The Ultimate fLaker  
October 20, 2007
As ESPN breathlessly reported over and over again, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss publicly stated that he would listen to trade offers involving petulant star, franchise player, outrageously overpriced ticket seller, and alleged rapist extraordinaire Kobe Bryant. Apparently Buss’ prior reaction to Bryant trade offers was to plug his ears with his index fingers and sing out, “la la la la I CANT HEAR YOU la la la la.”

Buss’ announcement should have been non-news. There is no such thing as an untouchable player, and any team that treats a player as such is stupid. Certainly there are players who a team would not shop and wouldn’t trade unless they were getting 4 All Stars in return, but they should still listen to trade offers just in case. Prior to his announcement, if the Phoenix Suns called Buss and offered to trade rosters, would he have really rejected them immediately because he’d refuse to trade Bryant? An LA fan would need to get video of Suns General Manager Steve Kerr, owner Robert Sarver, and NBA Commissioner David Stern engaging in a gangbang while selling drugs to starving infants at a dog fight over which they preside in order to get such a trade offer, but Buss wouldn’t turn the offer down if it came. Buss’ statement wasn’t a signal that they were now willing to move Bryant where they weren’t before, but rather that they were now interested in finding out what the market for Bryant is but still didn’t want to actively shop him. The chances of a Bryant trade are still about as low as ever.

Normally, an NBA trade requires an agreement by two parties (the two teams) which does not violate the rules of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Occasionally there are trades which involve more than two teams. Bryant has the only no trade clause in the NBA which makes him uniquely difficult to trade (note: there are sign and trade deals which require a player to sign off on the move, but in those situations the player has leverage against his old team by threatening to sign with another team and leave his old one with nothing and the player’s old team can choose to just rid itself of salary by not agreeing to a sign and trade). Bryant is unlikely to agree to a trade unless it leaves him on a big market team that is a championship contender. In the right situation he might eschew the big market but it would make no sense for him to allow a trade to a non-contending team as he would be leaving the #2 market in the country while not improving his chances at a championship. But Bryant will ensure that any team he is traded to has enough left around him to compete for a championship. This shrinks the market for Bryant significantly. Current contenders are the Spurs, Suns, Mavs, Jazz, Rockets, Heat, Pistons, Cavs, and Bulls. Longshot fringe contenders include the Raptors, Nuggets, Warriors, Nets, and Hornets.

The Lakers do not want to trade Bryant. He is their meal ticket and may be the best individual player in the NBA. Owner Jerry Buss derives much of his income from the team and can’t continue to charge exorbitant prices without either a championship contender or star power. He’d strongly prefer having both, and perhaps having a marketable star over a contender. This makes it very difficult for LA to go the standard rebuilding route of selling off veterans at 60 cents on the dollar in exchange for prospects and expiring contracts and being a bad team for a couple years while the prospects develop and the salary cap room is used to sign an impact veteran or two. Southern California sports fans are notoriously fickle and their virtually non-existent attention span may not be able to handle a 3 to 4 year Laker rebuild. Buss would need the team to remain a playoff caliber club and land a marketable star in addition to prospects and cap space, and then hope that Andruw Bynum develops into an All Star center. There is a reason that Buss stood by Bryant as Bryant feuded with Shaq, as Bryant randomly told police about Shaq’s alleged marital indiscretions, as Bryant’s ego broke up a potential dynasty, as Bryant publicly and privately cursed out coach Phil Jackson, as Bryant had a dalliance with the Clippers, as Bryant publicly demanded and undemanded a trade, and as Bryant allegedly raped a girl. Buss cannot afford to sell Bryant for lesser value.

The CBA must not be violated in order to complete a trade. The first hurdle that the CBA places in front of any trade is that if the two teams are over the salary cap (and virtually any team Bryant would consider is over the cap) then the total salaries each team is sending to the other must be within 25% of each other. Bryant is the 8th highest paid player in the NBA this year, due to make about $19.5 million for the season. This means if LA sends only Bryant, the package they receive in return must have salaries totaling between $14.6 million and $24.4 million. Rookie contracts tend to be relatively small so LA would have to take back at least one veteran with a significant contract in addition to any prospects and future draft picks (future picks don’t count for any salary for purposes of satisfying the CBA in a trade). Also, Bryant has a trade kicker, meaning his salary increases if he gets traded (this doesn’t affect legality of trades, but does make the financial hit on his new team bigger).

