Wednesday , Oct , 31 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

Kobe Bryant: More than Headlines

Kobe Bryant is the best player in basketball. And for the past two weeks, the collective basketball world has stopped speculating about his future, and all but decided that the greatest basketball talent currently hitting Association hardwood, is moving out of Los Angeles.

If only it were that simple.

The signs are difficult to shake. Last season was filled with turmoil for the Lakers as they sputtered into the playoffs, with Bryant unable to carry them farther than a first round appearance. It wasn’t long after the Lakers season ended before Kobe stirred up the internet and the media wire with rampant trade demands, radio show retractions, and a parking lot tirade on teammates and front office members that found its way online.

Just when matters started to cool, news hit that Lakers owner Jerry Buss was still open to the idea of trading Bryant. Not surprisingly, shit hit the proverbial fan. It’s not like ESPN and the media in general needed an excuse to speculate on where Kobe would play this season, but Buss took that to another level by implying Bryant could still be traded.

Front pages got scripted, headlines wrote themselves, and the one hour news cycle on the World Wide Leader suddenly got saturated with analysis, speculation, news, and rumors on the when, where, and how of dealing Kobe Bryant. Jerry Buss wanted to – wants to – trade Kobe Bryant. Just like that and people are clearing a space for Kobe in Chicago.

If only it were that simple.

I’d like to say I’m not surprised, play dumb, write by numbers and tell you how it’s a done deal that Kobe is set to be shipped from L.A, but there are 1,000,001 other writers out there to give you the usual recycled run down. Being entirely honest, I am surprised at how resigned the media, and the fans especially, are to Kobe being dealt.

I’m not surprised Jerry Buss wants him out, not in the slightest. I’m not surprised that it’s getting insane and often redundant media coverage. While either of things could be questioned for different reasons, I understand the motivation behind both. What I don’t understand, is the rationale that says simply wanting to trade a player automatically books him a flight out of town, particularly when it’s a marquee player like Kobe Bryant.

I have to stop and reiterate, I’m not trying to deny the obvious signs that all point to Kobe leaving Los Angeles, many of the issues that have led to this have been in place and we’ve all acknowledged them for some time. That being said, why are we not just as quick to acknowledge the obvious obstacles in the way of Kobe being traded?

I understood the speculation, the anticipation even, when Kobe went on his initial parade of trade demands. It seemed to be a crescendo of all the frustrations over the Lakers recent struggles and the tensions within the organization. At that point I, like everyone else, believed that a deal could be imminent.

That was in May. If we were truly dealing with anything ‘imminent’ I think something would have gone down in the past five months.

There are those who believe Jerry Buss, or anyone else in the Lakers organization, wanting Kobe gone is the one and only ingredient necessary to make it happen. First of all, that’s ludicrous for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Second, if by some ridiculous stretch of logic that was true, it would still leave unaccounted for the past five months in which Kobe hasn’t been traded.

Kobe Bryant has called Buss an “idiot” and a “liar” in the past, he’s made it abundantly clear he is not happy in Los Angeles, and taken nearly every opportunity to express his frustration over the state of the Lakers and the running of the organization. And again, this has all been swirling at considerable speed for at least the past five months. I assure you, Jerry Buss doesn’t want to trade Kobe Bryant any more now than he did in May and June. He’s always wanted to trade Kobe. And yet, it still hasn’t happened, and here we still are, awaiting the ‘imminent’ trading of Kobe Bryant.

If only it were that simple.

Jerry Buss doesn’t own the universe. He can’t trade Kobe just because he wants to, specifically because of the definition held by the word trade, it involves the consent of more than one party, although I’m not sure if Mr. Buss is privy to that information. When Buss announced he was still open to trading Bryant, everyone acted as if that was some sort of earth shattering revelation. I wonder if the masses will react the same way when they realize another owner, and another GM, from another team will have to want to make a deal just as badly in order for anything to happen. That, won’t be so simple.

Coming to the conclusion that you want to trade the best player in the game is monumental in some sense, yes, and it is a necessary first step to initiate the process, but it is by no means the only criteria that needs to be met in order for a deal to happen. There a number of things that need to align just right in order for Kobe to be traded.

First and foremost, any team considering a deal for Kobe is preparing to overhaul their entire team. Any way you shake it, whether by trading one big piece, or several smaller pieces, you’re changing the makeup of your team and franchise. By that filter alone you eliminate a handful of teams who believe they already have a shot at title contention, and aren’t interested in major changes.

The remaining teams, who are all presumably interested in an elite player, then have to meet certain criteria in order to be considered realistic partners for trade, one of which is finances. Perhaps one of the more overlooked aspects of deals done in the NBA is that all the numbers have to balance out. Salaries come into play and teams will have to work just as hard to make sure they come out with a deal that is as even financially as it is talent-wise.

Kobe Bryant is set to make just under $19.5 million in ’07-’08, in order for any team to swallow that type of salary they would have to send over at least one heavy contract in exchange. Most of the players getting paid in that range are marquee players, which brings us to our next point/problem.

Kobe more than likely is not going to be swapped straight up for another top tier player. LeBron, Wade, McGrady, Arenas, Nash, Duncan, Garnett, Nowitzki – these are the only players that, by themselves, could be considered close to equal value for Kobe. The problem is that the players I just listed all play for teams that believe they already have the best player in the game, and almost all of them will be in contention for a title, this is why truly elite players so seldom get traded one for one, because teams with elite players are almost always already well established.

