We’ve hashed out the free agency possibilities for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh this upcoming summer, and we’ve still got three months before they’re even allowed to start flirting with other teams as free agents.
Sure, LeBron could be a Clipper, Knick, Net, or Bull at the start of next season.
Yes, D-Wade could go back home to Chicago to team with Derrick Rose, creating the single scariest backcourt in all of the NBA.
And yes, with Toronto’s allergy to defense coming back out in the spring months, Bosh is likely to go anywhere but Toronto this summer.
But there’s one huge name out there who’s got the opportunity to become a free agent and who’s gone largely unnoticed up until now: Kobe Bryant.
After turning down the opportunity to opt out last summer, and winning an NBA championship with the Lakers last season, it’s hard to imagine Kobe leaving Los Angeles after this season.
But this is the NBA, where amazing happens. Stranger things have happened in free agency. (Talk to Cleveland about Carlos Boozer if you remain unconvinced.)
If the free-agent dominoes fall the right way, these are five reasons that Kobe could decide to opt out of the final year of his $24.8 million contract and leave the Lakers this summer.
Out of everything, the uncertainty surrounding Phil Jackson’s future coaching the Lakers appears to be the impetus for Bryant not extending his current contract with the Lakers yet.
As the New York Post was quick to point out, Jackson isn’t a stranger to encouraging strong player relationships; after the 1996 season in Chicago, Michael Jordan said about Jackson: "If Phil doesn't coach, I don't play."
After last season’s triumph in the NBA Finals, Kobe finally got over the “I haven’t won a championship without Shaq” hump. But unlike Shaq, Jackson’s been right alongside Kobe for all four of his NBA championships.
Jackson’s earning somewhere around $11 million to $12 million this season to coach the Lakers, but to this point, there’s been no concrete talk about his future with the team after the season.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss shot down any notion that there’s tension between he and Jackson in a recent ESPN Los Angeles interview, saying: "If I were to go to him right now and said, 'Phil, will you coach next year?' He would say let's wait until the end of the year and see how I feel."
Jackson agreed with Buss over this past weekend, but he did mention that he’d be heavily influenced by winning another championship. "Yeah. If we win it's almost imperative to give it another shot," Jackson said.
So, there you have it. If the Lakers win, the Zen Master is virtually guaranteed to return with his then-11 championship rings and give it one more go-around with the Purple and Gold.
If not…will he retire? And could Kobe adopt an M.J.-esque “Phil coaches or I don’t play here” stance? It’s not out of the question.
After next season, the NBA's current collective bargaining agreement expires. If the owners and the players can’t agree on one within the next year, the NBA, much like the NFL, could start the 2011 season on strike.
The owners' biggest concern appears to be restructuring NBA player contracts as a whole. CBSSports.com's Ken Berger reported back in February: "The proposal...seeks a reduction in the players' share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to well below 50 percent, according to a person familiar with the document."
That means players pulling in $20 million contracts this season are that much more likely to sign new deals before the terms of the new CBA goes into effect.
Players earning $16 million to $18 million deals this year could find themselves struggling to pull in $10 million to $12 million on the free-agent market in 2011, especially if there’s a potential lockout looming.
That means yes, even though Kobe’s got $24.8 million coming to him from the Lakers next season, he’ll be looking to extend his contract long-term, either from L.A. or another team.
And despite the Lakers offering Kobe a reported three-year extension that could be worth $91 million...so far, Kobe hasn’t signed it. Make of that what you will.
Could Europe be an option? During the 2008 Olympics, Kobe said he plans on soliciting overseas offers before signing an NBA extension.
With the re-signing of Lamar Odom and the addition of Ron Artest this past summer, the Lakers announced to the league that they’re willing to spend big to appease their superstar.
Signing Odom and Artest to pair alongside Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Bryant meant that the Lakers would have the highest payroll in the league ($91.4 million). The salary cap for this season stands at $57.7 million, putting the Lakers nearly $35 million over the salary cap.
Given the NBA's luxury tax, the Lakers pay a dollar of tax to the league for every dollar they're over the salary cap; in other words, they're paying nearly $35 million in taxes plus the league's highest payroll.
