Last week brought us a new chapter in the Kobe Bryant saga, with Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss saying he's open to trading his superstar.
To assess where things stand now, we brought five of ESPN's top NBA reporters together:
Does Kobe want out?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: After three years of inspecting the grass color on the other side of the fence, Kobe Bryant learned his lesson. (And this was before he spent the summer in the lush landscape of Team USA.)
So now he realizes that sharing the spotlight with other superstars isn't so bad, that there's plenty of candlepower to illuminate everybody when the team wins championships.
He knows there won't be victory parades in Los Angeles in the near future, and he's horrified of the prospect of wasting his prime years without playing in June. That outweighs his desire to wear the same uniform for his entire career.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Mag: I think Kobe definitely wants out, but he realizes it's not good for his image to continue battling the Lakers' front office and demeaning his teammates in public. So instead, he's saying all the right things, focusing on basketball and privately hoping the Lakers can pull off a trade.
Remember, in his brief response to Buss' comments last week, Kobe said the owner's statements just shed more light on the conversation they had had over the summer. So apparently that conversation didn't include Kobe's rescinding his trade demand.
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Mag: In a perfect world, Bryant would stay a Laker for life.
But we don't live in a perfect world and he's painfully aware of that, so, yes.
He knows his years as the league's best player are numbered and he'd like to spend at least some of them playing for a championship. The Lakers, based on their refusal to trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd, aren't feeling the same sense of urgency.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: He wanted out all summer, and the fact that Jerry Buss spent 45 minutes in Barcelona unsuccessfully trying to get him to change his mind -- and Buss' acknowledgement of subsequently fielding offers -- shows how strongly both sides felt about the situation. Kobe shut down his public pleas for a trade, but the underlying reasons he wanted out in the first place always remained.
So the big question now for me is this: Was Kobe being deceptive on media day Oct. 1 when he said he was back on board? If not, how does he explain his change of heart on wanting to pursue "a new road ahead?" Kobe, we're waiting to hear from you ...
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Every indication I get is that Kobe's preferences haven't changed. He might have stopped saying so publicly but, by all accounts, he'd rather be elsewhere, with Chicago holding particular appeal because he knows it's easier to get to the NBA Finals in the East.
I don't see this changing, either, because Kobe finally sees how hard it'll be for the Lakers to return to title contention. The odds were that it was always going to take years to recover from Shaquille O'Neal's departure. The big change here is that Kobe, after three rough seasons on his own, sees that now.
Why did Jerry Buss say last week that the Lakers are open to trading Kobe?
Adande: Jerry Buss' candid comments in Hawaii were the equivalent of a Craigslist ad: Talented superstar available; make your best offer.
He was infatuated with Bryant, so much so that he coddled him throughout Bryant's sexual assault case, then chose him over a Hall of Fame center and a Hall of Fame coach.
Bryant's response was to ask out after things went bad. Buss entrusted Bryant with the future of the franchise, and this was the payback he received. Last week, Buss said this is about "business," but really it's personal.
Broussard: Buss is insulted that Kobe had the audacity to call him an "idiot,'' and he feels that Kobe has shown no loyalty or appreciation for the fact that the Lakers stuck by him -- and even went above and beyond the call of duty -- during his darkest days (the sexual assault case).
If I were an owner, paying a guy megamillions, and he disrespected me in that way, I'd be willing to trade him too (but as Buss has said, only if it's a good deal for the Lakers). Not to mention that Buss knows Kobe will opt out of his deal after next season anyway.
Bucher: He's a doctor, isn't he? What does a doctor do before he performs a painful surgery? (Yeah, I know he's not that kind of doctor -- just roll with it.) He lays out what he plans to do and why. It gives the patient time to come to terms with what is about to happen. That's the only logical reason for announcing to the public what he said privately to Kobe months ago.