Many of the 14 contenders and fringe contenders can be easily eliminated from the pool of potential Bryant destinations.

  • The Spurs are not likely to break up their championship core, especially to add a selfish player who would not fit their system.
  • Bryant is unlikely to want to live in Utah and wouldn’t be embraced by their fan base. Utah wouldn’t want to move Deron Williams (who LA would probably demand) and LA wouldn’t want to take on the contract of Andrei Kirilenko (whom Utah would try to force on LA as Williams is on a rookie contract making $4 million this year).
  • The Heat wouldn’t give up Dwyane Wade, not to mention how awkward a Shaq – Bryant reunion would be.
  • The Hornets are unlikely to part with Chris Paul and would still probably not crack the top 4 in the Western Conference after a Bryant deal. LA would also need to take on the huge contract of either David West, Peja Stojakovic, or Tyson Chandler. New Orleans is a small market as well.
  • The Cavs made the NBA Finals riding Lebron James through a weak Eastern Conference. Trading James for Bryant doesn’t get them any closer to a championship and James is younger, cheaper, and much more marketable as a local product. LA is unlikely to take a Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden package for Bryant.
  • Getting Chris Bosh to put alongside Bynum might be enough for LA to pull the trigger, but Toronto should be loathe to trade young for old and big for small. The Raptors with Bryant might be good enough to make a run in the Eastern Conference, but still aren’t title contenders which makes the deal very unlikely from both the Toronto and Bryant sides. Bryant is also unlikely to want to leave the US (if nothing else, he’d lose money on taxes).
  • The Pistons do not have a marketable star to send to LA. The package heading to LA would be centered around shooting guard Rip Hamilton and the masked man won’t be selling nearly enough tickets or winning enough games for Buss to pull the trigger. Detroit lacks young prospects (Buss can’t sell “we traded Kobe, but we got Jason Maxiell!” to his fan base) to send to LA and Detroit’s draft picks, especially after a Hamilton for Bryant trade, will be very late in the first round.
  • Baron Davis grew up in LA, went to college in LA, and has (along with Paul Pierce) taken over Magic Johnson’s charity event in the LA area. He is a marketable star who would probably love to be a Laker. However, the point of a Warriors deal for the Warriors and Bryant would be to pair Davis and Bryant. Swapping the two doesn’t make the Warriors any more likely to win in the playoffs (assuming Davis is healthy). The Warriors’ best prospect, Andris Biedrins, plays the same position as Bynum and trading Biedrins leaves the rebounding poor Warriors with nothing inside. LA would need to agree to a deal centered around prospects Monta Ellis and Brandan Wright along with another $13 million in salary (Al Harrington and other filler?). This is too much of a starless rebuild for LA and it would be difficult for the Warriors to make the money work and still have enough left around Davis, Bryant, and Biedrins to make a run at a title.
  • New Jersey could try to build a deal around either of its swingmen, Vince Carter or Richard Jefferson. Carter was recently resigned and thus cannot be traded for a little while. Even after that restriction wears off, Carter is still old and has a huge new contract. He is marketable, but a significant downgrade from Bryant as a player (and probably in the marketability department as well) and is injury prone. Jefferson is younger than Bryant but not nearly as marketable and cannot carry a team. Even as the third option in a weak conference, Jefferson was unable to help New Jersey win more than it lost. Additionally, New Jersey has no high level young prospects to send to LA. 

