Is Kobe the prize of 2004?

By Chad Ford
NBA Insider
Send an Email to Chad Ford Monday, January 26
Updated: January 27
9:35 AM ET

Cap space. It's priceless.

That's the mantra being pushed around the NBA as we approach the Feb. 19 trade deadline. The Rasheed Wallace sweepstakes are essentially an attempt by several teams (read: Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit) to dump a big salary or two so they'll have money to burn this summer as they eye the free-agent class of 2004.

Such an approach begs the question: Are there any free agents worth writing home about? And, even more important, will any team have enough cash and a good enough sales pitch to land the ultimate prize -- Kobe Bryant?

Kobe Bryant
Shooting Guard
Los Angeles Lakers

34 21.9 4.9 4.4 .422 .852

Bryant has been hinting all year that he's serious about opting out of his contract and exploring free-agency. He's had issues with coach Phil Jackson and teammate Shaquille O'Neal, and those close to him reportedly feel Bryant is looking for a team of which he can be the leader.

If Kobe had doubts about rejoining the Lakers before, comments by Jackson over the weekend won't help matters. Jackson reiterated that the Lakers were O'Neal's team and that Bryant would have to continue to take a back seat for the next few seasons.

"I think, ultimately, that's going to be one of the understandings about Kobe coming back and being part of the Lakers, is to what extent does he want to be a coachable player in the structure that we have as a team in the present day?" Jackson told the L.A. Daily News. "Which would include Shaq being here. Shaq's going to be the focal point."

"This is what we committed to," Jackson added. "We have (two) more years with Shaquille, and it's $50 million-plus out there that are still going to paid to Shaquille, so that's all part of the package. We're not going anywhere from that. Kobe has complemented Shaq extremely well, when he's wanted to. And there's never been playoff runs like we've had. And so we know that it's possible when we want to get to that point. And that's the direction we're headed this year. We want to get to that point this year."

That, to Insider, sounds a lot like an ultimatum to Kobe. If what everyone is saying about Kobe is true (and, of course, assuming he is acquitted of the charges now against him) teams are going to have a great shot at landing him this summer.

Who? That's the real issue. If last summer was any indication ... things don't look too good. The Spurs were the big players last summer. Unfortunately for San Antonio, its big score was not Jason Kidd. Instead, the Spurs settled for Rasho Nesterovic. The Heat struck out on Elton Brand before nabbing Lamar Odom. The Nuggets claimed Andre Miller from purgatory but had to stop the rebuilding effort there. The Jazz, who had more money than anyone, convinced Corey Maggette and Jason Terry to sign offer sheets but ultimately walked away empty handed.

The common denominator? Last summer just about everything went through Kidd or the Clippers. Unlike the rest of the free agents out there, Clippers free agents are sure thing. Buy 'em a drink and they'll get into bed with anyone. They'll do anything to get out of L.A.

Will this year be any different?

Assuming the cap rises to $45 million, six teams will have enough cap room to make some noise. To get next year's cap figure, Insider took into account a team's committed salaries for '04, free-agent cap holds for players the team is likely to keep, minimum roster holds for teams that have fewer than 11 players under contract, and first-round pick cap holds based on their current standings.

2004 Cap Space
Team Proj. Cap Space
Jazz $30 million
Bobcats $23 million
Nuggets $13-21 million
Clippers $11.8 million
Spurs $11.3 million
Suns $6.5 million
The results? The Jazz, Bobcats and Nuggets will be the only teams with "max" cap room without major adjustments. The Nuggets can increase their cap space to roughly $21 million if Marcus Camby either opts out of his contract or the team decides to waive him before the start of the season. The last year of Camby's contract is not guaranteed if he chooses not to opt out. The Bobcats, although they have the room, have to sign an entire team and are unlikely to go after a big-name free agent.

The Clippers stand at $11.8 million and can increase that cap room to $13.8 million if they choose not to pick up their option on Marko Jaric. The Spurs also have a signficant amount of room, but they have two players in restricted free agency, Emanuel Ginobili and Hedo Turkoglu, that they are interested in re-signing.

The Suns' previously reported $9 million in cap room is lowered by the fact they have two first-round draft picks (their own and the Knicks') that figure to be in the lottery. The cap holds for those two picks should reduce their available cap space by $3-4 million.

The Pistons could be looking at $6 million in cap room but will use it to try to re-sign Mehmet Okur. The Cavaliers and Wizards will have some cap room, but not enough to make a run at a major free agent.

Here's Insider's first peek at the free-agent class of 2004. While the names on the board may leave fans breathless, there's little chance most of these guys ever leave home.

Top 10 2004 Free Agents

Key = (R) = Restricted free agent | (PO) = Player Option

1. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers (PO)
The skinny: Assuming Kobe isn't serving time in Eagle County, Kobe's dilemma is this -- is there enough money out there from a good team to lure him out of L.A.? I can't imagine him playing for the Jazz or Nuggets, based on geography more than the make-up of the team. The Spurs, Suns and, to a lesser extent, the Clippers would be more desirable options. The Spurs would be able to get close, if they give up on everyone else. The Suns would need to dump their two first-round picks or another player to get close to what Kobe will be looking for money-wise. The Clippers could get far enough under the cap to make an offer, but will Kobe come? They would be much better with Kobe in the backcourt, but without a point guard or a center, would they be a championship contender? Sign-and-trades are always possible, but the Lakers are in the driver's seat.

