- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The first handful of a zillion questions stemming from Kobe Bryant's stunning request to be traded Wednesday, answered in FAQ form:
What happens next?
The Lakers will do everything they can to get Kobe to rescind his trade demand, since they have zero intention of actually trading him, according to club sources.
The good news?
Bryant has already done some backtracking since asking out, most notably after what he described as an "emotional" discussion with Lakers coach Phil Jackson on Wednesday afternoon. "I don't want to go anywhere, this is my team," Bryant told the Lakers' flagship radio station (570 AM). "I love it here. I called Phil, man . . . [and] he just said: `You know what, Kobe? Let us try to figure this thing out.'
Bryant also told ESPN Radio's Dan Patrick that he hoped "something can be resolved, can be figured out, just something, so that I can stay here and be with the team that I love." He continues to express his desire for a return by Jerry West to the front office, implying that such a move could lead to Bryant's reconciliation with the Lakers.
If the trade request resurfaces -- he never formally registered one with the Lakers, according to the team -- look for Bryant and agent Rob Pelinka to assemble a short list of teams Kobe is willing to play for.
Reason being: Bryant possesses the NBA's only active no-trade clause and therefore owns some measure of control over the process.
How will the Lakers respond to Bryant's trade request?
Lakers owner Jerry Buss released a statement Wednesday afternoon reiterating his determination to hang onto Bryant.
"We have made it very clear," Buss said in the statement, "that we are building our team around Kobe and that we intend for him to be a Laker his entire career."
Although Buss hadn't yet spoken directly to Bryant, he was undoubtedly hoping for another abrupt change of heart from his star.
On Tuesday, in a message to fans on his Web site (kb24.com), Bryant wrote: "I have NOT asked to be traded, I don't want to be traded and I have given no ultimatums or demands of being traded." By Wednesday morning, saying that he feels he can no longer trust Lakers management -- "I just don't know how you can move forward in that type of situation," Bryant said -- No. 24 announced to the world that he wants out on Stephen A. Smith's ESPN Radio show (1050 AM) in New York. As of Wednesday night, even after conducting at least two radio interviews to suggest that he no longer wants to be traded, there is a new message to fans on Bryant's Web site in which Bryant seems to be hinting at his departure by saying "there is a new road ahead."
Buss' reluctance to even consider a trade is understandable. Trotting out big-name attractions to the Hollywood public has always has meant as much to Buss as winning championships. There's realistically no player (or players) L.A. could get in a trade for Bryant who could match his box-office appeal, marketability, etc.
Couple that with the fact that Bryant, who turns 29 in August, still is widely regarded as the game's best singular talent, and you can understand why the Lakers privately are saying that they'll try everything they can to rebound and re-bond in the wake of this embarrassment.
In the entertainment capital of the world, Buss naturally would prefer to wait until this time next year -- when Kobe is down to one year left on his contract before he has the right to opt out in the summer of 2009 -- before even thinking about parting with the game's foremost entertainer.
While common sense says that the Lakers have lived through a rift or two during Bryant's decade-plus with the club and will find a way to heal the bruises from this one as well, like they always do, there is nothing common about what we've witnessed over the past few days, even by the standards of the Kobe-era Lakers. So there's no telling what will happen next here.
As described on ESPNews by Los Angeles Times veteran columnist Mark Heisler, Bryant appears to be throwing away "a lifetime of poise" in the public eye -- which was most evident when he played a whole season facing rape charges -- with a "four-day meltdown" of mood swings.
With seemingly each interview he does -- and it has been the steadiest, loudest stream of interviews he's ever conducted -- Bryant reveals more anger that only puts greater distance between him and the entire organization. As one club source said, "Who's he with? It's Kobe against everybody."
Everybody but Jackson, it would appear. You inevitably wonder, in fact, how quickly the Lakers would cut ties with their $10 million-a-year coach if Bryant did leave, since Jackson returned -- and Buss consented to that salary -- primarily to give help and hope to Bryant. On the flip side, Jackson's role in calming Kobe down Wednesday can only bring them closer.
Even the open sparring between Kobe and Shaq on the eve of the 2003-04 season -- which, incidentally, didn't prevent the Lakers from reaching the NBA Finals that season -- was primarily just a two-man feud, with a coach (Jackson) and numerous veterans (most notably newcomers Karl Malone and Gary Payton) there to referee. In this case, what initially appeared to be a crusade to bring West back to the Lakers and/or force a roster shakeup this summer now finds Bryant directly challenging Buss on numerous levels . . . even after the support Bryant received from the club while facing those rape allegations.
Bryant feels he has been unfairly blamed for O'Neal's exile to Miami in 2004, insisting in greater detail than ever before on his Web site and through various other media outlets that it was Buss' call. Kobe also contends that Buss has not made the roster moves he was promised upon committing to re-sign with the club that summer and told ESPN's Smith, in a column Smith wrote for Wednesday's editions of The Philadelphia Inquirer, "I've been quiet long enough."
What are some realistic trade destinations if Bryant ultimately forces a trade?
The Clippers and Chicago are the only two teams that had a shot at signing Bryant away from the Lakers when he was a free agent in 2004. The Clips, naturally, are the last team that the Lakers would want to trade him to, given that they share a building as well as a city, but Bryant will have more control over his future than any other player would in this position because of that no-trade clause.
"It's all up to him," said one Western Conference executive.
San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Phoenix's Mike D'Antoni are two coaches Bryant speaks fondly of, Popovich especially. The Spurs and Suns aren't much further down than the Clips on the list of teams that the Lakers would hate to deal with, true, but -- again -- Bryant's no-trade clause prevents us from ruling out the startling image of, say, Steve Nash, Raja Bell and Kobe Bryant lining up in the same small-ball unit in the desert. Especially given all the assets Phoenix could offer; one theoretical package could include Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and a first-round pick or two.
