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Lakers' future may depend on parting with Bryant

In order to sustain the future of arguably the game’s greatest franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal even though he remained dominant. Now, perhaps for the same reason, the Lakers may have to let go Kobe Bryant.

"Bryant has hinted it will be after next season, his 18th in the NBA though he will be 'just' 36," writes Smith of Bryant's inevitable retirement. "His $30 million contract expires after next season, and the presumption is Bryant would sign on for another year or two having watched Michael Jordan’s several attempts to retire."
(Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Sport)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

The Lakers are the organization that traded Shaquille O’Neal at the time he remained dominant and Kobe Bryant was facing criminal assault charges. Because it was the right thing to do to sustain the future of arguably the game’s greatest franchise. And for perhaps the same reason the Lakers may have to let go Kobe Bryant.

I know the amazing Bryant, who continues to amaze and remains a top five MVP candidate even as the Lakers only struggle to qualify for the playoffs, still plays at a high level and told TV host Jimmy Kimmel last week he intends to finish his career with the Lakers.

Bryant has hinted it will be after next season, his 18th in the NBA though he will be “just” 36. His $30 million contract expires after next season, and the presumption is Bryant would sign on for another year or two having watched Michael Jordan’s several attempts to retire.

But there is the question of whether the Lakers could afford it, and less so for the money. Which obviously would be substantial as you don’t ask a franchise legend to take a pay cut. No, the very future of the Lakers may depend on the Lakers parting with Bryant.

The Lakers’ future is with Dwight Howard, the mercurial center who will be a free agent this summer. It’s been much discussed the issues between Bryant and Howard, though perhaps the biggest is being “the man.” Less, maybe, for the title than involvement in the game. It hardly seems likely, especially the way Bryant still dominates the ball, he’d back off to feature Howard, who still chafes at his limited role in the offense. They seem to have a truce of sorts going now with the Lakers after Sunday’s win over the Bulls playing themselves into stronger playoff position.

But the Lakers mostly have to make a case to Howard to stay, and they’ll have competition.

The Atlanta Hawks will make a hometown pitch with perhaps Al Horford and/or Josh Smith as mates. The rumors are Howard’s family is pushing hard for him to return home as they’ve watching him struggle and be humiliated in recent seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles. The Nets quietly despite denials are back in it again, though their overpaid roster with no cap space makes them a longshot.

But the Houston Rockets could be the real threat. They have a young star in James Harden and the possibilities of putting together a fearsome team.

They have quietly been sending out signals around the NBA they’d trade Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, both of whom have enhanced their value since being lured last summer as free agents and were in the grand plan of GM Daryl Morey possibility to be used — as seemingly all his players are — as targets to be able to upgrade.

Imagine Houston with Harden is able to sign Howard. Then maybe they work a deal to move Lin to the Jazz, who need a point guard, for maybe someone like Al Jefferson. And Asik as one of the league’s leading rebounders would certainly net a perimeter shooting threat. It’s a potentially attractive package to present to Howard that the Lakers probably cannot match.

And that would be if the Lakers could persuade Bryant to take a back seat Howard. Anyone giving odds on that one?

That was eerily the same circumstances that helped lead to the Shaq trade. The Lakers wanted to sign up Shaq again, but they also realized they couldn’t keep Bryant subjugated much longer and O’Neal was slowing, that the game had to evolve through Bryant.

Even Phil Jackson appealed to O’Neal. O’Neal and Bryant weren’t close then, not unlike Bryant and Howard now, and Shaq refused to yield to Bryant even as Jackson assured him it could lead to more titles and still a major role for O’Neal. O’Neal got one title in Miami secondary to Dwyane Wade, and the Lakers in the long run withstood the bitter criticisms and have reaped the apologies since.

Now the Lakers may have to take the public relation hit again, though likely not until after next season as it doesn’t make sense for them to take on big contracts for Bryant for one season and few teams have $30 million in contracts to exchange for Bryant. Amnesty as Mark Cuban suggested to cut the approximately $50 million to $75 million luxury tax bill? Not likely.

But you probably can guess where I’m going by now: Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant.

How sweet would it be for Bryant to match or better Jordan’s career number of titles not only in Chicago but by beating LeBron James? After all, if Bryant stays with the Lakers at his salary level and Steve Nash on the books the Lakers cannot add anyone and seem to have no chance to win another title with him. And why would Howard opt in to that, playing second fiddle to Bryant on an aging team with little chance to win in the powerful Western Conference? The Lakers have to sell Howard on it being his team with his players after one more season.

