Kobe might get at least a part-time West return

Originally Published: May 28, 2007
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kobe Bryant can count on getting some of what he's demanding from the Lakers.

That's the feeling I'm getting from Lakerland in the wake of the blast reported Sunday by our own Ric Bucher: Kobe wants Jerry West to return as the organization's lead decision-maker if the Lakers expect Kobe to stay with them.

Kobe and West
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesBack on April 11, 2005, Kobe Bryant and Jerry West talk before a game in Los Angeles.

The most likely scenario as of Sunday night, according to team sources, is that West will indeed rejoin the Lakers as a consultant this summer after becoming a front-office free agent on July 1. This has been circulating as a possibility since the Lakers' first-round series with Phoenix. Only now, with a public plea from one of his favorite all-time players virtually upstaging the playoffs, it'll be even tougher for West to resist a homecoming.

However . . .

Club insiders stress that West is unlikely to come back to the job full-time. Very unlikely.

For a couple reasons.

For starters, West turns 69 on Monday. He has a house waiting in L.A. when his Grizzlies contract expires at the end of June, but he also has a house waiting in his native West Virginia, where son Jonnie will be playing for the Mountaineers next season. So West, at best, would consent to split time between the two homes if he can be convinced to put off retirement and rejoin his old team.

As you've undoubtedly read and heard often, West is also fiercely loyal. The thought of bumping off his under-fire protégé, Mitch Kupchak, is sure to turn him off. So even with Kobe imploring him to be the Lakers' savior, it's difficult to see West returning unless it's in a role that helps Kupchak.

As a consultant, West can do just that. It's a reacquisition Kupchak would have to welcome after three rough years since Shaquille O'Neal was traded away, if only because it would deflect some of the serious heat he's getting from all angles these days . . . most notably from Kobe himself. West and Kupchak, furthermore, are so close that West would inevitably have more than enough say in shaping the roster to appease Bryant.

The challenge, then, is getting everyone in the equation comfortable with the idea that West will undoubtedly be perceived to be in charge without officially being in charge. Although it might not be the challenge you'd anticipate when you read the last bit of West's statement Sunday night to ESPN's Jim Gray: ". . . I'm a lifelong Laker and we will see what happens."

As for potential protest from Phil Jackson? Not an issue. As discussed here in early May, I'm told that Jackson wouldn't oppose the reunion, knowing that the Lakers need as many good personnel ideas as they can muster to improve their roster in a brutal conference that, as you might have heard, just signed up Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

Which brings us to Bryant's real problem.

The Lakers aren't the New York Yankees. Jerry Buss isn't George Steinbrenner. The NBA doesn't work like the baseball or the NFL.

Kobe can call for big changes as loudly as he wants, but he can't restructure his contract football-style to give money back because that's not allowed in this league, and Buss can't just break out the checkbook to sign the hoops equivalent of Roger Clemens. Bryant has an opt-out clause in his contract in the summer of 2009 -- two seasons from now -- and the Lakers' salary-cap situation is such that they're not going to make a significant improvement in that span without a major trade.

Yet you can see what Kobe's thinking. The likelihood of a blockbuster move can only increase if West is part of the wheeling-and-dealing. Right?

The sort of deal, namely, that the Lakers haven't been able to consummate since Shaq left, missing out on the likes of Baron Davis, Ron Artest and Jason Kidd. The sort of maneuver that, in West's day, always seemed to materialize to rescue the Lakers from their brief down periods.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

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