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Posted: Monday March 22, 2010 2:51PM; Updated: Tuesday March 23, 2010 9:43AM
Frank Hughes
Frank Hughes>INSIDE THE NBA

Will Kobe join free-agent circus?

Story Highlights

Kobe Bryant, who has talked extension with the Lakers, can opt out this summer

The Knicks could target Kobe if he is on the market and LeBron stays in Cleveland

In other news, Chris Paul's return is good for the Hornets, bad for one rookie

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Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant could opt out of the final year of his contract with the Lakers.
P.A. Molumby/NBAE via Getty Images

Though the focus of this summer's free agency is squarely on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a theory is circulating through NBA circles that involves another MVP candidate.

Because it seems a foregone conclusion that Kobe Bryant will return to the Lakers for the final year of his contract, his name has rarely been mentioned alongside other stars potentially on the move.

But as coach Phil Jackson's contract situation continues to drag on, and as Bryant has failed to sign an extension that would allow him to end his career as a Laker, some executives are beginning to speculate that if Bryant believes the team is no longer willing to commit financially to success, he may opt out of the final year of his contract and go elsewhere.

The primary destination: New York.

"I could see that happening," one general manager told SI.com. "But I couldn't see both Kobe and LeBron ending up in New York at the same time. Two alpha personalities are not going to be able to play together."

Perhaps, but if James stays in Cleveland, the Knicks could possibly put together a lineup that features Bryant, Bosh, Tracy McGrady (if he re-signs for a fraction of his $22.5 million salary), Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.

As difficult as it is to imagine, landing Bryant would be plan B for New York. Based on their actions, the Knicks have made it clear their first option in the 2010 free-agent bonanza is James. The 25-year-old is at the height of his career -- a career that seemingly has no bounds -- and he's used his star power to leverage multiple lucrative marketing opportunities. A perfect fit for Madison Avenue.

As for Bryant, as well as he continues to play, his 31-year-old body is sure to catch up to him soon. Bryant, in his 14th season, has gone to the NBA Finals six times, winning four. The 159 playoff games he has played constitute two additional seasons, not to mention the international games in which he has participated for the U.S. Olympic team.

"He does so much for us, it takes a lot out of him," teammate Derek Fisher said. "So he has to come to the games earlier so that he can get his workouts in and get wrapped up in time. But that's what happens when you get a little bit older. That's the part he won't necessarily give in to. That's the part he's not yet ready to admit. Got to get your body going a little bit earlier."

Bryant's value, regardless of age, is undeniable. And when paired with a second, younger star, Bryant is a good second option if the Knicks -- who have unloaded several contracts to reserve more than $30 million in salary-cap space -- cannot lure LeBron.

What's more, Bryant has close ties with coach Mike D'Antoni, who played in Italy with Kobe's father, Joe. Kobe grew up watching D'Antoni, then considered Italy's Michael Jordan.

Bryant has avoided discussing his ability to opt out of his contract this season. He took enough of a hit when he asked to be traded in 2007 and does not want to raise that type of distraction again as the Lakers attempt to repeat.

The primary reason Bryant would choose not to leave, besides the fact that he has spent his entire career with Los Angeles, is that if he opts out of his final year, he could sacrifice more than $8 million by taking a $16.5 million first-year salary with the Knicks, as well as the money he could lose in raises by signing an extension with the Lakers.

However, he also could sign a five-year deal for the remainder of his career, however long that is. Over the past few seasons, he said he cannot envision playing to pursue Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record of 38,387 points. Bryant, who has scored at least 2,200 points in each of the previous four seasons, has 25,612.

In December, Pau Gasol signed a contract extension with the Lakers through 2013-14. At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported that Bryant's negotiations on a three-year, extension worth up to $91 million were going well. But he has yet to sign the deal.

Perhaps owner Jerry Buss is waiting to see if the Lakers win another title before committing to Jackson, who is making a reported $12 million this season. Perhaps Bryant is waiting for Buss to commit to Jackson before he commits to Buss.

And perhaps this is where the Knicks can take advantage.

Bosh, for one, said he cannot see the Lakers putting Bryant in a position where he would want to leave, no matter how little Buss likes spending money on anything other than player salaries.

"I doubt they'll piss off Kobe," Bosh said. "That would be a bad decision. And I don't think they are bad business people. Would you let Kobe go?"

But what if Bryant's leaving is not a Lakers decision?

"Yeah, it is their decision," Bosh said. "He says what he wants and I think it is on them to meet his demands. They are not bad business people; I doubt they'll let him go."

News and views

• New Orleans point guard Chris Paul has been working out hard with assistant coach Robert Pack before games and looks to be on the precipice of returning from surgery to repair a torn meniscus, perhaps as early as Monday against Dallas.

That is good news for the Hornets, who have gone 3-12 in his absence over the past few weeks. But it's bad news for rookie Darren Collison, who emerged as a bona fide talent despite his diminutive stature. Since Jan. 30, when he began his second stint as a fill-in starter for an injured Paul, Collison has averaged 19.3 points and 9.8 assists -- close to the 20.4 points and 11.2 assists that earned Paul an All-Star nod this season.

"Darren has played really well," Hornet coach Jeff Bower said. "His consistency through this situation is not common for a young guard. He saw that we had a need when Chris went down and took advantage of the opportunity. We'll look at our rotation when Chris returns. It gives us so much more flexibility, increase in athleticism, skills, talent. It is a great situation for us."

Bower chooses to view the positives aspects of the situation. But it is hard for a young player trying to establish himself in the eyes of his peers to go from the productivity that Collison has displayed to a backup with limited minutes.

Bower may have to play Paul and Collison together at times, which will be interesting because few teams use two 6-footers in the backcourt together.

"We will use all the talents of all those guys," Bower said. "Chris can be pretty dynamic as a scorer with Darren Collison. It should make us pretty effective in guarding the ball. We should be able to pressure the ball and contain the ball very well. I look at it as what type of positives it creates for us."

Bower, the team's general manager who took over as coach when he fired Byron Scott in November, said a decision on his coaching future has not yet been made.

"It is something we are going to wait until the year is over and all sit down and discuss," Bower said. "We have not made any decisions or discussed it. I've loved working with these guys and I've enjoyed this process we have gone through."

• When the Lakers were in Golden State last week, the Warriors had the opportunity to tie the game at the end with a three-pointer. Coming out of a timeout, Warriors rookie Stephen Curry walked past Kobe and asked, "You worried?"

Bryant, who has seen his share of pressure situations and hit six game-winners this season, sneered at the youngster.

"Worried?" he said. "Hit the three-pointer to tie the game and then I'll show you who should be worried. Worried?"

Curry and Monta Ellis both missed three-pointers in the final seconds.

• When I covered the NFL, I once attended the owners' meetings at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. During a break, I was sitting on a bench next to San Francisco 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan, watching the waves and talking about life and the NFL.

Eventually, his wife came and sat next to us and commented just how nice it was to actually spend a little time with her husband. Over the next 20 minutes, she detailed how difficult it was to raise young children with a husband who spends so much time at the office. They never went on family vacations because during the NFL season he couldn't, and the offseason was when he did most of his real work.

McCloughan felt bad but was unapologetic. You can't have one of 32 of some of the most coveted jobs in the world, he told his wife, and then rest on your laurels once you get the position of your dreams. You have to work even harder, he said.

It made me sad to see that McCloughan was relieved of his position as the Niners' GM last week to focus on personal issues, showing yet again how the demands of professional sports are overlooked for the glamour and riches that come with working in the industry.

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