If the Lakers decide that they have no choice but to act on Bryant's trade demand, they'll naturally be calling Portland and Seattle to see either of those teams would be willing to assemble a package that starts with either the No. 1 (Greg Oden) or No. 2 (Kevin Durant) pick in next month's draft. Can't see Bryant being willing to relocate to the Pacific Northwest.
So . . .
Chicago, New York, Phoenix, San Antonio and the Clippers. That's a likely starting five, and let's throw in Philadelphia only because going to his hometown 76ers -- and winning over the fans who so famously booed him in the 2002 All-Star Game -- might have some appeal as well.
OK . . . one more suggestion from NBA front-office sources: Bryant to New Jersey to play with Jason Kidd in exchange for a package headlined by a signed-and-traded Vince Carter. The Lakers' unwillingness to part with young center Andrew Bynum in a potential Kidd trade in February, you'll recall, is among the non-moves since O'Neal's departure that has Bryant so frustrated.
Would the Lakers have to give in and trade Bryant wherever he wants?
Even though Bryant implored the Lakers repeatedly on Stephen. A.'s radio show to trade him immediately -- Kobe's quote: "Do the right thing, man" -- they can (and will) stall in hopes of changing his mind. Trading Kobe just three years after trading away Shaq is not something Buss even wants to contemplate.
If the marriage is irretrievable -- and in the (highly) unlikely event that the stalemate then dragged into next season -- L.A. would have the option of putting Bryant on the suspended list (with pay) until finding a trade partner that appeases all parties, as seen in each of the last two seasons with Ron Artest in Indiana and Allen Iverson in Philadelphia after those two requested trades.
Chances are it'll never get that far, though. The greater likelihood is that the Lakers try to make a move that upgrades their roster as opposed to, say, shopping Bryant around the June 28 draft.
Why is Bryant the only player in the league with a no-trade clause?
The NBA doesn't operate like the baseball world, where no-trade clauses or partial no-trade clauses are routinely built into player contracts . . . and where the famed 10-and-5 rule automatically enables veterans with 10 years of service time and five with a player's current team to veto trades.
In the NBA, only players with at least eight years of service time and four with the same team are even eligible for a no-trade clause.
Yet very few players get to that point with one team and then have the opportunity to negotiate a no-trade clause through free agency. Star players like Iverson generally sign their first big-money deals well before their eighth season. Star players like Iverson, furthermore, often sign extensions to those big deals . . . and NBA extensions do not allow players to add major changes in contract terms, such as a no-trade clause. A player must enter free agency to change major terms in a contract.
That's how Bryant put himself in the rare position to negotiate a no-trade clause. He was a full-fledged unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2004 and, having just completed his eighth season and after flirting seriously with the Clippers, signed a new seven-year, $136 million contract with the Lakers which includes a no-trade provision.
Kobe's longing for the return of Jerry West is what seems to have brought many of these issues to the forefront. But won't West be turned off by this soap opera?
According to multiple West associates, that has already happened.
As covered here Monday, West was never a candidate to make a full-time return to the Lakers as Bryant desires. That's because West just turned 69, has plans to watch his son Jonnie play at West Virginia University as much as possible next season and would have to be convinced that even a consultant's role could work without stripping his dear friend and protégé Mitch Kupchak of all his authority.
Yet there was growing optimism, as of Sunday night, that West would indeed be wooed back in a part-time capacity once his contract in Memphis expires June 30. West even appeared to open the door to that possibility in a quote given to ESPN's Jim Gray, which included this passage: "I'm a lifelong Laker, so we'll see what happens."
West, remember, is as close to Kobe as any player he's ever worked with. He'd also actually be helping Kupchak by returning -- inside and outside the front office -- as much as he'd risk marginalizing the man who replaced him as the Lakers' lead executive. As it was explained to me by one source: Imagine if it emerged that the Kupchak Factor was the main obstacle that kept West from rejoining the organization. That only would make life more miserable for Kupchak, who already gets more blame than anyone for L.A.'s predicament.
Those same West associates say The Logo might be as mad as Kobe, seething in his own right because Bryant hasn't realized his incessant lobbying to get West back amounts to vicious slamming of Kupchak's competence.
"It is my opinion that Mr. Clutch, one of the greatest GMs the game has ever seen, would be able to get us to back to that [championship] level sooner rather than later," Kobe wrote in a message to fans on his Web site. "If he is available, then it makes sense to give him the reins and let him do what he does BEST. I KNOW I can trust him to build us an elite team. I'm tired of losing and I'm sure you guys are tired of it as well. Now is the time to step up and make some things happen."
You know what? Kobe's right. It does make great sense to go after West if he's available, just as when Bryant and Buss put aside their contentious past dealings with Jackson to ask the coach to come back in the summer of 2005. Just like Jackson then, West is the best free agent that the Lakers conceivably could sign this summer, since their salary-cap constraints won't allow them to chase marquee free-agent players.
They desperately need someone of West's stature to unify a front office that Bryant quite rightly calls "a mess," with Buss giving increasing power to son Jim alongside Kupchak, even though Jim Buss has no basketball background.
Trouble is, Bryant might have jeopardized the prospect of a West comeback by putting his wishes out there so forcefully at Kupchak's expense and now by attacking Jerry Buss on multiple fronts. It's Buss, don't forget, who would be making the call on whether West even receives an invitation to return. And history says it could go either way.
Buss did give in two years ago when the clamor for Jackson to be re-hired left him little alternative. But Buss and West have had their own battles over the years, back in the days when these kind of sagas -- even in Lakerland -- tended to play out a little more quietly.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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