Editor's note: Every Wednesday, senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on the league in "Slams and Dunks."
NEW YORK -- Maybe the reception won't be so hostile. Wednesday night brings Kobe Bryant to Gotham for his only appearance of the season at Madison Square Garden, where there figures to be more than a few dreamers inside, praying that the next time Kobe plays there it will somehow be as a Knick. Maybe the fans will play into the fantasy with a welcome bordering on friendly.
OK, maybe not.
Either way, the notion of Kobe as a Knick is indeed fantasy. The Lakers say they aren't trading Bryant and I believe them. Not in a multi-player swap for Allan Houston. Not for Orlando's Tracy McGrady. Not for anything Jerry West's Memphis Grizzlies can conceivably offer. Not as long as Jerry Buss is the Lakers' owner. Buss is convinced that he'll be able to re-sign his self-anointed son and I don't dispute that, either.
You have to ask, just in case: Who's the favorite to land Bryant if he A) retains his innocence through the Colorado court system and B) really does decide to leave in the summer?
Answer: It really is the Clippers, people.
Assuming Bryant opts out to test free agency, as expected, no option makes as much sense for him as Clipperdom, strange as that sounds. It would be a drastic change, but not as drastic as moving his family to a totally new environment. It would thrust him straight into open conflict with Shaquille O'Neal and the franchise he helped restore to glory, but with some quality (and familiar) help to smooth the transition.
Bryant and the Clippers' Corey Maggette share an agent (Rob Pelinka) and a friendship -- Corey and Kobe had some contact after Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault. Bryant also has a bit of a relationship already with new Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, who played with Bryant's father in Philadelphia.
The Clippers, furthermore, are the only team on the list of clubs expected to have sufficient salary-cap room in the offseason that will appeal to Bryant. Denver is out for obvious reasons. Utah won't pique his interest and neither will San Antonio, because leaving Shaq for Tim Duncan doesn't give Bryant the opportunity to front a championship team.
Going to the Clips, by contrast, gives Bryant the chance to be the hero that undoes two decades of destructive stewardship by owner Donald Sterling. He'd also be giving the NBA an intracity rivalry for the ages. Does anyone else think Kobe, Maggette and Elton Brand would be a pretty decent trio to start with?
Kobe-to-Clipperdom is also a fantasy notion, true, but it's less of a fantasy than any of the other Kobe Leaves Lakers scenarios. Just file it away for future consideration. When Sterling let Lamar Odom go to Miami, under the premise that the Clips could use that money to sign somebody better, I laughed as loud as anyone. Yet even I, a well-schooled Clippers skeptic, have faith that Sterling would spend for Bryant.
If only Bryant.
There's no question that Doc Rivers is absorbing far more blame than he deserves for Orlando's 1-10 start. There's no disputing Doc's contention that he overachieved for years and only underachieved for a handful of games. There's no way general manager John Gabriel and superstar Tracy McGrady should emerge from the Rivers' firing unscathed.
That said ...
Firing Gabriel now wouldn't have any on-court impact for the Magic. That's undoubtedly why he was spared now, in the name of chaos limitation. Orlando fired Rivers because that was the only course of action available to spark some immediate improvement, since Gabriel also has nothing to offer in trades to get McGrady more assistance.
Yet the outrage in Orlando -- that Gabriel didn't go, too -- could well be short-lived. It's difficult to see how Gabriel will survive at season's end.
Long considered one of the league's best executives, Gabriel has suffered from a string of misses in recent years, all since the free-agent defection of Shaq in 1996 and many of them tied to the signing of Grant Hill in 2000. After losing Shaq and missing out on Tim Duncan, Gabriel parted with Ben Wallace in the deal to get Hill and also dumped the salaries of Maggette and Bo Outlaw to make the Hill move possible. Matt Harpring is another recent Magic castoff.
Orlando's recent draft record is even worse. The Magic isn't the only team that passed on Tony Parker, Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas, but the picks made instead of those gents don't make for pleasant reading: Steven Hunter, Jeryl Sasser and Omar Cook.
Rivers' next coaching stop? The Knicks and Bulls are the trendy choices, but I'm going with the Hawks. Atlanta has new owners coming in who are trying to reconnect with the few Hawks fans left out there, which helps explain why Dominique Wilkins is on the verge of a more prominent front-office role with the new regime. 'Nique will certainly push for hiring Rivers, and it's a move -- albeit with nothing expected until after the season -- that would please the locals who fumed when the Hawks passed on hiring Doc before the Magic did.
It's easier to pinpoint the losers in the NBA's realignment scheme than the winners. That's because there are (at least) three openly unhappy teams: Memphis, Minnesota and West-bound New Orleans.
Winners? The East as a whole is the big winner, getting expansion Charlotte to take the big and athletic Hornets' place, but how about Washington? It might not even take a winning record to win that new Southeast Division next season, and winning the division guarantees a playoff spot even if such a team didn't have one of the league's eight-best records. Washington figures to be the favorite in a Southeast that also houses Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and the expansion Bobcats.
Byron Scott is dealing with beaucoup issues with the Nets, not just injuries. New Jersey has been plagued by poor shooting, inconsistent energy, countless sale rumors, constant speculation about Scott's lame-duck status and a fast break that has been slowed regularly.
The Nets' struggles at home, though, might be more distressing than anything. For two seasons, New Jersey has always been able to bank on success there, even in a half-empty building.
Granted, the first two of their four home losses so far came with Kenyon Martin sidelined. Yet Martin was there Tuesday night when the Nets fell to the Hornets to drop to 2-4 at Continental Airlines Arena. Compare that to last season's 18-1 start at home, and the 33-8 home record in each of the past two seasons.
You can say that it's early, but you can also say with conviction that the Nets aren't a good enough road team to be as lackluster at home as they've been so far.
Since we're throwing out maybes and fantasies, here's another:
Maybe Kobe could even insist that the Clippers finally move to Anaheim, so he can motorcycle in from Newport Beach to every home game. For Kobe, I think Sterling would listen to anything.
OK, maybe not.