Meanwhile, and I’ve never figured out why other than Jordan was there, Bryant has had a long affinity for the Bulls. When he was a free agent in 2004, he met with Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf and GM John Paxson about signing with the Bulls. But the Bulls only had the salary cap exception and Bryant opted for the big deal to stay with the Lakers. But when the Lakers crumbled, Bryant openly pined for the Bulls and demanded a trade before the 2007-08 season. The teams were in talks, even if the Lakers made the demands so egregious there never was a real chance of a deal, as the Bulls mulled various possibilities to trade for Bryant. The Bulls were the only team he said he’d go to.

And after next season the Bulls have various options to get below the salary cap and add a free agent. Obviously, Bryant would make nowhere near the $30 million the Lakers could potentially pay him. But I doubt they would, anyway. And, after all, Bryant’s always been about the game and the challenge. And what better way to take on a great challenge than at the end of his career, though still being highly productive, and going after LeBron in Michael Jordan’s playing city.

Moving away from game’s fundamentals a concern

-- You often hear the cliché about a slow, poor shooting game and how it is ugly and set basketball back. It’s easy and mindless to say, so it is often repeated on television. But what embarrassed basketball and what is one of the NBA’s biggest problems was a game like Thursday’s narrow Oklahoma City win over the Knicks. It was exciting, close at the end, the crowd into it. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing. But Russell Westbrook drove and shot, Kevin Durant pulled up and shot, J.R. Smith shot and shot and shot, Amar’e Stoudemire — in his last appearance of the season and who knows maybe his career as he’s having a knee procedure again — shot. No one passed; it happens. But no one set a screen, at least one that was used. There was no weak side action. No multiple pick-and-rolls, no system, triangle or passing game. But truly great athletes making plays, though few successful as the Knicks outmissed the Thunder. It’s the legacy of one and done and high school to NBA: These superior athletes not only never much learn to play, but they are so good most feel they don’t have to. They can make amazing plays off the dribble, and, yes, maybe I sound like a bitter old guy. But that’s not basketball. Basketball is a beautiful, team oriented, coordinated dance. It only got better as the players improved and could make their moves in the air. But with only a few exceptions, many are so good now they reject the screen or the teammate’s help or the team concept to make great individual plays. They are fun and amazing to watch. But that’s what sets basketball back.

NBA news and notes

-- It’s interesting how the Nets sold the local media, those famously “sophisticated” New York basketball fans, that the Kris Humphries two-year $24 million signing — he’s now out of the rotation — was to have a “valuable” trade piece with an expiring contract for next season. Good luck with that. See how the Bulls moved Richard Hamilton’s expiring deal that’s for less than half that? Teams are no longer chasing those expiring deals ... Eddy Curry is back from playing in China where he averaged 23 points and 10.1 rebounds for Zhejiang Chouzhou Bank, cashing in if you will ... I’m not sure Will Bynum meant it that way after the Pistons’ biggest loss in 18 years by 39 to the Spurs. The season’s low point, he was asked: “There's still a lot of games left, so I can't tell you that," he told Detroit media The Pistons were only blown out by 32 Sunday by the Clippers, so Bynum was at least being fair. ... Good we wrote those early stories to note the Bobcats’ new demeanor and coach of the year candidate when they were 7-5 heading for the current 6-45 run. And, yes, they don’t feel Tyrus Thomas can help and refused to even allow him to travel with the team.

-- It’s a big reunion week with Dwight Howard returning Tuesday to Orlando, where local media had a ball last week after Howard said on an L.A. radio station he was playing with a bunch of players in Orlando no one wanted who he carried. Howard did a bunch of back peddling since, but so much for any warm welcome and thanks for the memories. The Orlando Sentinel and ESPN went around asking Howard’s former teammates, who didn’t exactly agree. “It's disrespectful," said Rashard Lewis. "We helped Dwight become the player he was. We made a good run. Look at those (conference and division) banners hanging in the stands. They don't say Dwight Howard on them." Said J.J. Redick: “I would be more surprised when Dwight starts taking responsibility. You can't take all the credit and not accept any of the blame." Chimed in Jameer Nelson: “At some point, when are you [Dwight] gonna as a man, when are you going to take ownership and stay out of the media in a professional manner?” Glen Davis said he was “shocked.” Welcome back, Dwight. ... Also this week, Carmelo Anthony assuming he can play as he’s been out returns to play in Denver for the first time since he forced his way out in trade. The Knicks didn’t play in Denver in last year’s lockout season. Though with the players they received and the flexibility to add players, the Nuggets believe for the first time since they drafted Anthony they now are a serious playoff contender.