Sheridan: To me, Buss' comments showed how much he has already come to grips with the idea of moving forward without Kobe. Buss has been fully aware of Kobe's dissatisfaction since the end of May, so he's spent more than four months pondering the likelihood of a Kobe-less future.
Stein: The timing wasn't as surprising as it seemed because Buss always sits down with Laker beat writers when the team holds camp in Hawaii and he was obviously going to get lots of Kobe questions.
And while I do believe Buss now feels betrayed after standing by Kobe for years -- and perhaps even that he wants to start preparing his fans for the post-Kobe era -- I still hear (and believe) that he's not yet ready to trade No. 24. Not this season. Not because Buss loves him unconditionally anymore, but because he knows there's no hope of even coming close to getting equal value.
Is Kobe going to be traded in the next year?
Adande: The Lakers have to trade him. They can't let one of the league's top players walk away (in the summer of 2009) and get nothing in return.
The most logical time for Bryant to be traded would be just before the 2008 draft. By then teams will know the draft order and can offer specific picks to the Lakers to sweeten deals.
Those teams will also have a sense of where they stand, and whether they should maintain the status quo or make a dramatic move.
The Lakers don't want to wait until the February 2009 trade deadline because everyone else will know Bryant's opt-out decision is looming and will make lowball offers.
Broussard: I don't think it's that cut-and-dried. Phil Jackson has Kobe playing more like a facilitator this preseason (so far), and if the Lakers are healthy and Kobe continues to share the wealth, they may have some success early, which could quell tensions. Remember, this is the team that had Phoenix on the brink less than two years ago.
Also, if the Bulls (one of Kobe's prime suitors) have a great season, they won't be so quick to trade for Bryant. But if the Bulls struggle, they could pull the trigger before the trade deadline. If Dallas (and particularly Dirk) shows it can't bounce back mentally from consecutive postseason meltdowns, the Mavs could decide to part with Dirk for Kobe (doubtful but possible). If you put a gun to my head, though, I'll say "Yes."
Bucher: Has to be, if the Lakers want to make the best of this mess. At this point, the longer they wait, the less they can demand in return, particularly if their season starts off rocky. (Exhibits A and B, the KG and AI trades.)
Sheridan: I'd say it's more a question of whether he's going to be traded by the deadline in mid-February. Here's why: Kobe will hold more leverage over the Lakers next summer, because he can threaten to exercise his veto over any trade, play one more season in L.A. and then opt out and leave as an unrestricted free agent and refuse to do a sign-and-trade, leaving the Lakers getting nothing in return for him.
Anyway, to answer the question, I'd say it's more likely than unlikely.
Stein: During the season, no. Not until, like J.A. suggested, closer to the draft at the earliest.
Buss has been deeply stung by Bryant's recent displays of disloyalty, but the Lakers know he's virtually irreplaceable on the floor, at the box office and in the team shop. So they're not going to trade him until they absolutely have to.
The Lakers have to listen to every offer because Kobe can become a free agent in the summer of 2009, meaning they can lose him without compensation in less than two years. But it doesn't make business sense to do it now. They can offset their struggles in the standings by winning business-wise with Kobe for another season. You are safe to even expect a trade next offseason when the threat of Kobe's leaving becomes real. But between now and the trade deadline? I'd be floored.
If and when Bryant is traded, which team will get him?
Adande: The Chicago Bulls are the only logical bartering partners for the Lakers. A trade to Chicago gets Bryant out of the Western Conference, so they don't have to worry about his paying multiple visits to their home court each season, or igniting against them during the playoffs.
The Bulls have a wealth of talented, smart young players. But the Lakers have to hold out for Luol Deng and/or Ben Gordon. They can't make the same mistake they made the last time they dealt a superstar, when they sent Shaquille O'Neal to Miami and didn't get a single all-star in return.
The Bulls could still have enough pieces to be competitive, and it's a good market, so Bryant would be less likely to exercise his no-trade clause. Chicago appealed to him when he was a free agent in 2004, and three years later, with the Baby Bulls growing up, it's an even better destination.
