Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Deal Me Out

The Lakers have a quandary this offseason. The cornerstone of their franchise, Kobe Bryant, has demanded a trade. Kobe claims that the Lakers have not done what they said they would do and that they are not making enough progress for him to stay. The interesting part of that statement is that the Lakers got to the NBA finals just three years ago, but Kobe decided that he couldn't continue to exist with Shaq. The Lakers had a choice at that point. They could keep Shaq and lose Kobe to free agency or they could trade Shaq and sign Kobe to a huge deal. They chose the latter and it certainly made sense in baseketball terms. Shaq was no longer the dominant force that he used to be and was certainly becoming more injury prone as time went on. Kobe was 9 years younger and was just about to enter his prime. Of course Shaq teamed up with Dwayne Wade to win another championship while the Lakers have struggled and have missed the playoffs in two of the three seasons that they have played without Shaq.

The Lakers are under no obligation to trade Kobe. They can simply turn down his request for a trade and continue to try and build a winning team around him. Of course having a player that doesn't want to be on your team, especially one who is supposed to be the focal point of the team on the floor, isn't exactly the ideal situation. Kobe Bryant is the best offensive player in the NBA. He is capable of exploding for 50-80 points on any night of the season. He is the only player who can claim to be the rightful successor to Michael Jordan. The NBA has been looking for the next Jordan and are always quick to anoint someone as the "NEXT", but Kobe is already here. His checkered legal past is the only reason that he has not been thrust into the forefront as the face of the league. The NBA would like LeBron James to be the face of the league and while he is a fantastic, multi-talented player, he simply cannot do all the things that Kobe can do.

So did the Lakers make a mistake in choosing Kobe over Shaq? I don't really think so. Shaq really can't carry a team on his own any more and always spends at least 1/3 of the regular season on the disabled list, so at least by trading him, they got back a couple of good complementary players. If they had let Kobe go, they would have been left empty handed. So should they trade him? The bottom line is that there is no way they can get equal value for him. I've heard the rumors of Gilbert Arenas from Washington, but he is not the equal of Kobe. Chicago might be able to put together a package of some of their young stars, but two good players do not equal one great player. The truth is that they are in a very tough position. The Lakers, as constituted, are not a championship caliber team. Perhaps if Andruw Bynam develops into a dominating center they will become one, but that isn't going to happen overnight. Trading Kobe would allow them to get rid of a headache, but it doesn't really get them any closer to the NBA finals.

So what is Kobe's angle in making his trade request? It can't be about a new contract, because he's currently making the maximum amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. Kobe also has an "Arod" clause in his contract, meaning that he can opt out of his deal after the 2008-09 season. It really seems that this is all about trying to literally follow in the footsteps of Michael Jordan. Kobe has a very short list of teams that he'll accept a trade to. The Lakers would be crazy to trade him to a team in the west and the only team that he'll agree to go in the east is Chicago. So this is apparently a gambit by Kobe to get to Chicago. Kobe already has three championships, but I guess in his mind, in order to be like Mike, he's got to win in Chicago as well. The question now becomes whether Chicago can put together a package that makes sense and leaves them with enough parts to make a run a the finals, even with Kobe. Clearly there is a much easier road to the finals out of the east, so maybe that's Kobe's goal. He's decided that he can't make the finals in the West, so his answer is to go East, young man.

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