-- It doesn’t seem necessary as the Grizzlies are doing well, but new owner Robert Pera continues to take subtle shots at Rudy Gay, telling the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "This team was built for playoff basketball. In playoff basketball, getting defensive stops and creating high percentage scoring opportunities under pressure becomes much more important." Gay was famously a high risk shooter. ... Jeremy Lin now mostly sits out fourth quarters of Rockets games for defense with Patrick Beverly playing. But Lin has taken it graciously, telling the Houston Chronicle: “It’s hard for any athlete to sit there when it matters. It’s not about individual egos right now. Obviously, everyone wants to be out there. One through 15 everybody wants to be out there, but that’s just not the way it works sometimes. It’s just buying into the team. We really are a team, we enjoy being around each other. That makes it easy to sacrifice for each other.” ... The Spurs coming off a 30-point loss at home to Portland face the Thunder Monday and with Tony Parker out for several more weeks it seems unlikely the Spurs hold off the Thunder for tops in the West. But that Western Conference playoffs is wide open. I heard from Hall of Famer Chet Walker the other day and he says he likes Denver to get to the NBA Finals from the Western Conference. ... In that blowout Spurs loss, Portland rookie Damian Lillard become the first Portland rookie since Steve Colter in 1985 to have at least 35 points and nine assists. Colter is a famous name in Bulls history as then general manager Jerry Krause told Michael Jordan he’d finally acquired his backcourt running mate for the rest of his career. Colter was in Chicago one season.

-- It’s been a scary run of injuries for point guards in addition to Derrick Rose, like Kyrie Irving, Jameer Nelson, Steve Nash, John Wall, Ricky Rubio, Mo Williams, Chris Paul and Chauncey Bullups. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich likewise now has his point guard Tony Parker out for an extended time and suddenly the position has become a danger zone even as Popovich notes the game is much less physical than any time in the past. “I think there are just more scoring point guards these days and the ball's in the point guards hands a lot more than I think it was in the past,” said Popovich. “I think in general the ball probably moved a lot more than in the past. And the thing that's strange to me is I think (the game) is less physical than it used to be because of the rules, especially on the perimeter, so these freak things that happen may be because they are such great athletes, they get into awkward positions and stress their bodies in ways maybe people in the past didn't stress their bodies. Who knows? But it has been a preponderance of injuries at the point position, I don't know why. The little nicks of today weren’t as obvious. They didn’t take as many pictures before (x-rays and MRIs) I don’t think as they did today,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. You think back you did not realize those guys (Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson) played and played and played. Who knows (the reason).”

-- The sliding Jazz finally sent Marvin Williams a message benching him after one of the more amazing box scores as the Jazz lost in overtime to Milwaukee and three of the five Jazz starters playing a total of more than 50 minutes were scoreless in shooting zero for 15. And coach Tyrone Corbin continues to leave his best players on the bench ... Ricky Rubio finally is making a nice return from his ACL surgery from last March, averaging 11.8 points and 7.8 assists the last five games. But Popovich said wait until next season: "I know what he did overseas, and he's not back to that level yet. An injury that keeps you out that long, it takes a while to get your rhythm back, regain your confidence and really feel 100 percent.” ... The Bulls are in Golden State Friday where they’ll get to see summer league superstar Malcolm Thomas, done with his season with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He was back in San Diego, signed with the D-League and after getting 13 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in 41 minutes when the Warriors came to watch him he was signed to a 10-day contract. ... Jim Boylan for coach of the year? Watch out for the Bucks, who are one of the East’s hottest teams and just two games behind the fifth place Bulls Apparently someone even explained to Brandon Jennings what a pass is and what a point guard should be. Jennings, the poor shooting mini shooting guard playing point guard has averaged 19.2 points and 13.2 assists the last five games, shooting 48 percent overall (he’s been the league’s worst shooting guard the last two years) and 53 percent on threes. It’s allowed Monta Ellis, a much better scorer, to become more aggressive and created spacing for J.J. Redick, who really can shoot.

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