Broussard: The Bulls have to be the likeliest destination because Kobe wants to go there and they have the young assets to get a deal done. Plus, I don't think the Bulls as currently constructed can win a title. Once they realize that they'll be willing to trade for the closest thing there is to MJ.
I think Dallas will be in the hunt (if I were the Mavs, I'd trade Dirk for Kobe straight up). Forget the Knicks, and I don't see how Phoenix can get it done without breaking up its duo of Nash and Stoudemire.
Bucher: Technically, Dallas and Chicago, because those are the only teams currently on Kobe's list. But the field could expand, depending on what the Lakers want in return.
If the Lakers would accept a Paul Pierce package, he'd happily go play with KG and Ray Allen. Would the Lakers accept a Suns package that didn't include Nash or Amare? He'd go there, too.
My guess is that Chicago remains the only logical choice for both Kobe and the Lakers, because it puts him in the East, far from L.A. -- as well as San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix, if you can smell what I'm steppin' in. He does have a no-trade clause, so he won't go just anywhere and he won't go to a team stripped of contention by the deal.
This, by the way, is the price a team pays for screwing up its relationship with its best player. If it's any consolation, the Lakers are only the 914th team in league history to put itself in this position.
Sheridan: If the Lakers trade him -- and I think it'll take one more blow-up from someone to push it forward -- I still see Chicago as his likeliest destination. But that works only if Bulls GM John Paxson includes Luol Deng in his offer (along with Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, a No. 1 pick or Thabo Sefalosha plus P.J. Brown -- currently a free agent considering retirement -- for sign-and-trade purposes, to make the salaries match).
If the Bulls are stingy (and some league sources believe Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf has no stomach for giving Kobe an extension if he acquires him), the Knicks will be in the picture if Kobe thinks New York is an acceptable fallback destination. Bryant has a trade veto and is wary of playing for a franchise run by Jim Dolan in the wake of last month's sexual harassment case by a fired Knicks executive. But no one has deeper pockets than Dolan, who would be more than willing to pay Kobe's full trade kicker and give him an extension that would make even Allan Houston jealous.
Still, there's always the question of whether the Lakers would accept anything offered by New York, which would try to overwhelm the Lakers with some voluminous combination of Jamal Crawford plus young talent on rookie contracts (David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Nate Robinson, Randolph Morris), plus Malik Rose or Quentin Richardson for salary cap purposes.
I don't believe Buss will trade Kobe to a Western team, but if he does, I think it'll be Dallas -- in part because Buss has a good relationship with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
My long-shot team is New Jersey, for a package starting with Vince Carter, although that can not happen until after Dec. 15, when players (like Carter) who signed over the summer become trade-eligible.
Stein: Don't forget that Kobe will continue to have a stronger-than-anyone say in this whole process; he has the NBA's only active no-trade clause in his contract. And the three-team Kobe wish list that keeps coming up on the front-office grapevine -- with apologies to the Knicks -- is Chicago, Phoenix and Dallas.
The Suns and Mavs, though, continue to rank as pretty much the last two teams Buss would want to send Kobe to. The Bulls, then, are by far the most logical destination, because they possess more trade assets than anyone and given that Kobe actually likes the idea of trying to win in Michael Jordan's city. But Chicago is just as likely as Buss to want to wait until season's end before seriously considering this.
The Lakers would certainly be holding out for Luol Deng and/or Kirk Hinrich as the cornerstones of a package for Kobe and the Bulls aren't going to part with their best players without giving them at least one more shot to go far in the playoffs. You are bound to hear folks suggest that the Lakers need to move to fast, because the offers will be better now rather than later, but I'd argue that the bids in this case might not get better until teams start to believe that Kobe is really attainable. Any potential trade partner, furthermore, is more likely to break up its team after playoff disappointment than in October or February.