2. Steve Nash, G, Mavs (PO)
The skinny: Nash likely will opt out, but chances are he will stay in Dallas. Nash is one of the few guys in the NBA who is actually underpaid at the moment. Surely, Mark Cuban will throw a lucrative long-term contract at him to keep him in Dallas. If that's not enough for Nash, the Suns and Clippers are in desperate need of a point guard, and both teams would be willing to throw the cash his way.

3. Antoine Walker, F, Mavericks (PO)
The skinny: After all the abuse and trade rumors, will Walker exercise his player option and look for a better situation? It depends on how deep Cuban's pockets are. He already has Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finely and Antawn Jamison locked up to max-type contracts. With Nash also looking for a big deal, can Cuban afford both? If he can't, is Walker willing to take a pay cut to move on? It's hard to imagine the Jazz, Nuggets, Clippers or Spurs throwing max money at him. Teams would be interested in the $8-9 million range, but not at the $14 million rate he's going for.

4. Rasheed Wallace, F, Blazers
The skinny: It's hard to believe Wallace will be a Blazer next season. One, for the first time in awhile, it appears Paul Allen is serious about cutting some payroll. Two, for the first time in awhile, the Blazers are emphasizing character again. Neither factor bodes well for Wallace. The question is, where does he go? Not to a young team like Denver or Utah. Not to a veteran team worried about chemistry. And coming off a $17 million-a-year contract, just how much of a pay cut will he be willing to take? In other words, people will be interested, but at what price? Conventional wisdom says the Knicks, Rockets and Mavericks will be the big players this summer. But none of them has the cash to offer him anything more than the mid-level exception.

5. Kenyon Martin, F, Nets (R)
The skinny: Martin is looking for a six-year, $90 million deal from the Nets. Team president Rod Thorn is understandably balking. The Nuggets will have interest and could offer him a lot of money and still have room, especially if Camby is gone, to go after their other favorite, Quentin Richardson.

6. Mehmet Okur, C, Pistons (R)
The skinny: There's a dearth of big men available, and a number of teams are going to show interest in Okur, starting with the Pistons. Team president Joe Dumars has been trying to clear cap space to make sure he can re-sign him. Right now Dumars is looking at roughly $6 million in room. Will that be enough? The Jazz, Nuggets, Suns and Clippers all like him and would be willing to offer more depending on what the top five free agents decide to do. Dumars is working the phones trying to get one more contract off the books. Okur will fall right in that $6-8 million range this summer. That's cutting it awfully close.

7. Jamal Crawford, G, Bulls (R)
The skinny: Crawford wants out of Chicago, and there are plenty of teams willing to take him. The Bulls' decision to move Crawford exclusively to the two dampens his value. Teams that believe Crawford could be a good point guard in the league are going to be the most interested. Look for the Clippers and Cavaliers to make the most noise. If the Cavs dump Jeff McInnis this summer, they should be able to make an offer for Crawford above the mid-level exception.

8. Emanuel Ginobili, G, Spurs (R)
The skinny: The Spurs want to keep him. But if they get wrapped up in the Kobe sweepstakes or get involved in a trade, Ginobili could be in play. The Jazz and Nuggets both love him and won't let him slip if he, for some reason, wiggles out of the Spurs' grasp.

9. Erick Dampier, C, Warriors (PO)
The skinny: Dampier opting out of his huge contract was inconceivable last summer, but he's having the type of season that may cause him to reconsider. There are plenty of teams that need a big man, and if the Jazz or Nuggets show some interest, it may be his best and only chance to get out of the bay.

10. Quentin Richardson, G, Clippers (R)
The skinny: The word on the street is the Nuggets love him. The speculation is met with a chuckle when posed directly to Nuggets brass. He does fit the system and seems like an upgrade ... but what's the price? The Clippers own his Bird rights. If they can't get Kobe, they'll want to keep him, and Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe won't overpay.

Best of the Rest

Player Option: Marcus Camby, C, Nuggets; Latrell Sprewell, SG, T-Wolves; Gary Payton, G, Lakers; Karl Malone, F, Lakers; Kurt Thomas, F, Knicks; Stephen Jackson, G/F, Hawks; Jerome James, C, Sonics; Penny Hardaway, G, Knicks; Mark Blount, C, Celtics; Troy Hudson, G, T-Wolves; Zaur Pachulia, C, Magic.

Unrestricted: Vlade Divac, C, Kings; Adonal Foyle, C, Warriors; Brent Barry, G, Sonics; Antonio McDyess, F, Suns; Ron Mercer, G, Spurs; Eric Williams, G/F, Celtics; Keon Clark, F, Jazz; Greg Ostertag, C, Jazz; Jon Barry, G, Nuggets; Rodney White, G/F, Nuggets; Slava Medvedenko, C, Lakers; Toni Kukoc, F, Bucks; Charlie Ward, G, Spurs; Tom Gugliotta, F, Suns; Trenton Hassell, G, T-Wolves.

Restricted:: Stromile Swift, F, Grizzlies; Carlos Arroyo, PG, Jazz; Mo Peterson, F, Raptors; Darius Miles, F, Cavs; DeShawn Stevenson, G, Jazz; Gordan Giricek, G/F, Magic; Zeljko Rebraca, C, Pistons; Jake Tsakalidis, C, Suns; Marcus Fizer, F, Bulls; Chris Mihm, PF, Celtics; Joel Przybilla, C, Bucks; Keyon Dooling, G, Clippers; Etan Thomas, F, Wizards; Courtney Alexander, G, Hornets; Hedo Turkoglu, G/F, Spurs.