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.
So the only realistic avenue for Kobe, if he wants to leave, is via trade. Please don't bore me with all the great deals that Dallas or Indiana or Chicago (Chicago?! If they're so hot, how come they got run off their home court by the Wizards the other night?) could make for Kobe. Nobody loves Dirk Diggler or Nasty Nash or J.O. more than I, but none of those great basketball players are stars -- not in the L.A. sense of the word. Dirk Nowitzki is an introvert not given to self-aggrandizement; he could walk down Rodeo Drive and not get more than a passing glance. Jermaine O'Neal is a great player and person, but he's not given to a lot of demonstration, either. Not exactly what Dyan and Cameron and Justin (well, their studios, anyway) shell out those courtside seat bucks for.
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.