The Lakers' precocious Kobe Bryant is itching to start—but where?
When 184 NBA players voted on the proposed collective bargaining agreement two weeks ago, only five cast their ballots to reject the deal. One of them was Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' third-year wunderkind, who can be a free agent next summer. Under the old deal Bryant would have commanded a contract in the realm of seven years for $100 million. Under the terms of the new agreement Bryant will have to settle for a maximum starting point of $9 million a season with annual raises of no more than 12.5%. Bryant's commitment to the union's bargaining committee—and to his agent, Arn Tellem, who branded the deal "a joke"—was steadfast.
"I felt good about what I did," Bryant says. "I can live with my decision. I hope everybody else can."
Says Tellem about his client, who turned 20 in August, "Kobe's not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. Down the road, I think he'll be a strong union leader, not like some of these other guys who run for the hills."
Now that play is about to resume, Bryant's immediate concern is where he fits in the Lakers' rotation. This year will be a pivotal one for L.A., which should have an excellent shot at grabbing the first brass ring of the post-Jordan era. "We're hoping this is the year it all falls into place for Kobe," says Lakers coach Del Harris, who will undoubtedly be the one to suffer if it doesn't. "He's such an exciting player. I think he's ready to go beyond the scoring and get his teammates involved."
Which brings up Harris's toughest decision: Where will Bryant play? Having been used primarily as a sixth man, coming in at both guard slots and at small forward, Bryant has informed the Lakers he wants to be a starter. That's conceivable, but it depends on how the Lakers' roster shapes up after the leaguewide frenzy of trades and free-agent signings that was to begin this week. It is no secret that LA's top priority was to acquire a rugged power forward. LA's first choice was free agent Tom Gugliotta, but because the Lakers are already over the salary cap, his previous team, the Timberwolves, would have to sign him and then deal him to the Lakers for a package that included forward- center Elden Campbell.
The Lakers would have been happy to get veteran Charles Oakley from the Raptors, but he was virtually untradable unless Toronto could get under the salary cap and eliminate his base-year status, which would only permit a trade for a player or players earning much less. ( Oakley was due to make $10 million this season.)
If they acquired a power forward with muscle, the Lakers could afford to start the 6'7", 210-pound Bryant at the three slot even though he gets pushed around in traffic and is a below-average rebounder (3.1 average in '97-98).
Bryant, who averaged 15.4 points last season, is a natural shooting guard, but LA isn't keen on dealing its veteran at that spot, Eddie Jones, though he has drawn plenty of interest from around the league. It's possible that Bryant could beat out Derek Fisher for the starting point-guard job, but it doesn't figure that Kobe (2.5 assists per game last season) would prosper in a pass-first, shoot-second role.
Besides, free-agent point guard Kevin Johnson, a three-time All-Star, has told the Lakers he'd love to play for them and would even take a pay cut from last season's $8 million salary with the Suns to fit into L.A.'s $1.75 million salary-cap exception. (Sources say KJ gave the Rockets the same speech.) One thing is certain: KJ is willing to put off his retirement to play for a contender.