Granted, the Lakers also happened to pull in $51.1 million in profits last season, so, suffice it to say, the Lakers management team isn’t hurting too badly...yet.
But let’s go along with the "new CBA" theme we had going on the last slide.
There’s a possibility that the NBA institutes a hard salary cap in the next labor agreement, which would target teams like the Lakers that spend nearly twice as much as some of the small-market teams like the Grizzlies and the Thunder.
Furthermore, the Lakers just locked Gasol up for $60-plus million through 2013-14.
They signed Artest to a three-year, $18 million deal that he can extend for two more years and $16 million more.
Odom just earned a three-year, $27 million deal this past summer. And Bynum’s locked up at nearly $30 million over the next two years, with a $16 million team option in 2012-13.
Long story short, if this crew of Lakers can’t get it done, none of their contracts expire any time soon. That could leave Kobe in a real pickle if he signs an extension with L.A.
Ever since the Boston Celtics out-muscled and out-manned the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals, there's been a perception around the league that the Lakers are a soft team that can’t get physical when the going gets tough in the NBA playoffs.
Marcel Mutoni of SLAM Magazine addressed the Lakers’ softness problem in a blog post back in January, writing:
"Bryant knows the truth: Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom are a wonderfully skilled crew in the front, but they don’t have innate nastiness. 'That's not part of our DNA,' Bryant said. 'We have to step up and match that (physicality) and still play skillful basketball.'"
This season, Los Angeles' "softness" has reared its ugly head again, as the Lakers appeared visibly frustrated by the Cleveland Cavaliers' physicality in their two regular season matchups.
If Pau finds himself in full-blown avoid-contact, European flopping mode, the Lakers are in trouble, especially with Bynum's recent injury.
A team that’s been giving the rest of the NBA nightmares with their corral of seven-footers suddenly looks potentially vulnerable up front, regardless of whether or not Bynum can get healthy before the playoffs.
If the Lakers get physically abused by a team like Cleveland or Orlando in the Finals this year, could that be enough incentive to convince Kobe that the Lakers have nowhere to go but down? (Especially with all his teammates' contracts locked up for the next few years?)
More importantly...could a loss like that knock Jackson out of coaching the Lakers? And what effect would that have on Kobe’s future with the team?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I first heard about this Kobe-2010-free-agency conspiracy from Sports Illustrated's Frank Hughes, who wrote a column last week suggesting that Bryant could be a legitimate option B for New York if LeBron decides to stay in Cleveland.
After mortgaging their future for Tracy McGrady’s expiring contract in February, the Knicks positioned themselves to have more than $30 million in cap space this upcoming summer.
If they could sign Bryant to a max-deal, do a sign-and-trade of Chris Bosh for David Lee, and re-sign McGrady for a small chunk of the $22.5 million he’s being paid this year, the Knicks go from zeroes to heroes in one summer flat.
Depending on the seismic rumblings from the other marquee free agents (such as if D-Wade and/or LeBron went to the Western Conference), Kobe could catapult the Knicks back up to a perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse.
If not the Knicks...well, the Nets have Brook Lopez, Devin Harris, and the best shot at picking between John Wall and Evan Turner in the next few months, and the Bulls freed up max-contract space for next season by trading away John Salmons in February.
Granted, it’s hard to imagine finding a better situation than the assortment of All-Stars and NBA champions that the Lakers roll out in their starting lineup on a nightly basis. But Kobe’s old in NBA years at 31, with this being his 14th season in the league. What happens when Kobe doesn’t want to shoulder the load for his team on a night-in, night-out basis?
Even NBA superstars have to concede their basketball mortality eventually, and Kobe’s not getting any younger. Would Kobe be satisfied putting his legacy’s future in the hands of Pau Gasol?
Most NBA teams have been planning for this upcoming free agent bonanza for years, and only one team will end up with LeBron. That could leave another team, with a perfect storm of young players, expiring contracts, and cap space, to breathe down L.A.'s neck and potentially woo Kobe from finishing his career as a Laker.
Again, Kobe ditching L.A. isn’t nearly as likely as guys like Amar'e Stoudemire or Joe Johnson changing teams. But the fact is, until Kobe signs his extension with the Lakers, there’s still the chance that he leaves L.A. this summer.