It is a solution so breathtaking in its simplicity, so amazingly easy in its execution, that it's a wonder that a mind more advanced than mine hasn't stumbled upon it before.
At season's end, Kobe for T-Mac.
No future, lottery-protected draft picks. No cash switching hands from one millionaire's pockets to another's. No marginal throw-ins to make the deal work cap-wise. It works. That's the beauty part.
Kobe Bryant's 2003-04 salary: $13.5 mil.
Tracy McGrady's: $13.279 mil.
Well within the 15 percent (plus $100,000) rule for matching salaries for a trade. No base-year compensation issues, either; both are well into their respective contracts, their base years long having since expired.
And they play the same position, for Sidney Moncrief's sake!
Of course, the big, red flashing light of Kobe's impending trial makes this scenario -- at least until next summer -- totally undoable. If he's found guilty of sexual assault, I'm quite aware that this will all be moot and Kobe will be in prison. But let's say Kobe is found innocent, or otherwise is a free man as of July 2004 ...
Of course, neither team would do it now. The season's just started, and there is still a chance that the Lakers can leave the mental wreckage of September and October behind and reach their full potential. But only the most ardent Lakers supporter (Mr. Nicholson, please sit down) could possibly now believe, after that neutron bomb of an interview Kobe gave Jim Gray this week, that Kobe's stay in LaLa has more than a few months remaining. Like Shaquille O'Neal in Orlando, Kobe has had his fill of his first NBA town. He's won his championships, made his money. He has no more attachment to the city than a tourist at Disneyland. (Hint: He actually lives much closer to Disneyland, in Anaheim, 50 miles down the road, than the Staples Center, in downtown L.A.) He is not a part of the Hollywood scene. He has no crew, no group of young movie star friends or hip-hoppers that he hangs out with, no desire to be seen by the paparazzi.
You may know all, or most, of that already. What you probably don't know is the other half of this equation is just as plausible, for the relationship between young T-Mac and the Magic is, if not at the breaking point, bending much further back than a healthy one should. Reliable eyes tell me that while T-Mac is a more willing participant in workouts than he was when he first arrived, Doc Rivers is growing weary of T-Mac's diva act in practice (when his balky back allows him to practice). Meanwhile, T-Mac is sick of waiting for all the help that management was supposed to get him when he left Toronto -- it's hard for him to say "Grant Hill" without scowling -- and the team's moves this summer have only mildly impressed him. (One of the few bigs that could have really helped Orlando next season, New Orleans center Jamaal Magloire, broke Magic hearts -- and the tickers of several other teams -- by signing a three-year extension with the Hornets this week.)
I know that Kobe says he wants to explore free agency. But he's a smart guy and he knows who's going to have the big purse strings next summer. Given what we know about Utah owner Larry Miller (and what we know so far about Kobe's dealings at that spa), do you think he'd give the green light to bringing Kobe into MormonLand? Do you think that the Nuggets will be able to offer Kobe multiple millions to play an hour or so from Eagle County? Does anyone really think that after matching offers for Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, Donald Sterling is going to keep the tap on long enough to allow the Clippers to make the kind of offer necessary to get Kobe to change locker rooms at Staples?
Of course, the Logo would love to bring Kobe to Memphis. Jerry West may be the one guy in the NBA that Kobe actually listens to. But unless he can get someone to take Bo Outlaw ($6.585 million on the cap next season; $6 million actual cash salary) or Lorenzen Wright ($7.15 mil next season) off his hands for nothing, he's stuck at more than $45 million committed for next year, not nearly enough to make Kobe an offer (even assuming a generous bump up in the cap as the TV money kicks in). And that doesn't count the extension West is going to have to give Pau Gasol soon.
T-Mac is a superstar, a dyed-in-the-wool, I-Have-My-Own-Shoe-That-Sells-Incredibly-Well superstar. Who just happens to be incredibly tight with a certain Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal. They both have residences in the famed Isleworth gated community in Orlando, home to Tiger and other superstars of sport, stage and screen. And Arn Tellem, T-Mac's agent, has been conspiring quietly for years to figure out a way to get T-Mac out west, where his game would fit like a glove in the triangle. Can you imagine the possibilities of T-Mac's Pippenesque postup skills and passing ability meshed with the Diesel holding court in the paint?
You may ask: What possible reason would the Magic have for moving the league's No. 1 (or 1A, depending on who you ask) player, even if it brings the league's 1A (or No. 1) player back in return?
Well, practicality, for one. T-Mac does have an out clause following the 2004-05 season, and though it would be a gamble for him to use it with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire (he'd leave $32.5 million on the table), can Orlando really afford to call his bluff? Sure, the Magic have a couple of years to get McGrady's signature on an extension, but Orlando can't repeat the same disastrous process it followed in 1996, when it tried negotiating with Shaq, only to see him ultimately walk for nothing. Orlando cannot allow another cunning GM (or the same one) to have a year clearing enough cap room to make a run at T-Mac after '05.
Getting Kobe would also be a futures investment for the Magic. If the franchise is ever going to get a new building to replace the T.D. Waterhouse Centre, it's going to need a superstar player under contract to entice anyone to buy tickets and suites. In a year, if Kobe is still a free man, the nasty headlines will have begun to fade away, and Orlando won't have as much trouble selling its more conservative fan base to buy Bryant.
And if you're Kobe, what is more enticing? Struggling to lift the Clippers or Jazz (If Kobe breaks off plays in the triangle, what would he do to poor Jerry Sloan?) or Nuggets not only to respectability, but past the West's ultra-loaded elite? Or joining a reasonably talented supporting cast in Orlando and fighting the Nets, Pacers and Pistons for a shot at the Finals? His chances for a Shaq-less title are much better coming out of the East.
