Despite facing an Aug. 27 sexual assault trial, Kobe Bryant is expected to be the most vigorously pursued player when NBA free agency begins today. A half dozen teams are expected to try to lure the six-time all-star from the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Teams are lining up to get him," said Ernie Grunfeld, the Washington Wizards' president of basketball operations. "He's a franchise player."
Bryant is scheduled to stand trial in Eagle, Colo., on charges that he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old hotel worker. If convicted, Bryant could be sentenced to between four years and life in prison.
The impending trial hasn't kept the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets and other teams from pursuing him. The Lakers can offer Bryant the most money. NBA rules state that a player's current team can offer up to a seven-year contract with 12.5 percent annual increases in salary. Other clubs can offer a maximum six-year deal with 10 percent increases.
If Bryant is convicted, his contract would be voided.
Forwards Rasheed Wallace (Detroit Pistons) and Kenyon Martin (New Jersey Nets) and guard Steve Nash (Dallas Mavericks) are among the other top players available beginning today, the start of the two-week period when NBA teams are allowed to court free agents. None can be signed until July 14.
Overall, the level of talent available is good at the top, said Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Billy King, but not as deep as in 2000, when Tracy McGrady, Tim Duncan and Grant Hill tested the free agent market.
"There are still some guys out there that can help your team, but it's without the max-contract stars of a few years ago," King said.
The NBA champion Pistons, who acquired Wallace from the Atlanta Hawks and as a result joined the league's elite teams, repeatedly have said that they plan to keep the mercurial 6-foot-11 forward, and they have the money to do it.
Paying Wallace to stay may mean that the Pistons have too few dollars to keep reserve forward-center Mehmet Okur.
The 6-11 Okur, who averaged 9.6 points and 5.9 rebounds in 22 minutes last season, is expected to be pursued by Utah, Denver, Atlanta and Phoenix. In only his second NBA season, Okur is a big man who can shoot jumpers and score near the basket.
"Detroit wants him back but the only way they could do it would be to renounce Rasheed Wallace," said Marc Fleisher, Okur's agent. "I don't see them doing that."
The only offer the Pistons could make Okur is the mid-level amount of $5.1 million and that is unlikely going to be enough to compete with other teams' offers.
The Nets, purchased this year by New York-based builder Bruce Ratner, may be tightening the purse strings at a time when Martin, an all-star power forward, is asking for a maximum contract of six years and $85 million.
As for the Wizards, who acquired veteran forward Antawn Jamison from Dallas last week for Christian Laettner, Jerry Stackhouse and their top draft pick, they have little money to vie for marquee players, said Grunfeld.
"We don't have the kind of salary cap room to get those types of players," he said.
The Wizards will have the league-allotted exceptions of $5.1 million and $1.5 million to use in free agency. But one Eastern Conference general manager said not to "count Ernie out. He loves to deal."
Bryant filed for free agency after a year of feuding with Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal and then-coach Phil Jackson.
Since the Lakers acquired his rights from the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, they have won three NBA championships, four Western Conference titles and 70 percent of their regular season games (435-189). Three times he was named to the annual all-NBA team.
But some around the league wonder how Bryant will fare without O'Neal. They question whether Bryant will be able to find as many gaps in defenses to slice through without the 7-1, 340-pound O'Neal.
"Kobe is a heck of a player," said one Western Conference assistant coach. "But the Lakers don't win three championships without Shaq. . . . O'Neal gave Kobe a lot more space and allowed him more room to work because their opponents needed so many people to guard him."
In the past two seasons, the talented pair quarreled over Bryant's shot selection, control of the team and O'Neal's offseason conditioning.
O'Neal demanded a trade last month after Lakers management began to waver on whether it wanted the center back after his contract expires next season.
O'Neal and Bryant had plenty of star power. Wherever the Lakers traveled last season, fans were sure to flock. The club attracted more fans to its opponents' arenas than any other team. Average attendance for the Lakers' road games last season was 19,380, which eclipsed even the drawing power of rookie sensation LeBron James.
With James as the attraction, the Cleveland Cavaliers saw an average road attendance of 18,755.