Trade talk overshadows game

DENVER -- On Friday, the Los Angeles Lakers return to the Pepsi Center to play the Denver Nuggets, in the same venue where their unblemished 8-0 season went off the rails in November.

Despite revenge being a readily available talking point for both teams -- for the Lakers to get payback for their early-season loss and for Denver to make up for those consecutive playoff series losses to Los Angeles in 2008 and '09 -- the only subject on anybody's mind at Thursday's practice was Carmelo Anthony.

Anthony has been caught in a media frenzy since the opening of training camp after balking at signing the Nuggets' three-year, $65 million contract extension offer. The anticipation about Anthony's destination spiked Wednesday after New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov announced he had pulled the Nets' trade offer for Anthony off the table.

Kobe Bryant, an Olympic teammate of Anthony's in Beijing, sat on a bench off to the side of the Nuggets' practice court and said he doesn't feel bad for Anthony in this situation because he knows the eight-year veteran will persevere.

"He's tough, he's strong," Bryant said. "I don't feel bad for him because I know he can handle it. He can handle it. He's fine. He has thick skin, he's tough, he's competitive, he works hard. I'm not worried about him."

Bryant was in a reflective mood, but his thoughts did not revolve around the rivalry between the Lakers and the Nuggets over the past several seasons that is sure to fade if Anthony is dealt by the Feb. 24 trade deadline.

No, Anthony's situation brought Kobe back to the fall of 2007, when he wasn't so sure he wanted to be a Laker any longer.

"I'm not going to read Carmelo's mind; hell if I know," Bryant said. "I know for me, it was all about winning. In our situation, we weren't spending the money to get players [in L.A.]. They had me running around with Smush Parker. So until they decided that they wanted to make the necessary sacrifices financially to get a team in that was competitive, then I didn't want to be there. As simple as that."

Like the tough-minded Anthony who scored 35 points in a win against the Thunder on Wednesday after Prokhorov's press conference, Lakers coach Phil Jackson marveled at how Bryant scored 45 points on opening night of the 2007-08 season after his status with the team had been up in the air throughout training camp.

"It was pretty intense," Jackson said. "It was an intense time for our team, and I think the most amazing thing is that he stepped off out of not playing for like a week or something like that and started the season right off with a bang."

Despite their shared ability to forge ahead in the middle of a storm, Bryant explained how his situation differed from Anthony's because of a no-trade clause in his contract giving him the "upper hand" with Lakers management.

"That's player power," Bryant boasted.

As for Anthony, Bryant lamented the restrictions the Nuggets forward will face as a free agent.

"I think you're seeing the power of the league controlling players and not having the freedom to move wherever they want," Bryant said. "Free agency isn't free agency anymore. It's just not."

Bryant dove deeper into his memory, to the way the league was structured in 1996 when he was still in high school and Shaquille O'Neal left the Orlando Magic to sign with the Lakers for $115 million over seven years.

"When players go other places, you take a significant pay cut to go play somewhere else, you have significant less years and all this other stuff," Bryant said, citing the change in the salary-cap structure of the current collective bargaining agreement. "It's not the same like when Shaquille was a free agent in '96 or whatever it was; that was true free agency because you could go to whatever team of your choice and have a similar contract and similar structure and all this other stuff. The way it is now is not the same way.

"If this was '96, Bron [LeBron James] and [Dwyane] Wade and all those other guys would have gone to Miami and it would have been fine and they wouldn't have to take the sacrificial pay cut or whatever."

Bryant then switched from the past and looked to the future. With the current CBA set to expire June 30, in all likelihood the new agreement will be even further from the rules that governed free agency back in 1996.

"There's concern about it in terms of the amount of liberties that players have to make a living in whatever city they choose to in terms of playing basketball," Bryant said. "But at the end of the day, it's just basketball, I'm sure our business folks will work out their end of the deal and it will be all good."

The day's conversation may have been dominated by more Melo drama, a lockout look ahead and even unexpected name drops of Smush and Shaq, but Nuggets coach George Karl -- the basketball lifer that he is -- managed to bring the focus back to the competition at hand.

"They will be a top team," Karl said of the Lakers. "If they're not a top team now, they'll definitely be a top team by the end of the season."

It was a welcome opportunity to talk about basketball for Karl, even if it involved praising the opposition.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.