Kobe suitors must weigh risks

Updated: July 2, 2004, 12:28 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN Insider
There's no such thing as a sure thing in free agency. Just ask Grant Hill and the Orlando Magic.

Great players sometimes don't look as great in a different uniform. Injuries muddle things. People change. Players change. Circumstances change.

Kobe Bryant, as a basketball player, is as about as close to a sure thing as you can find. He is arguably the best guard in the NBA and entering the prime of his career. Despite having won three rings, he remains hungry. He's looking for redemption after two disappointing postseason losses with the Los Angeles Lakers. He can score on anyone. He is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Injuries aren't an issue.

The reward for a team landing Kobe in free agency? An immediate shot at an NBA championship.

But in the rush to land this summer's biggest free-agent prize, are teams considering the very serious risks that would accompany his signing? In late August, Bryant, 25, will stand trial in Eagle County, Colo., for felony sexual assault. He has pleaded not guilty and has said he and his accuser had consensual sex.

If convicted of a class-three felony, Bryant could serve four years to life, or be sentenced to a term of supervised probation of 20 years to life. The trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 27, and is expected to take at least a month -- meaning any team signing Bryant wouldn't know his status until late September or beyond.

So the risk of signing Bryant? Well, that depends on the team.

For starters, it's doubtful a team would be liable for Bryant's salary if he is convicted and sent to prison. Every NBA player contract has a clause that allows a team to void the contract if a player is "unable to perform." Based on Section 16(a) of the NBA's uniform player contract, a player who shall "at any time fail, refuse or neglect to render his services hereunder or in any other manner" breeches his contract. The team can elect to void the contract. Doing so removes the player's salary from the team's salary cap.

If Bryant is convicted and receives a short sentence, it's possible the team signing him would choose not to void the deal. Instead, the team might suspend him without pay until he is available and eligible to join the team. While this gets a team off the hook for paying his contract during the suspension, it does not remove his contract from the cap. If a team goes over the luxury tax threshold to sign him, they'd have to pay the tax, too.

The league already has said it will not allow a team to agree to pay Bryant even if he were in jail. "We would not approve a contract that said, 'Even if you're convicted of this crime, we will pay you,' " Brian McIntyre, a league spokesman, told the N.Y. Times earlier this week.

So the financial risk is relatively small for any team signing Bryant. However, the basketball risk could be much higher, depending on the team. Who has the most to lose and the most to gain?

Chad Ford

ESPN Senior Writer