhere in the Western Conference, because that's counter-productive. Don't think Bryant doesn't know that, either, because by putting the Lakers in this position, he fully expects to get his way, either ending up with a top-notch running mate or ending up in the East, where he can make an immediate and significant impact.
If this becomes a sweepstakes, here are the teams best equipped to make the biggest splash:
1. Chicago: This is where Bryant most wants to be, because he understands they have the most pieces to make a deal work without compromising a supporting cast that can challenge for a championship immediately. There will probably have to be another team involved to make the numbers work, but parts like Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, Chris Duhon, Andres Nocioni and a top 10 draft pick in the upcoming draft make them L.A.'s most attractive potential trade partner.
2. Washington: Coming on the heels of Gilbert Arenas announcing he will opt out of is current contract in order to force a longer-term deal at season's end, the idea of acquiring Bryant is getting toyed with in the capital city. The Lakers would insist on getting Caron Butler back, but would probably have to settle for Antonio Daniels and Brendan Haywood. If Bryant forces L.A.'s hand, this might not be as crazy as it sounds. At the very least, Arenas has proven he can fill an arena, and Jackson's hair is already filled with as many gray hairs as he can get.
3. New York: Bryant would love to entertain nightly at the Garden, restoring a franchise that gets excited over competing for the playoffs back to a level of true respectability. The Knicks have large salaries to mix and match, but the asking price would no doubt include Stephon Marbury, Channing Frye, David Lee and perhaps Jamal Crawford or Quentin Richardson. Isiah Thomas is not shy about trading draft picks or taking risks, and James Dolan has proven he's only interested in the bottom line. Bryant would undoubtedly help that, and if he can win here, he'd become a legend on both coasts.
4. Boston: Yes, it's sacrilege to even mention sending a Lakers icon here, but the Celtics are working to make a splash, and don't seem thrilled about having to add more young talent to the mix with that No. 5 pick. Boston would have Paul Pierce, an L.A. native, to dangle as the major drawing card. They would look to keep Al Jefferson at all costs, but have young pieces like Gerald Green, Kendrick Perkins and Sebastian Telfair to work with, not to mention that aforementioned lottery pick.
5. Detroit: If Joe Dumars decides he needs to make a splash to invigorate the franchise, he can really break up the Pistons by moving both Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton. This still gives him a chance at keeping Chauncey Billups, although the point guard would have to settle for a less significant payday than he originally anticipated.
6. Atlanta: Bryant would block this in a second, but if he really wants out, L.A. could ask for Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and the No. 3 pick and see if the Hawks bite. Odds are good they wouldn't, although it would no doubt revive basketball in what has become a dormant market.
7. Toronto: This would be extremely far-fetched, because the Raptors are really enamored with their core, but at least you know Bryant would be able to communicate with Italian star Andrea Bargnani. Chris Bosh going to L.A. would be essential in making a deal work, and you know that's not happening.
8. Charlotte: Kobe working for Michael Jordan? The Bobcats have the financial flexibility, but lack the necessary pieces to swing a move.