- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The subject line in the daily e-mail sent from the NBA to fan subscribers Tuesday read: "Interesting Offseason Begins."
Think some folks in the league office are eager to leave the 2006-07 season behind?
It began with an untested new ball that lasted only three months. It ended with a noncompetitive championship series that drew the league's lowest TV ratings in the modern era. With so many injuries, suspensions and controversies in between, you can understand why a seen-it-all observer such as Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Heisler, inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this past fall, dubbed it the "Mother of All Bad Seasons."
The good news? The league wasn't exaggerating with Tuesday's dispatch. It figures to be a frenzied, interest-generating summer of activity, and it's under way early, with Kobe Bryant pushing harder than ever to persuade the Los Angeles Lakers to trade him and the Minnesota Timberwolves listening to offers for Kevin Garnett more seriously than ever before.
The indication here, via various NBA front-office sources, is that a Garnett trade, at present, is more likely than a Bryant trade before next season. Yet it's clearly time, either way, for another FAQ to address the latest Kobe (and KG) developments:
What does Kobe really want?
That's a bit of a trick question, given that Bryant didn't exactly hold firm to a position when we last heard from him directly. You undoubtedly haven't forgotten Kobe's whirlwind media tour May 30, during which he flopped back and forth between asking to be traded and hoping to retire a Laker in a daylong stream of interviews.
But the best read one can make, some three weeks later, is that Kobe wants to be like Mike.
Or, rather, like LeBron.
Bryant wants to be in the East, basically. Ratings might have been down during the Finals, way down, but Bryant obviously didn't miss LeBron James getting to the championship round with a team that has as many roster holes as the current Lakers do.
The working list of teams Bryant is willing to be traded to, as reported by ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher, includes only three teams: Phoenix, Dallas and Chicago.
This would appear to be another of way of saying he's willing to go only to Michael Jordan's old team because Bryant has an unrivaled ability to pick his destination by possessing the NBA's only active no-trade clause and because he knows the Lakers would do anything to send him out of their conference.
Can't say it better than Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said it: Even if it were willing to part with, say, Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix still would have to throw in the Grand Canyon to persuade the Lakers to send it Bryant.
(As for MJ's daunting legacy? You should know by now that living up to those standards might dissuade others but only will make Kobe want this more.)
So how can Kobe persuade the Lakers to trade him to the Bulls?
His strategy is increasingly obvious. Bryant is going to keep stomping his feet and making his displeasure known until he convinces the Lakers that they're better off ending this marriage sooner rather than later. That's why he went to Spain to track down traveling Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Kobe, according to team sources, wanted to tell Buss directly that the time had arrived for both sides to say "goodbye."
It's going to take more than that, though. A lot more.
The Lakers, in the Buss era, always have been built around showmen, because providing major league entertainment in the entertainment capital of the world means as much to Buss as winning championships. You can't charge what they charge for tickets without a top-shelf showman, and the only names in this league comparable -- LeBron, Dwyane Wade or Allen Iverson would be the prime nominees; Gilbert Arenas is a major stretch -- won't be found on a Chicago roster headlined by Luol Deng.
So expect the Lakers to stick. Their preference is to deal with this a year from now, if they can stretch it out that long.
It's true Bryant has uncommon leverage with his no-trade clause and the fact that he can return to the free-agent market in summer 2009. But Buss, sources insist, isn't budging. He's not ready to consider trading the guy who still makes them the Lakers, even when they're not contending for titles. And he's definitely not ready to be the owner who trades away Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
The next question, then, is whether Bryant is willing to sit out games next season to try to force the Lakers' hand. It probably will take a measure that drastic to change Buss' stance.
Will Kobe go that far? You can't rule out anything, especially after what we've seen from him lately, but I'm betting that Buss -- known for his fondness for poker -- would call that bluff.
Why haven't the Lakers made a move yet to address Bryant's well-chronicled frustration?
For a couple of reasons:
They have yet to come up with a deal that actually makes the team better. The Lakers say they don't want to part with Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and a first-round pick in the same trade for Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal because they see it as a lateral move that doesn't automatically shoot them up the ladder in the West.