A look at the remaining 5 teams:

  • Phoenix might be Bryant’s preferred destination. They play a fun style, have an unselfish 2 time MVP point guard, have a franchise big man who doesn’t dominate the ball, and are coached by Bryant’s childhood hero, Mike D’Antoni. LA would ask for Amare Stoudemire and Phoenix would reject it. Shawn Marion, who can opt out of his contract after this season and has expressed a desire to leave, would be the centerpiece of the deal. The problems are money, Marion, and Phoenix’s lack of depth. Phoenix has been selling off players and first round draft picks in order to stay under the luxury tax line. Taking on Bryant would be a costly move for the Suns. Their reticence to pay the tax has also left them with a lack of depth and young prospects. A Marion and Barbosa package might be enough for LA, but would leave Phoenix with no backup to Nash (who is aging and has chronic back problems) and no bench to speak of behind old, brittle Grant Hill. The other problem issue is that Buss may not want to risk Marion walking away after this season and being left with little or nothing in exchange for Bryant.
  • The Mavs are said to be the current leaders in the Bryant sweepstakes, if there indeed is such a sweepstakes. Dallas has reigning MVP and David Hasselhoff fanatic Dirk Nowitski, but Bryant is likely to veto any trade to Dallas which leaves the Mavs without Dirk. The point for Bryant would be to pair with Dirk and make a run at a title. Josh Howard is a very good player, but lack star value and is a Base Year Contract guy. Buss wouldn’t move Bryant for Jason Terry and change.
  • The Bulls have been judicious with their money, with only Ben Wallace, Andres Nocioni, and Kirk Hinrich signed long term. This also presents a problem as Hinrich and Nocioni are Base Year Contract players leaving only Wallace as a big money guy to offset Bryant’s salary in a trade. LA would need to take on the 3 years $44 million remaining on Wallace’s deal despite Wallace playing the same position as Bynum. The Bulls would need to overwhelm LA with talented 20somethings on their rookie contracts to get Buss to agree to the deal. The word is that Chicago is unlikely to move Luol Deng, meaning LA would be looking at receiving some combination of Tyrus Thomas, Chris Duhon, Joakim Noah, Thabo Sefalosha, and Ben Gordon. Buss won’t sell a lot of tickets with, “we may have traded Kobe, but we got Thabo!” Bryant would likely accept a trade to Chicago, which is the nation’s 3rd biggest media market and former home of Michael Jordan.
  • The Rockets are built around two players: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. The logical swap would be McGrady for Bryant. McGrady, despite his chronic back issues, is probably the best case scenario for Buss. McGrady is a star in the NBA and some would argue is about as good of a player as Bryant. Bryant’s ego is big enough to convince himself that he’d take the Rockets from the second tier of Western Conference teams into the first tier occupied by Dallas, San Antonio, and Phoenix. Houston would need to be convinced to take on extra salary and that Bryant, who feuded with Shaq and has publicly trashed Bynum, would not inhibit the growth of Yao Ming and that Bryant is enough of an upgrade over McGrady to be worth the headaches he’d cause.
  • The Nuggets might be a good trade partner if not for Carmelo Anthony being a Base Year Contract player, making him very hard to trade without adding several players to the deal on both sides. Anthony, while not as good as Bryant, is a young star in the NBA and would sell tickets for Buss. Denver could paid Iverson and Bryant with Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby and make a run at a ring. Alas, Anthony’s contract prevents such a move. Moving Iverson for Bryant does work under the CBA and the Nuggets would likely accept, but Iverson is an aging star and Denver has no prospects to send along with him. In the short run, Iverson would serve Buss’ needs but this trade would hurt LA in the long run. Iverson was traded last season for Andre Miller and a couple draft picks so his trade value doesn’t command a player of Bryant’s stature. Plus Denver no longer has those aforementioned draft picks so they cannot send LA any prospects or draft picks. Additionally, Colorado was the scene of the alleged crime in the Bryant rape case which may mean that Bryant would veto any trade to Denver.

In short, a Bryant trade likely isn’t coming for at least one more season and probably not anytime in the foreseeable future. The Lakers, one of ESPN’s core franchises (along with the Red Sox, Notre Dame, and every New York team) just needed to fill some Sportcenter airtime until this week’s Joe Torre marathon.

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