- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Haven't we been talking about this for more than a month?
Wasn't it more like April when this idea was broached, with O'Neal letting it slip in Indiana that he wouldn't mind winding up in Lakerland and Kobe struggling to restrain himself as he spoke of teaming up with his pal from the 1996 draft?
"There's not a lot I can say about it right now," Bryant offered some six weeks ago, long before his recent spree of hourly interviews to advance the idea that he wants to leave L.A. "But if it gets to the point that Jermaine wants to be here instead of Indy, we'd love to have him. We'd be crazy not to."
As stated in this cyberspace a week ago, I've heard nothing in the last month to sway me from the belief that O'Neal is the most realistic big-time trade target for L.A., far more realistic than Jason Kidd or Kevin Garnett. The Pacers, according to NBA front office sources, are increasingly open to moving their center -- especially to a Western Conference team -- and have expressed interest in Lakers forward Lamar Odom, center Andrew Bynum, Kwame Brown's expiring contract and the Lakers' first-round pick later this month which is only a so-so pick at No. 19 until you remember that Indy, at present, has no first-round pick.
The new wrinkle here?
It's the increasing volume on rumblings that Odom doesn't want to go to Indiana.
He might not have a choice, obviously, with the Lakers believed to be desperate to make some sort of statement trade to appease Bryant before the June 28 draft.
But sources close to Odom indicate the 27-year-old would be "quite unhappy" if he's sent to the Pacers in an O'Neal deal and that it would take a three-year contract extension from the Pacers (or any team that makes a move for him) to get Odom "on board" with a trade. No word yet on how that might factor into Indy's decision making.
The lanky lefty has two seasons left on his contract after this season runs out, at $13.2 million and $14.1 million. Packaging Odom and Bynum would get the Lakers close to O'Neal's salary-cap number -- $18.1 million if the trade happened before the draft and $19.8 million if it happened after July 1 -- but at least one other low-salaried Laker (such as Sasha Vujacic) would have to be included.
The Lakers are expected to resist Indy's efforts to expand the deal to include Jamaal Tinsley, even though they need a point guard as much as anything, because plugging a non-shooter like Tinsley into Phil Jackson's triangle offense holds little appeal.
If you're thinking, incidentally, that Odom and Bynum is a lot to give up for O'Neal -- even without a draft choice thrown in -- you'll surely recall that the Lakers had an opportunity to trade for Kidd in February without including Odom. Bynum and Brown's expiring contract would have been the Jersey-bound cornerstones of that deal -- creating a Bryant-Kidd-Odom trio -- but Bynum still had an untouchable tag at that point. That's no longer the case, according to L.A. sources.
Of course, leverage to make a not-so-lopsided deal is something that the Lakers have a lot less of than they did before Bryant's back-and-forth "trade me/scratch that" media blitz. Bryant hammered the Lakers' front office about as loudly as possible with his criticisms of their decisions and/or inaction since trading Shaquille O'Neal away in the summer of 2004, but "crippled" is the word used by one source close to the situation to describe the position Bryant's bosses find themselves in as a result.
They couldn't stop the comparisons to Utah's famed Stockton-to-Malone connection if they wanted to now, but here's something to distinguish Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams from their famous predecessors:
You could argue that they're already even tighter that Karl Malone and John Stockton were.
One example: You'll note that, throughout the Western Conference finals, Boozer and Williams went to the post-game interview podium as a tandem after every game but Game 5.
Malone and Stockton were magic on the floor together, but typically detached from each other's hips as soon as the game was over.
Asked why they wanted to do all of their interviews as a tag team, Boozer said: "We're just that close."
Sacramento's Ron Artest says he isn't sure if ongoing whispers that Miami's Pat Riley wants him badly -- or the idea that the Lakers might make another run at him -- are genuine.
Either way, Artest sounds more like he's expecting to be in Sactown when next season starts.
"I think the Kings will make the best decision for the Sacramento fans," Artest said over the weekend. "And that means winning and getting a group of guys who want to play with each other and win games with each other.
"I had my best individual season of my career, but I didn't reach my potential yet. I'm looking forward to getting back in October with the team. I like how we ended our season as far as playing to the very end."
It's hard to argue with Artest -- statistically speaking -- after he played in 70 games for just the fourth time in eight pro seasons and averaged 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. Yet his first full season in Sacramento was also marked by various off-court scrapes and retirement flirtations that brought a hasty end to his savior status in town. The big mystery in Sactown beyond the wait for a new coach -- Kurt Rambis apparently moves to front-runner status if the Magic can beat the Kings to Stan Van Gundy as their Billy Donovan fallback -- is whether Artest and/or Mike Bibby will make it to October as Kings.
Asked specifically about the Heat and Lakers, Artest would only say, "I definitely have a tremendous amount of respect for both teams."
As loud as the outcry was when the Suns' Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for Game 5 of the Phoenix-San Antonio series, you shouldn't assume that commissioner David Stern would have been widely backed had he pardoned Stoudemire and Diaw after they began to move in the direction of fallen teammate Steve Nash, caught themselves when they realized they were guilty of leaving the bench, and scrambled back to their seats.
Don't you think that the most vociferous media pocket of them all -- Gotham's -- might have had something to say about double standards? The Knicks, don't forget, absorbed four leaving-the-bench, series-altering suspensions stemming from a Game 5 altercation in a 1997 second-round tussle with Miami and wound up losing the next two games to blow all of their 3-1 series lead.
As for that Knicks team and how it would have responded to Stoudemire and Diaw avoiding suspension, then-coach Jeff Van Gundy says: "Guess what? Everyone's moved on and doing fine."
Although he believes to this day that only three of his players merited suspensions -- Allan Houston, Larry Johnson and John Starks, but not Patrick Ewing -- Van Gundy concedes that his team "screwed up" in that incident. In his new role as a TV analyst for ABC and ESPN, Van Gundy maintains that the Phoenix-San Antonio tangle was a lot milder and argues that Stoudemire, Diaw and even San Antonio's Robert Horry -- whose body check on Nash triggered the commotion -- shouldn't have been suspended.
It's a franchise that has to live with drafting LaRue Martin over Bob McAdoo with the No. 1 overall pick of the 1972 draft.
It's a franchise that also has to live with taking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the No. 2 overall pick in 1984.
So maybe Portland really is willing to go for Kevin Durant over Greg Oden, since passing on the versatile, highly skilled scorer for size didn't exactly work out the last two times.
Said one Eastern Conference executive of Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard: "If he wants to be the GM in Portland for the next 10, 12 years, he'll take Oden. If he wants to be GM for three or four years, he'll draft Durant."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.