I tried to shoot holes in this before writing, because if there's one thing I hate, it's ridiculous trade proposals. You get enough of those from Knicks fans. But this one stands up to the light. It makes sense. An old-fashioned blockbuster, superstar for superstar, healing each other's team, giving the game's two best players a fresh start and still giving them a chance to win championships.
Mr. Buss. Mr. DeVos. Think about it.
How Jeff's brother got the job
OK, he did tell his wife. But that was it.
"When he mentioned it on Wednesday," Stan Van Gundy recalled, "to be honest, I listened. I could tell he was serious. But I still didn't really believe it. He's been at that point a couple of times before, when he's told me to get ready."
So Stan Van Gundy told his wife on Wednesday what Pat Riley told him, that Riles was about ready to hang it up. Stan didn't tell his brother Jeff, who was in Houston moaning about his new team's terrible defense, or his father Bill, who now lives just a few miles away in a Miami suburb. The father and the sons are basketball lifers all, the sons back to their days at Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif. (They were familiar there with the Turner Boys, Norv and Ron, who went on to coaching renown in college and pro football), and they knew that there would come a time relatively soon when Stan would be in charge of the Heat -- Riles had made the line of succession quite clear when those Mike Fratello rumors starting cropping up last year. But it wasn't time yet.
And suddenly, it was time.
"I asked him, 'Are you sure?,' " Stan Van Gundy said. "He said, 'It's time.' He said he had been thinking about it for some time. I didn't see it coming."
No one saw it coming, which is why it was so strange, when Pat Riley left the coaching chair. Four days before the start of the regular season -- four days before he could throw Lamar Odom and Dwyane Wade out there to see what they could do -- Riles said enough and left the reins to the shocked 43-year-old Van Gundy. It made cynics -- OK, me -- wonder why Riles did it when he did it. He swears he's not sick. But why not in the summer? Is it because in the summer, Larry Brown and Rick Carlisle and others were still out there and available, and that even Riles wouldn't have been able to keep owner Micky Arison from courting them?
Stan Van Gundy doesn't know, nor does he care.
"A lot of people get their job in the middle of the season," he said. "The timing is what it is. Guys like me who are assistants, you take it when you can get it. Now, it's (the players) getting over the shock of everything. It's them investing emotionally and committing to what's going on."
I have heard that Odom -- personally wooed by Riles and Arison for four days before they even talked about money -- is really upset that Riley walked away. (Yeah, I know, he's still the team president, but you know that players, traditionally, don't get tight with their team presidents.) And Van Gundy admits that some of the players "were bothered by it." But in the next sentence, he points out that coaches come and go all the time, and players deal with it, so Van Gundy figures these players will deal with it and come around in time.
"I'm sure there were guys who wanted to play for Pat, and who would rather play for Pat," he says. "But I've sensed a lot of respect from them. I'm not going to stand in front of them and ask for their respect. You get respect by earning it."
It would have been tough for Riley or any other coach to make the Heat more than they are this season -- full of potential, but very young and very short. They have nine players on their roster that are 25 or younger, and three -- including Odom -- that are 23 or younger. And they only have one player that's a 7-footer -- ex-Timberwolf Loren Woods. But Van Gundy says he will coach the Heat pretty much the same way that Riley would have, with the same emphasis on help defense. He hopes he can get two or three years with this group, to see what develops. And he says he won't mind if Riley sits in on practice, as he said he would. "He was my boss before," Van Gundy says, "and he is my boss now."
It will be a struggle for Van Gundy to make the Heat into contenders, but he's ready to see what he can do. Stan's Heat will play Jeff's Rockets in two weeks. You can bet Bill Van Gundy will be in the crowd.
"It's astounding," Stan says. "I'm sure there's a lot of people we grew up with that are saying, 'Are you kidding me?' "
Around the League
Meanwhile, the other Van Gundy's expectations in Houston have already led to the loss of a first-grader from Moochie Norris's frame. Norris went from 215 pounds to 180 during the offseason. "I'm really proud of Moochie," Jeff Van Gundy said. "I'm really proud of him for all the effort he's put in. And he's become more serious, too, about basketball. You know, I know he has a wonderful personality. But when you're known more from your personality than your game, you know your game needs attention." ... The Suns are still trying to find a taker for Brevin Knight. It wouldn't surprise me if they place a call to Washington to see if the Wizards would part with Jahidi White, who's been beaten out for playing time by Etan Thomas. The Wiz would love to get rid of a couple of long-term contracts in hopes of being a free-agency player in the summer of '05. Knight's $5 million expires after this season.
Don't count Karl Malone among those who think the Jazz are going to fall off the face of the earth without himself and John Stockton. "There's about two or three guys there, starting with Jerry Sloan, and if he has anything to do with it, they're not going to hand you anything," Malone said. "He's gonna have those guys ready to play. I know Coach Sloan and I know the coaching staff he's got. I know their strength coach. You're going to have to beat them. I can just tell you that right now. So if you think they are (terrible), you're going to be in for a rude awakening, because he's going to have them ready to play." Mailman also talks regularly on the phone with John Stockton, who otherwise, to no one's surprise, has disappeared from public view. "He's doing great," Malone said. "I talked to him the other day and he was in the weight room working out. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'Ah, just working out.' He has a problem with some trees of his. Some bugs, some pine beetles in his trees. So he was trying to get that solved. But I miss him."