Arenas is somewhat of a possibility, that’s been brought to a lot of people’s attention recently at the news of Washington in talks with the Lakers. But Arenas, while he does have a comparable level of talent, doesn’t have the hefty contract Kobe has, and would have to be packaged with someone like Caron Butler to cover the gap on salaries. And now we’re no longer talking about a one for one deal.

The truth is that almost any team seeking to acquire Bryant will have to do so by packaging a number of players to equal the right price tag and list of features to make it a fair trade. That raises many complications, similar to the one with Washington.

To use the Wizards as an example, if Arenas by himself isn’t an even deal for Bryant (and he isn’t), then you add Butler for salary and depth. That would leave a starting lineup of Antonio Daniels, Kobe Bryant, Antawn Jamison, Etan Thomas, and Brendan Haywood. Unfortunately that isn’t much of a net gain, and the Wizards may not be too crazy about letting two of their best players go. And unfortunately for Kobe, such a deal still leaves him on a team much the same as the Lakers team he currently resides on.

You also have to realize that outside of this hypothetical Washington deal, there aren’t a lot of teams that can realistically offer anything close to equal value for Kobe. Theoretically a team could just stack a bunch of players together and perhaps the Lakers would feel it’s adequate compensation, but that doesn’t take into account the final wrench in this machine. Kobe Bryant has a no-trade clause in his contract.

Kobe has final say-so in all this, which means that if all other criteria is met, and two teams feel as if they would both be justly compensated, Kobe can still put a halt to the whole thing if he doesn’t like the situation he’ll be thrust into. And I’m fully in support of his right to do that; we need Kobe to be happy and in contention – it’s good for the league. But that does make things more complicated. If a team has to offer too many assets in exchange for Bryant, he’ll simply veto the trade, knowing the team he’s going to will be no better equipped than the one he’s on now.

If you lost track of all the reasons why trading Kobe isn’t so easy, allow me to recap. Established teams don’t trade superstars. Players who don’t make enough in salary have to be packaged with other players. Talent also has to match up, which is almost impossible, and only has a chance if a lot of players are swapped for Kobe. But if too many talented players are getting shipped off a team, in order to get Kobe on, he’ll likely use his no-trade clause to prevent another L.A like situation.

Not so simple, is it?

There are those who believe that Kobe will be traded no matter what, that a deal is inevitable. And in some respects those people are right. Eventually the overwhelming desire to do something leads to it getting done. Eventually some team will meet all the criteria, and the right pieces will be put on the table to satisfy all parties involved. Eventually the time will be right. Eventually.

Within the past twelve months we’ve seen two players, Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett, finally get traded from their respective teams, when it seemed like no amount of rumors or proposed deals would ever come to pass. Some would cite these instances as reasons why Kobe can, and will, be traded. One detail that’s overlooked: those players took years to get traded, not months.

The Philadelphia 76ers had been seriously considering trading Allen Iverson since before their Finals run in 2001, at least five years before he finally got dealt to the Nuggets in late 2006. Likewise, Garnett has always seemed to be in trade talks, and for the past three seasons the possibility of him being traded seemed real. But it seemed just as real in 2004 as it did when the Celtics finally made the deal to bring KG to Boston. Just because something is going to happen doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen quickly.

If you told me something was going to go down fast in May or June, I would have been more inclined to believe you, at that point the idea of something happening immediately was still believable. Five months later, there’s nothing immediate about this situation. We’re out of the immediate mode, and into long term mode. Like Garnett and Iverson, Kobe may have to wait some time before an appropriate deal can be worked out.

Kobe Bryant controls his own destiny. To quote columnist Jay Mariotti from the Chicago Sun-Times on a potential deal with the Bulls:

“Bryant himself is the power broker behind the intensifying trade talks, a free agent without the free agency, privately demanding which players should be in the deal and which should not. That is to ensure the Bulls team he would inherit is championship-ready, which makes him more influential in orchestrating the blockbuster than general managers John Paxson and Mitch Kupchak and even the owners, Jerrys Reinsdorf and Buss. Have no fear that Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Ty Thomas and Joakim Noah all would be lost to the Lakers, since King Kobe would veto the deal via his no-trade clause before allowing such a loaded package.”

When it comes to the career status and zip code of the best player in the game, Jerry Buss doesn’t own the universe – Kobe Bryant does. Kobe controls Kobe, no one else. So sue me if you think I’m down playing Buss’s desire to trade Bryant. If you ask me, the only thing that matters is how badly Kobe wants to be traded, and more importantly, how badly he wants to win.

For as many unfortunate decisions as he’s made in his life and career, I want to believe Kobe is still an intelligent man, and I sincerely hope he knows better than to storm out of town due to frustration and personal differences, only to land in a similar situation elsewhere.

Usually I’m not in favor of a player having this much control, but in this case I understand the need for it. Kobe has to be judicious about where he plays, his presence and his team’s position in the standings are too important to the league and the game for him to O.K any deal just get out of Los Angeles. I think Kobe realizes this.

A deal isn’t going to happen when Buss wants it to. A deal, the deal, is going to happen when Kobe wants it to happen, when the perfect alignment of personnel is agreed upon with the right team, and Kobe is in a position to get what he wants most – another championship. That’s when this whole thing will finally go down. The only problem with that, perfect rarely comes along quickly.

As I’m writing this, Kobe is still a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and preparing to take on the Houston Rockets on opening night. By the time you read this he may have gone off for 30, or 40, or 50, or 60 points and hopefully shifted the focus back where it belongs, on the games, on the players, on NBA hardwood, on the greatest game in the world.

If only it were that simple.