By Michael Wilbon
Friday, November 2, 2007
When the Chicago Bulls announced yesterday that they were pulling out of the Trade-for-Kobe sweepstakes, my mind went to the one player in the NBA the Los Angeles Lakers should want in exchange for Kobe Bryant.
If I ran the Lakers and I was going to accommodate Kobe and trade him, there's only one player who would be on my radar, a player who could sell a ticket or two in Los Angeles, a player who can score nearly as much as Kobe, who's younger than Kobe, who might get along with the existing Lakers better than Kobe does.
And that, boys and girls, would be Gilbert Arenas.
Look, there are only a handful of players who would give the Lakers even close to equal basketball value for Kobe. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, maybe Tracy McGrady, maybe Carmelo Anthony. It's an elite group. And each of those players, except McGrady, is untouchable to his current team. Well, just a hair outside that group is Arenas. Okay, not one of those guys is to the box office what Kobe is, but if the Lakers trade Kobe they're simply not going to get anything close to that star appeal.
Arenas is from Los Angeles. As much as he has come to love D.C., L.A. is home. Arenas has also said he's going to explore free agency after this season. So if the Bulls are out, it simply makes sense that the Lakers, if they're still trying to trade Kobe, would look to the Wizards and ask about some package that centers on Arenas.
Arenas knows this. He wrote in his blog this week: "For the last couple of weeks people have been calling me saying, 'Are you coming back to L.A.? . . . They're talking about you and Kobe getting traded for each other.' And I'm like, 'Sounds nice . . . NOT!' Nothing against getting traded, but that would be a dumb thing on the part of the team who is accepting me because, don't they know I'm [going to be] a free agent? To all my friends at home who want me to become a Laker, if you have NBA LIVE '08 you can fantasy draft me, because otherwise, I don't think that's happening anytime soon."
Of course, that ignores the point that if the Lakers wanted Arenas they could simply offer him a contract extension.
And it ignores another larger point: The Wizards aren't going to trade Arenas and a couple of other players for Bryant. Team President Ernie Grunfeld has said multiple times, for the record, that the Lakers have not called the Wizards about a Kobe-for-Arenas deal.
That, of course, was before John Paxson, the Bulls GM, announced yesterday, "There's not going to be a deal done." There was the rumor of a three-way trade that would land Ben Gordon and Shawn Marion in Los Angeles, Tyrus Thomas in Phoenix and Bryant in Chicago. There was another rumor that had Gordon and P.J. Brown going to Sacramento, Ben Wallace and Ron Artest to the Lakers and Kobe to Chicago. The rumors were flying so fast and furious, Bulls players were showing the strain before the season-opening loss in New Jersey on Wednesday night. "I think today sends a message to our players that nothing's going to be done," Paxson told reporters in Chicago.
So, what's next? If I was serious about trading Kobe I would call the Wizards about Arenas, who at 25 is four years younger than Kobe and much cheaper at the moment.
And if I ran the Wizards I'd say: Thanks, but no.
Start, as everything does, with the money. Arenas makes $11 million while Kobe makes $21 million, plus gets a 15 percent lump sum in a trade clause. So, the Wizards would have to include at least a couple of other players. Maybe Antawn Jamison or two of the younger players the Lakers probably aren't interested in. Kobe loves Caron Butler, so he probably wouldn't sign off on any deal (Kobe has to approve the trade) that would send Butler back to the Lakers, and the Wizards would be crazy to deal their best two players anyway. If the Wizards did that they'd be the Washington Lakers, a team with nothing more than Kobe.
But this is the dilemma of what to do about Bryant.
He's one of the best three players in the NBA. At 29, he's still in his prime for three or four more seasons. He'll pack your arena every night. And most folks are seduced by the fact that he's won three NBA Finals. Fans, media and basketball executives are all still struck by his physical talent, by his ability to score 50, 60 or 81 points, that he can carry a team for a couple of months and make you think it's a contender.
Of course, Kobe won all those championships with Shaquille O'Neal, and since Shaq was traded, with Kobe's blessing, Kobe hasn't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. Gilbert has. Nothing in the three full seasons Kobe has played without Shaq suggests that Kobe can lift a mediocre team to serious contender. And there's indisputable evidence that in this incarnation as the brilliant but intolerant soloist he's very difficult to play with.
But mostly, it's not about saying no to Kobe as much as it is to saying yes to Arenas. What Arenas has done for public school children the last two years, but particularly last week, is nothing short of heroic. He's become the most popular athlete in town by a million miles. The thousands of dollars he hands out to schools, the jersey giveaways, the random acts of kindness have endeared him to D.C. in a way that was unthinkable when Grunfeld signed him four years ago.
Of course, it would be easier to dismiss the notion of Kobe's availability if Arenas did two things: lead a run to the conference finals and forget about free agency and sign an extension. The only thing that would change my mind about making a deal is if it became evident that Arenas wasn't going to stay in Washington.
But the Wizards believe he's going to stay, that he's the cornerstone around which the club will build a champion. Gilbert says he's not going to Los Angeles other than for summer vacation. And there are NBA executives who feel certain the Lakers danced that dance with the Bulls knowing full well they just wanted to appease Kobe and not really trade him.
Still, strange things happen in the NBA, and it's hard not to wonder what might happen if the phone rings in Grunfeld's office and it's Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak on the other end.