David Aldridge | What Bryant really wants

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Kobe Bryant is frustrated that the Lakers have not surrounded him with championship-caliber talent since Shaquille O'Neal left, but he also knows that the team can't afford to deal him.

When the 1999 fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield was amazingly, ridiculously called a draw after Lewis had banged Holyfield around for 12 rounds, there was immediate suspicion that the fix was in (again) and that Don King, Holyfield's promoter, had something to do with it. People started looking for the bag of money, the handwritten document, the phone record that would prove King had paid off somebody.

And someone, I can't recall who, pointed out the futility of that search.

The judges would never be told flat out to fix the fight. They wouldn't have to be. They were sentient creatures. They knew that somebody had paid for their nice hotel rooms and plane tickets and ringside seats, and they knew that the tap would be shut off the moment there was a decision that didn't go King's way.

This is what went through my mind while listening to Kobe Bryant the last few days.

Bryant never would say "fire that incompetent Mitch Kupchak," the Lakers' general manager, who has failed to build a championship-contending roster around Bryant in Los Angeles. That would be the kind of messy, front-office meddling that gave Magic Johnson a bad name during his early days in Los Angeles and got Michael Jordan tagged as impossible in Chicago.

But when someone of Bryant's wattage demands a trade, as he initially did yesterday - after saying all week that he wanted to wear Forum Blue and Gold the rest of his days - he doesn't have to. That is an unspoken gauntlet, thrown at the feet of owner Jerry Buss: Kupchak goes, or me.

Poll

Should the 76ers try to trade for Kobe Bryant?

(Bet the commish is delighted that Bryant, and not the conference championships, is the topic around NBA water coolers today.)

Bryant is too smart, too familiar with NBA finances, too fond of the franchise that gave him his start, too aware of his singular, devastating talent to know that there is no way on God's green earth that the Lakers could deal him. He brings too much loot to their coffers and is too vital to their franchise - and to the city - for them to get anything approaching true value in return.

And this is why the initial trade demand, in retrospect, seemed to be more of a warning than a true request. In two years, Bryant can opt out of his contract, leaving $47,840,625 on the table but gaining his freedom. He will be only 31, and each of the 29 other teams would line up for his services.

Two years gives Buss a realistic chance to turn the franchise around. It gives him two years to take a shot at, say, a Kenyon Martin or some other high-priced but questionable talent that Phil Jackson might be able to mold around Kobe, and it gives Buss two years to try to lure Jerry West out of retirement.

"I'm not looking for a job," West reiterated by phone yesterday from Orlando, Fla., where he was at the NBA predraft camp, before Bryant's trade demand became public. "I have no intentions at this point in time to have a job with anyone . . . it's highly unlikely I'll ever work again."

But if Kupchak is no longer GM, West would be free to make a triumphant return without having to walk over the body of his friend and protege, and the organization - which has splintered into a thousand pieces since West left - would begin to have something again approaching stability. (By the way, if you think Bryant is the only one in the organization who wants West back, you're crazy.)

There's no reason to doubt Bryant's version of the events of 2004, when he says that Buss informed him that the Lakers would not put any more money into an aging Shaq. But that story only provides Kobe with plausible deniability when it comes to Shaq's departure, not a free pass. And the claim of a team insider this week that Bryant pushed O'Neal out is hardly reason enough for Bryant to be so publicly vexed.

One would imagine that if Kobe really wanted to continue his reign with O'Neal as the one-twoest of NBA punches, he would have told Buss right then and there, 'Oh, yeah? Well, you have no shot at keeping me if you don't take care of the Big Fella.' Or threats to that effect.

I'm not at all upset with Bryant for saying what he's saying and trying to do. He is an assassin (meant in the most complimentary way) who cares only about winning, and the Lakers have been amazingly inept at surrounding him with quality talent. If they thought teenage center Andrew Bynum was so worth the wait that they wouldn't deal him last February at the trade deadline for Jason Kidd, then they should trade Kobe and start building around Bynum at once.

You know, a rebuilding team needs lots of pieces, and the Lakers have only one first-round pick this year. Anybody got two or three other firsts, and a really terrific point guard, and a solid if not spectacular center who's probably more of a power forward that they're not doing anything with?


David Aldridge |

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Contact staff writer David Aldridge at 215-854-5516 or daldridge@phillynews.com.