If you’re Kobe Bryant today, you look at the Lakers and the Clippers, the two finalists for your services, and you come to the conclusion that playing for either one beats a stretch in the slammer.
However, that conclusion isn’t the slam dunk that it once was.
Bryant has backed himself into a corner by narrowing his choices to the two Los Angeles franchises. He could have seriously considered Denver, Phoenix, San Antonio, Utah or New York. But either those teams decided the kitty was too rich for their blood, or Bryant decided he needed at least $100 million and a short drive from his Newport Beach home.
So it came down to the Lakers and the Clippers.
He will sign a seven-year deal worth about $136 million with the Lakers, passing up the six-year pact with the Clippers for just over $100 million.
Even with the Lakers, he will not win another championship during his tenure.
That’s just the way it is.
See, Bryant’s Achilles’ heel is his big head. His ego is so colossal, so massive, so gargantuan, that he allowed the Lakers to break up their championship core in order to accommodate him. Owner Jerry Buss fired Phil Jackson and then traded away Shaquille O’Neal, who, despite his infuriating shortcomings, still is the most dominant front-court player in basketball.
Bryant will play on a team consisting so far of he, Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Luke Walton, Brian Cook, Kareem Rush, Devean George, rookie Sasha Vujacic and others who may or may not include Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Slava Medvedenko, Rick Fox, Horace Grant, Bryon Russell and Derek Fisher. Even if all of those players wind up in Laker uniforms next year, that team will likely make the playoffs and face a first-round ouster, or if the karma is right, a second-round exit.
Bryant will be the focal point of the offense. His penchant for taking ill-advised shots will be magnified now that he has the constant green light. He’ll score 40 a night, he’ll win a game with a miracle clutch basket or two, but he’ll drop from the elite into Vince Carter or Allen Iverson territory. He will be a selfish ball hog with a raging ego and a restless group of teammates.
With the Lakers, he will have no center. True, the newly acquired Grant played the pivot in the East, but he’s 6-9, with rickety knees, and in the West he will be treated like a squeak toy in the mouth of a Rottweiler.
There are rumblings that the Lakers might ink Vlade Divac, but he is 36 years old and averaged under 30 minutes last season, with 10 points and six boards per game. He also averaged less than one blocked shot per game. He could help, but not much.
Even with Shaq last season, the Lakers had problems. But at least they made it to the Finals.
To accurately calculate Kobe’s odds of leading a Lakers squad that wins titles with Jordanesque regularity, you also have to look at the competition.
The Minnesota Timberwolves reached the NBA’s Western Conference finals last season in the first year after a face lift that saw Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell join forces with MVP Kevin Garnett. With a healthy Troy Hudson and Wally Szczerbiak, and last year’s commendable showing against the Lakers, the T-Wolves will not only be formidable in 2004-05, but in seasons beyond that.
The San Antonio Spurs signed Brent Barry. With him added to their core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, they’ll be among the league’s elite for the foreseeable future. The Rockets thrust themselves into the mix with the addition of superstar Tracy McGrady to go along with Yao Ming. The Sacramento Kings will also be competitive, as will the Memphis Grizzlies.
In 1991, the Lakers made the NBA Finals. They didn’t return until 2000, even though they acquired Shaq and Kobe in 1996. Even the great Jerry West, who was in charge during those years, couldn’t make it happen sooner. It just isn’t that easy, as Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Bryant will soon find out.
Despite the choice, Kobe Bryant will be vilified. With the Lakers, he had better win a championship. He made it clear he wanted to be The Man. Well, here’s his chance. Anything less will be met with vitriol and ridicule.
And even if he had signed with the Clippers after the Lakers moved a legendary head coach and a superstar center to accommodate him, it would have been viewed as one of the greatest betrayals in sports history.
He couldn't really win either way.
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