Before the anticipated 2010 free-agent bonanza that could include
I'm talking about
It seems like only yesterday that Bryant had the city of Los Angeles holding its collective breath while he debated his future. In July 2004, Bryant was the subject of daily speculation as he kept the Lakers waiting while flirting with the Bulls, Nuggets, Knicks and (gulp) crosstown Clippers as a free agent.
In the end, Bryant elected to remain a Laker, a decision that initially looked dubious -- with the lottery season in 2005, the back-to-back first-round exits in '06 and '07 and the will-he-or-won't-he-be-traded saga last offseason -- but now has paid major dividends, as the Lakers are the defending conference champions and a favorite to win the NBA title.
But as Los Angeles prepares to begin a training camp that will be filled with more love than Woodstock (Kobe will praise
"He's going to opt out," an Eastern Conference general manager said. "He's going to want to see what the market is. He's going to want to flex his muscles."
Even if Kobe does opt out, however, very few executives believe that he would leave the Lakers, who would be able to offer him a six-year deal worth about $150 million.
"He will definitely re-sign," an East personnel executive said. "This isn't five years ago. He's the unquestioned leader of an elite team and he's playing in a city that loves him."
If Bryant were determined to sign elsewhere, he would face a limited market. Based on a projected 2009-2010 salary cap of $61-62 million, and the potential renouncing of certain players, only a handful of teams will have the cap space to make Bryant a realistic offer (in addition to the overseas option):
• Oklahoma City: No chance. The Thunder could have $25 million in cap space next year, but they have a young roster and are primed for rebuilding. It's hard to see Bryant's leaving a contender in Los Angeles for a team in transition in a much smaller market.
• Portland: Intriguing but doubtful. To be sure, adding Bryant to an up-and-coming team built around
Moreover, a sizable chunk of the Blazers' cap space depends on the future of
• Memphis: See Oklahoma City. While the Grizzlies have the potential for about $20 million in cap space, Bryant isn't about to leave L.A. for a chance to tutor
• Europe: The summer buzz centered on the tantalizing possibility that a first-tier NBA star like Bryant could be lured to Europe by a $50 million annual salary. "Fifty million is a little ridiculous," the East general manager said. "Thirty million is probably the limit. But if that's a $30 million net [after taxes] salary for one season, that's the same as a $60 million contract in the U.S."
While Bryant seems like the perfect candidate for a European excursion -- he lived in Italy for seven years as a youngster, speaks fluent Italian and has extraordinary worldwide appeal -- it's doubtful that he would seriously consider a move. More than any player in the NBA today, Bryant defines his career by championships (he has three). And if he remains with the Lakers, he has a legitimate shot to make a run at