They likewise have tried to acquire Shawn Marion from the Suns without giving up Odom -- Marion can become a free agent in the summer of 2008, which gives him some say about a new home if the Suns do decide to part with him -- but Phoenix doesn't want to help its L.A. rivals any more than the Lakers want to help the Suns.
The Lakers know they might have avoided all this drama if they had simply agreed to trade Bynum and Kwame Brown for Jason Kidd at the February trade deadline. But they can't go back in time and they've since lost a lot of trade leverage because every other team in the league knows they're desperate to appease Kobe. So they're legitimately asking themselves, with Kobe increasingly intent on leaving town: Can any trade made now make Kobe happy? Imagine agreeing to the O'Neal deal, then finding out Kobe still wants out.
The sidebar to all this, of course, is how the Bryant saga has an impact on coach Phil Jackson's future. Jackson, remember, came back to the Lakers essentially to coach Kobe. The Zenmeister has one season left on a three-year contract, but you'd have to assume Jackson's comeback would be curtailed if Kobe were dealt.
The urgency of extending Jackson's contract beyond next season, furthermore, can't be what it was a month or two ago, either, even though Jackson is said to be feeling significantly better already after undergoing a second hip-replacement surgery last week. Jackson himself openly has questioned whether Buss wants a $10 million-a-year coach if the team isn't a contender. The same applies if the Lakers were suddenly Kobe-less.
So how can you say a Garnett trade is more likely?
Garnett lacks a no-trade clause like Bryant's, but he's only a year from having the right to leave Minnesota without compensation. KG can become a free agent in the summer of 2008 if he's willing to forfeit his $23 million salary in 2008-09. Bryant can't put the Lakers under the same pressure until a year from now, with his right to become a free agent on hold until the summer of '09.
"That's why Garnett, to me, has the bigger hammer," said one Eastern Conference executive.
That's also one reason why in Garnett's case, unlike Kobe's, there already have been actual trade conversations this month.
Boston's Danny Ainge has acknowledged discussing Garnett possibilities with the Wolves, and the Suns, according to NBA front-office sources, are talking to them, as well. After three straight seasons out of the playoffs with Garnett, it appears Minnesota finally has realized it must consider dealing Garnett and starting over because it lacks the trade assets or salary-cap flexibility to significantly improve the cast around him.
The big change with the Wolves, sources say, is that, for the first time in his tenure, owner Glen Taylor is unexpectedly ready to "take the lead" on moving Garnett. Shopping KG? Not exactly. Gauging KG's trade value and listening to salivating suitors make their pitches, with Taylor knowing he'll have to stand up and say this was his call if a deal goes through? It's happening.
Which team would be more likely to get KG: Boston or Phoenix?
Because free agency is potentially just one year away for Garnett, he can discourage interested teams by sending word that he won't re-sign. I'm also told that the Wolves, in a nod to KG's 12 seasons of loyal service, intend to give him input, regardless.
Knowing that -- and knowing as we do that Steve Nash and Garnett have become good pals over the years after playing in several All-Star Games together -- it's safe to say he'd much prefer the desert.
The signals coming from the desert, though, don't make the Suns' chances sound very encouraging, with Minnesota seeking to build the return package around Stoudemire.
In spite of Amare's inexperience at 24 and some clashes of ego with Marion, he still ranks as the first high-flying victim of microfracture knee surgery to beat the most dreaded affliction in the NBA. Which means he's probably worth keeping around, right? You certainly can argue that the Suns would be better in the short term with Garnett -- especially when it comes to dealing with Tim Duncan -- but Stoudemire's presence would give them a chance to stay in the league's elite after Nash, 33, retires.
You safely can assume that Garnett also saw how the Finals played out and that he knows Greg Oden and Kevin Durant will be in the Northwest Division by next week. Boston would have to part with Al Jefferson, the No. 5 pick and more in next week's draft if it wants KG, but the Celts surely will point out to KG and his people that a Garnett-Paul Pierce tag team will have real hope of getting to the Finals no matter who's around those two.
"If Kobe wants to go East," one hopeful West executive suggests, "it'll be the new thing."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com