Buss still uncertain about Bryant's plans

LOS ANGELES -- Lakers owner Jerry Buss has not spoken to Kobe Bryant since the NBA Finals, and he still has no idea -- despite the departure of coach Phil Jackson and the impending trade of Shaquille O'Neal -- whether Bryant will re-sign.

"I would like to talk to him in the next day or two. I've asked to arrange a phone call with his agent," Buss said Monday in a telephone interview from Italy, where he plans to remain for another three weeks.

Bryant met Monday night with both the Lakers and the Clippers in separate meetings at a hotel in Newport Beach. Bryant talked with new Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich and general manager Mitch Kupchak, then with a Clippers contingent believed to include coach Mike Dunleavy and GM Elgin Baylor, The Los Angeles Times reported.

By the time Buss returns from vacation, his franchise could be a shell of the team that lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals last month.

The Lakers hope to learn in the next day or so whether Bryant plans to accept their seven-year, $130 million contract offer or sign with another team. The Los Angeles Clippers have been
mentioned as Bryant's most likely alternate destination.

"I think he's interviewed various teams, I just wanted to get my two cents in there -- hopefully as the last one he talks to. Maybe it will be more effective," Buss said.

The Lakers' decisions to part ways with Jackson and trade O'Neal to Miami have been seen as attempts to placate Bryant, the 25-year-old superstar whose relationships with his fellow superstar and coach deteriorated over the years.

But Buss insisted Bryant was not the driving force behind those moves.

"The decision with Phil and the decision with Shaq was made totally independent of Kobe," Buss said firmly. "Kobe has never at any time ever told me that Phil or Shaq had any influence on his decision where he would like to play."

Bryant's felony sexual assault trial begins Aug. 27 in Colorado, and Buss expects Bryant to be acquitted.

"I just have trouble believing that won't turn out well. I don't have a contingency plan, I never thought I needed one," Buss said.

Rob Pelinka, Bryant's agent, did not return phone messages Monday.

Pelinka has came under criticism from team executives and other agents for his handling of negotiations involving another client, Carlos Boozer.

The Cleveland Cavaliers declined to exercise an option for next season on Boozer's contract, believing he would re-sign for $41
million. Instead, Boozer shocked the Cavs by reaching agreement with the Utah Jazz on a $68 million deal.

The Lakers are not even sure if Pelinka will give them an answer regarding Bryant before the NBA's two-week moratorium on trades and free agent signings ends at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

"My basic selling point [to Bryant] is stay with everyone who loves you," Buss said. "Basically, when he runs out there in a Laker uniform, everybody in that whole arena loves him. I've seen him go out on other floors.

"With Kobe, we're one of the premier teams," Buss said. "Without Kobe, we're really going to have to get busy, make some trades, get ourselves in the free agent market for one of the premier players."

Because of the NBA's moratorium, Buss couldn't comment specifically on the pending O'Neal trade. But he made it clear that O'Neal has played his last game for the Lakers, who are expected to receive Lamar Odom, Brian Grant, Caron Butler and a future
first-round draft pick from the Heat.

O'Neal is under contract for $27.7 million next season and $30.6 million the following season. When O'Neal declined an extension during the season, Buss began thinking of moving the 32-year-old self-proclaimed MDE -- Most Dominant Ever.

On June 17 -- two days after the Lakers lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals -- general manager Mitch Kupchak said he wouldn't trade Bryant under any circumstances, though he wouldn't rule out a
possible deal involving O'Neal.

"I think Mitch made those statements based on his knowledge that Shaq was beginning to ask for a trade," Buss said.

O'Neal made such a request the following day and never backed off, saying later he felt disrespected.

"We were kind of on the fence anyway," Buss said. "We were thinking, `Should we trade him this year, should we keep him?' At some time, we know his asset value is going to decrease, that's completely obvious. The question is, at what point can you trade one asset for other assets and keep the franchise at the top of the heap?"

O'Neal led the Lakers to championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002 -- winning the NBA Finals MVP award each time. He was a near-unanimous choice for the regular-season MVP award in 2000, but missed 15
games in each of the past three seasons with foot and leg-related injuries.

"If you don't make some effort to rejuvenate a team, then you sometimes go to the bottom," Buss said. "That's a very scary, miserable depressing thought to me. The idea was, 'Let's sit back, think about it for a while, let's discuss the thought of a trade.' Before we could reach any definitive answer, Shaq demanded a trade. We said, 'OK, let's do it.'

Buss did admit the thought of trading O'Neal scared him.

"Of course it does," Buss said. "The question is, if I wait until he isn't the most dominating player in the game, will I get adequate replacements? Maybe I'm trading him too soon. I really don't know."

The Lakers were discussing an extension with Jackson but broke off talks in February. Jackson told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Monday he knew at that stage he wouldn't be back next season.

"I can't imagine anybody in the world who did as good a job as he did," Buss said. "Five years seemed to be the appropriate time, not knowing whether he really wanted to continue. I thought it had run its course, so I took action."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.