Back in the spring, league executives could tell Mitch Kupchak had no intention of trading Kobe Bryant. The Lakers GM called, asked for your two best players, multiple No. 1 picks and never seemed too troubled when those conversations ended abruptly. This way, Kupchak could tell Bryant, “Hey, I tried,” even though he hadn’t at all.
That’s how sources described Kupchak’s deliberately insincere stance months ago, but no longer. At the time, the franchise believed they could get Bryant to calm down and understand that his life, his legacy, was with the Lakers. It never did happen. For a time, the Lakers believed the fact that the Buss family stood by him through his rape trial, tolerated his dalliances with the Clippers, paid him his max-out money and afforded him the league’s only no-trade contract would ultimately cause him to pull back on his trade demand.
But some executives now believe, as one Eastern Conference official said Monday: “He is nearing a close,” with the Lakers. Others still believe he’ll play out the season in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Kupchak has stopped messing around and is exchanging serious trade proposals with Chicago GM John Paxson. There’s just one problem: Nothing that’s been proposed, including from the Bulls, comes close to tempting the Lakers.
Rest assured, the Lakers understand that the only thing worse than an unhappy Bryant is rushing into a bad trade. And right now, the best course of action for the Lakers is probably inaction. His no-trade clause promises to hold the Lakers hostage. In a lot of ways, they’re wasting their time trying to find a favorable trade package for Bryant, if only because Bryant can decide that his new team is diluting itself too deeply and veto the deal. So, Kupchak can work for months to pry Luol Deng out of Chicago, and Rob Pelinka, his slippery agent, can tell him: Try again.
To listen to Bryant on Monday in Los Angeles, you’d almost think he’s trying to sell the idea that this is all the doing of the Lakers. “I wanted to play my whole career with the Los Angeles Lakers, but business is business,” Bryant said.
All Bryant has to do is say the word and he can stay a Laker. Here’s the thing, though: Do you think Phil Jackson would’ve gone after Bryant the way that he did unless he believed he had to keep coaching him? Jackson had given Bryant a lot of room in the preseason to get his head together, get used to the idea of playing this season for the Lakers, and it hadn’t happened.
“Obviously he hasn't thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor," Jackson said Sunday. “That hurts me a little bit. ... He was going to work at this thing and put his full being into this. Right now, he's having a hard time doing that.”
And then, Monday, Jackson spoke of wanting a resolution sooner than later with Bryant. As Paxson talks with the Lakers, he’s also negotiating an extension with Deng. If that happens, it would complicate everything with a Bryant deal. While there were reports that the Wizards are showing an interest in packaging Gilbert Arenas for Bryant, one Eastern Conference official familiar with Washington’s thinking said, “There’s no validity,” to the story. Still, it’s hard to believe that the Wizards would be unwilling to make a push, especially if they could get Bryant interested in waiving his no trade for them.
For now, the Lakers are taking calls, listening to half-baked offers and waiting for something they can take back to the true GM here, Kobe himself. Mere months ago, the Lakers weren’t serious about moving him. Kupchak kept asking for the world, and no one took him seriously. That’s changed. Los Angeles has no choice now. Opening night at Staples Center on Tuesday, and so starts the beginning of the end for Bryant with the Lakers. He says he wanted to play his whole career here, and well, he still just has to say the word.
- Mitch Kupchak