- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal meltdown receives the NBA sustenance of free agency tomorrow.

Bryant is either staying or going, though probably staying, after receiving a de facto promotion to the front office of the Lakers.

He stands at the head of the free agent class, plus before a judge in Colorado, the latter of seeming no concern to the Lakers and his potential suitors.

His potential conviction apparently has been downgraded to almost impossible around the NBA, given the rush to pacify him in Los Angeles and make salary room for him in other cities.

O’Neal, in his quest to be elsewhere, preferably in Dallas, has put his $7.5 million home near Beverly Hills on the market. That is a telling indication of his conviction.

Mitch Kupchak is readying to fall on the sword provided by owner Jerry Buss, assuming he goes down in NBA lore as the general manager who traded O’Neal to a rival.

If the rival is either Dallas or Sacramento — both teams with the personnel and money to make a trade possible — being appointed next season’s championship favorite will go with the transaction.

Kupchak is up against minimizing the loss, left to acquire a series of able bodies that meet the approval of Bryant.

Bryant is determined to evaluate his potential new teammates by the number of shots each is likely to squirrel from him. Their capacity to keep the Lakers among the elite is a secondary concern to Bryant. Otherwise, he would not have dumped this either/or proposition on Buss and Kupchak.

Bryant had a whole season to cast his lot with the Zen master, O’Neal and a franchise that merely needs tweaking, not a wrecking ball because of one player’s ego.

Bryant, in no hurry to check his newfound power, still has not given his allegiance to the Lakers following his promotion and the departure of the Zen master. He has taken the white flag as a sign to be as spoiled as the marketplace permits.

Kupchak is laboring amid the hard truth that he cannot possibly secure equal value for O’Neal. There is no one else like O’Neal in the NBA, even as he begins to show the first indications of his advancing years.

His impossibly high value, his $29.4 million salary next season and the thumbs-up sign from Bryant combine to make this an excruciatingly difficult deal.

So the pin has been pulled from the hand grenade and tossed to Kupchak.

He will be the first to go if next season dissolves into a Bryant shot-fest and a fleeting appearance in the postseason.

Regardless of who is acquired to rescue the team from Bryant, the Lakers, without O’Neal, are poised to fall behind the Spurs, Kings, Mavericks and Timberwolves. They also could be pressed by both the Rockets and Nuggets, depending on the progress of Yao Ming and Carmelo Anthony.

This is the future before the Lakers, as envisioned by Bryant, and talk of O’Neal reconsidering his position comes with a refusal to accept the facts.

This implosion was five years in the making, and three championships, four appearances in the NBA Finals, and the Zen master’s incense and pet rocks could not avert it.

If the Lakers elect not to act on O’Neal’s request, they are liable to be saddled with one incredibly disinterested party who is inclined to sit out because of a hangnail.

O’Neal’s interest level in the regular season already is limited. It could descend to next to nil if he is sentenced to another season with Bryant.

With Bryant looking to explore his free agent options, the Lakers have abdicated the pretense of who is driving their bus.

As uncontrollable as Bryant could be in past seasons, it merely was a prelude to the unrestrained possibilities ahead.

O’Neal wants no part of those possibilities. You can’t blame him.

The Lakers have taken up with the monster of conceit.

The least they could do is spare O’Neal from it.

Their last three championships emanate from O’Neal more than Bryant.

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