Kobe balking is trade's final barrier

Originally Published: July 11, 2004
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Maybe you're an Angeleno who doesn't want to believe that a roster full of small forwards is all the Lakers will have to show for dealing Shaquille O'Neal.

Maybe you're just a Western Conference snob who doesn't want to put up with the forthcoming slew of "East Is Back" stories that will greet a Shaq trade to Miami, so soon after Detroit won the championship.

Either way, or if you're rooting against the Trade of the Millennium for any other reason, you have only one hope at this point.

Kobe Bryant.

The only way this Heat-Lakers extravaganza gets undone now, barring a failed physical somewhere, is if Kobe looks at what the Lakers are getting and tells Mitch Kupchak that he better keep searching for a better Shaq trade if he expects No. 8 to re-sign.

Because even Kobe, stubbornly confident as he is, has to know that Brian Grant can't pretend to play center in the West like he can in the East. He also has to know that Lamar Odom can't masquerade as a power forward in the West as easily as he did in the East. The Lakers, once they do this deal, would basically have three threes (Lamar, Butler, Devean George) and two undersized fours (Grant and Luke Walton) and Gary Payton to run the point ... along with Kobe to lead them, assuming he still doesn't elect to bolt to the Clippers.

Even if the Lakers manage to bring back free-agent center Vlade Divac, and even if Kobe can talk Karl Malone into one more season -- although the Mailman has dropped hints in recent days that a Shaq-Kobe split would nudge him closer to retirement -- Bryant will have to be more spectacular than ever to drag the aforementioned group into title contention.

The early consensus among league executives is that the deal isn't great for the Heat, either, but I like it far better for Miami. Although it had to break up a promising young core to get Shaq for perhaps as few as two seasons, Miami instantly becomes the co-favorite with Detroit to reach the Eastern Conference finals next May. Shaq paired with Dwyane Wade puts the Heat one notch ahead of the Indiana Pacers and their O'Neal, and you have to believe Pat Riley's ability to spruce up the roster will be easier with Shaq as his lead recruiter.

On this scorecard, the Lakers only addressed two of their objectives. They did manage to send Shaq to the other conference, which was a primary goal. You'd also like to think they've done enough to convince Bryant to re-sign, although nothing will be certain until he actually does sign, as the Cleveland Cavaliers (see: Boozer, Carlos) can tell you about doing business with Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka.

Yet that doesn't seem like quite enough in exchange for being forever known as the franchise that traded away the most singularly dominant force since Wilt Chamberlain.

What the Lakers are basically saying by consenting to this transaction is that they have little faith in Bryant's ability to recruit free agents. You'll note that L.A. chose not to pursue a Shaq deal that brought back large expiring contracts, even though the best way to really start over is by establishing salary-cap flexibility.

The Lakers instead tried to rebuild the team around Bryant immediately, despite failing to convince any of the Shaq suitors out there to part with an unquestioned franchise player such as Wade, Dirk Nowitzki or Jermaine O'Neal. No one expected the Lakers to receive equal value for Shaq, because that was an impossibility for a number of reasons, given that there's only one Shaq on the planet and with the Lakers desperate to strike a deal quickly to appease Bryant ... but one All-Star in return would have been nice.

To take what they took from Miami, the Lakers must believe that cap space and the prestige of being ESPN.com's newly minted Greatest Franchise Ever wasn't going to make them a major free-agent player in coming offseasons without Shaq. Unless Kupchak can do some nifty maneuvering, it appears L.A. won't have any real wiggle room until the summer of 2007. Even then it remains to be seen if the Lakers can get far enough under the cap to go after a Rudy Tomjanovich favorite named Yao Ming.

In the interim, it looks as though the Lakers who used to snooze through the regular season and scoff at the importance of playoff seedings will have to play as hard as they can for 82 games just to make sure they crack the top eight in the mighty West.

Don't tell me you like this smallish squad better than the Spurs, Wolves or Kings. Don't forget that the Rockets, Suns and Jazz have all strengthened themselves in the past week-plus, and don't discount the notion that Grizzlies and Nuggets will continue to progress. Among the West's elite, only the Mavericks have slipped, having lost Steve Nash to Phoenix and having missed out on Shaq after The Diesel identified Dallas as his preferred destination.

Mavs types, however, were consoling themselves Saturday night with the belief that the Lakers are in worse shape. At worst, it'd be a good debate. Mark Cuban still has two expiring contracts (Antoine Walker and Christian Laettner) to use in potential trades. The Lakers have a wonderful new players' coach but a questionable mix of players. Unless L.A. has some more trades planned, Kobe is going to have to be more Jordanesque than he ever imagined to carry this group to glory and boost his legacy into MJ territory.

Not that many of you would protest if it takes L.A. a while. The vibe we're getting is that a huge segment of our readership is rooting for this sad divorce to go through, after the Shaq-Kobe tag team alternately flourished and feuded through eight seasons and three titles. Many of you, apparently, think the media can be a little Laker-centric at times.

This deal going through should take care of that. Or at least spread the coverage around some.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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