If it had been Dr. Jerry Buss' intention to resurrect Kobe Bryant's defiant act, to speed along the beginning of the end for the sport's biggest star in a Lakers uniform, he has done so in a dramatic way.
The owner has destroyed Los Angeles' leverage on a possible trade, delivering an unmistakable message to the Bulls and Mavericks: Don't bother throwing Luol Deng and Dirk Nowitzki in possible packages, because it's become clearer that a peaceful co-existence of Bryant and the fledgling Lakers is less and less likely.
For the good of his own image, one that he painstakingly tried to restore with Team USA over the summer, Bryant had come into training camp at least pretending that he was less miserable than usual. Buss couldn't help himself last week and started that talk all over again. To hell with peace, Buss was saying, I'm still the boss around here.
Never mind getting to opening night, the Lakers couldn't get to a preseason game in Bakersfield on Thursday without the old man fueling the fury of Bryant.
"If the plan was to keep Kobe and try to make this work, that probably wasn't the way to go about making that happen," one Western Conference executive said.
Maybe Buss was still livid enough with Bryant for calling him an "idiot" over the summer, but turning a peaceful training camp into a circus again because he wanted to tell everyone that he was willing to unload Bryant gave No. 24 a chance to re-cast himself as a victim, and check out of practice – if not his locker – for the week.
No, Phil Jackson didn't sound too convinced about the validity of those troubled knees that kept Bryant out of practice this week. As difficult as it is with Bryant, as much as the Lakers front office would love to call him on his hypocrisies and double-talk, Buss' Declaration of Independence only served to tear at the fabric of this franchise a little more.
Ultimately, Bryant owns a full no-trade clause and can make it clear that unless the Lakers can work a deal with one of his personal favorites, say, Chicago or Dallas, he can simply stay and become a bigger pain in the ass until they honor his trade wishes.
After GM Mitch Kupchak couldn't pry Dwyane Wade in the Shaquille O'Neal trade, how could the Lakers now justify working deals with Dallas or Chicago that don't include the best players on those teams, Nowitzki and Deng?
Two league executives believe that the Bulls have been poking around this week, trying to get a sense of where internal matters truly stand between Bryant and the Lakers. Still, Chicago has been a model blueprint on constructing a contender through the draft and smart trades. As long as GM John Paxson has the sport's best-kept talent-evaluating secret, Gar Forman, on his front office staff, you can make the case that gutting this team for Bryant isn't the wisest route to a championship.
So far, they don't know if this core can become a champion. Maybe Dallas knows it can't win as currently constituted; after all, there's a body of evidence building that says so. What if the Bulls do trade away Deng, along with a Tyrus Thomas and a Thabo Sefolosha and Bryant does start to have serious trouble with those aging knees? The Celtics had no choice but to trade its young players for Kevin Garnett. They had nothing to lose. But the Bulls? If the Bulls re-sign Deng and Ben Gordon to extensions, they have a contender for the next decade.
For Paxson and his coach, Scott Skiles, they must consider their own personal survival as a rising star executive and coach. Eventually, Kobe comes for everyone. In his adult life, it is hard to find a relationship – personal or professional – that Bryant hasn't come close, or succeeded, in destroying. From his family, to his bosses, to his teammates, there's a frighteningly selfish streak of destruction.
To trade Bryant with two years left until he can opt out of the $88.6 million remaining on his Lakers contract, Buss has to consider this one business of basketball truth. In a perverse sort of way, the owner has a compelling reason to keep Bryant through the season and it's this: In L.A., where the dysfunction of Britney and Lindsay rules the day, this Real Hollywood Story isn't so bad for business. Jackson coached through unreal turmoil with the Bulls, and almost seems to revel in the twisted challenge of it all. But as he did say at the opening of training camp, those teams were winning championships and that made it so much easier.
Nevertheless, the Lakers can still wait for Kobe to opt out of his contract in two seasons, call his bluff on signing for less money with a cap-strapped contender, and get back some semblance of value in a sign-and-trade.
When the Lakers stood unflinching beside Bryant through his rape trial and coup on Shaq, the Lakers believed they had won Bryant's undying loyalty. How did he reward them? He threatened his bosses with a leap to the Clippers. The lesson was learned: Even if you're there for Kobe in his darkest hour, just understand that it carries no currency. The Lakers moved heaven and earth to make a draft day deal for him in 1996, gave him the most glorious stage in basketball, the greatest center and greatest coach of his time, and it's worth nothing to him.
Until this turn for the worst as a basketball operation, they did it all for Kobe Bryant. And yes, he has been a remarkable performer, a three-time champion who has never failed to bring out the beautiful people to the Staples Center. And over and over, the best chance for Bryant to leave the Lakers is still the Chicago Bulls. That gets him out of the West, and gets the Lakers the best possible package of players.
But between these two teams, their owners and executives, you have to wonder. What's ultimately the steeper price to pay for Kobe Bryant: Living with him, or without him?
- Jerry Buss
- Kobe Bryant