- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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In all the frenzy and speculation about the NBA free-agent market of 2010, no one is talking about the fact the reigning MVP can become a free agent this summer -- or, if he prefers, join the LeBron-Wade-Bosh-Amare-Dirk-Nash-Yao-Pierce free-agent class in 2010.
Kobe Bryant can forego the final two years on his contract with the Lakers if he decides to opt out after the season. If he passes on that opportunity, he can opt out in 2010. Or if he prefers, he can become a free agent in 2011, when his current contract would expire.
The last time he held this power, in 2004, the franchise shuddered and underwent a radical transformation, with Shaquille O'Neal departing and Bryant remaining as the solitary superstar in the Lakers' galaxy, but not without giving L.A. heart palpitations. General manager Mitch Kupchak spoke of difficulty sleeping in the days before Bryant signed his new contract with the Lakers.
This time around, there's no fretting among the Lakers' fan base, no rumors about possible destinations for Bryant. There's only one big working assumption that Bryant will simply re-sign with the Lakers.
When reached this week, Kupchak reiterated that view: "I've always believed that Kobe should and would end his career in a Laker uniform. I believe that to be his feeling as well."
Left unsaid is another assumption that is prevalent in the league: that Kobe will become a free agent this summer.
When I asked Bryant whether the pending free agency of the league's MVP merited more discussion, he playfully responded: "Don't even go there. No hablo ingles. I'm not going to help you out with that story."
It would take just a few kindling sticks of hints from Bryant to get a raging free-agency inferno going.
In 2003-04, he kept maintaining that he wanted to keep his options open, that he had never experienced free agency and wanted to be wooed. Maybe he got it out of his system in his one and only go-round. Isiah Thomas of the Knicks flew cross-country to present their almost hopeless pitch to him. Bryant told confidants of his wishes to play in Chicago and went through serious flirtations with the Clippers to the point that the Clippers even shipped off Quentin Richardson to clear out additional salary-cap space. Then he stood them up and left them sipping drinks on a stool, complaining to the bartender and anyone else who would listen.
In 2007, Bryant created a major offseason firestorm when he stated his unhappiness with the Lakers in several interviews and made a series of on-again, off-again requests to be traded. That crisis finally passed when the 2007-08 Lakers turned out to be far better than anyone, Kobe included, believed they would be, ultimately winning the Western Conference.
One reason for the current state of silence is there's no perceived competition.
Bryant is due to make $23 million in the 2009-10 season, so it stands to reason that he'll expect at least that much in the first year of his new contract. As it stands no team other than the Lakers will be able to offer Bryant that much, and the only teams that are reasonably close to being in position to offer him that type of money this summer are Oklahoma City, Memphis and Detroit (though other teams might be able to maneuver into position). As another GM put it, "Kobe isn't going to any of those cities." Of course, Kobe could push for a sign-and-trade to a more desirable destination, but don't bet on the Lakers participating in that.
Part of me thinks that, whether in 2009 or 2010 or somewhere down the road, Bryant wouldn't mind at least having the option of playing in New York. That could explain the 61-point outburst in Madison Square Garden on Feb. 2. It was a reminder, not an accident. It also could explain why his only official pregame meeting with reporters in Los Angeles this season came when the Knicks -- and the New York media -- were in town. Maybe one of them would throw out the concept of Bryant's going to Gotham. (The only free-agency talk it yielded, however, was a question from a New York writer on whether Bryant thought LeBron James would become a Knick.)
But it makes you wonder whether the other major-market teams have just assumed too much, and why not one of them has rearranged its salary-cap situation to have space this summer. Can anyone know for sure what Bryant is thinking? What if winning a championship in L.A. were all Bryant needed to accomplish before he felt ready to move on to a new challenge and the Lakers win it this year? Why are so many teams willing to bet the future of their franchise on landing LeBron or Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire in 2010 when the best player of them all could be available a year earlier?
It's a longer shot, but the opportunity to land an MVP and an all-time great in his prime might be worth it.
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