NBA INSIDER: Kobe will be a highlight

As the fury of what promises to be a dizzying free-agency period was unleashed last night, I wanted to pose this question to the Los Angeles Lakers' brass: It's 12:01 a.m. Do you know where Kobe Bryant is?

Kobe Bryant will not be a free agent until 2009, but his unsettled status with the Los Angeles Lakers headlines what could be a two- or three-week period of major movement in the NBA. Speculation about where Chauncey Billups and Rashard Lewis will go pales in comparison with the Kobe soap opera, which will factor into any and all deals consummated during the next few weeks.

Of the star-studded list of franchise players who could be dealt, starting with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal, Garnett seems to be the most likely to be traded. Next is O'Neal, followed by Kobe Bryant, whose updated sense of approval or disapproval with the Los Angeles Lakers' attempts to calm him down has yet to be officially delivered by No. 24 himself.

The unofficial word from Kobe's camp is that he has only one Eastern Conference team on his wish list, and that would be Chicago. Bulls general manager John Paxson has been coy in maintaining that his team has little interest in blowing up the roster to chase Kobe. But if and when Kobe Bryant restates his desire to be traded, the Bulls will have no choice but to be drawn into the saga simply because of Kobe Bryant's stated desire to follow in Michael Jordan's footsteps there.

You still cannot count the Knicks out of the Kobe Bryant sweepstakes. If there is such a sweepstakes, Isiah Thomas is even better positioned to jump in than he was a few days ago. He gave up very little in the way of useful assets in his trade for Portland's Zach Randolph and now has $6.3 million in expiring contracts to peddle after acquiring Dan Dickau and Fred Jones along with Malik Rose's $7.7-million deal expiring in 2009.

Plus, Thomas still has a few desirable pieces in Jamal Crawford, David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Nate Robinson and even Quentin Richardson or Mardy Collins. He's not finished dealing, and he made it abundantly clear Friday that the Randolph trade served a dual purpose: to improve the team as currently constructed and also make a trade to the Knicks a little more desirable for other players who "become available" (especially those with the initials K.B.). "You really need players that attract other players," Thomas said.

My contact with the Kobe camp hasn't asked him yet if the Knicks' acquisition of Randolph makes New York a more desirable destination to him. If I'm Dr. Jerry Buss, I would like Kobe to say, "Why, yes, it does," because if nothing else, that would force the Bulls or anyone else to sweeten their offer.

As far-fetched as it might seem, acquiring Randolph might have the unanticipated (by me) side effect of removing the word "untouchable" from Eddy Curry's name on the roster Thomas is clutching in his itchy fingertips. If the Los Angeles Lakers were to demand Curry back in a Kobe Bryant trade, Thomas actually could consider it now with Randolph, an accomplished post scorer, on the roster.

Come to think of it, wouldn't the Pacers consider a package including Curry to be at least competitive with what the Nets are mulling for O'Neal - Richard Jefferson, Nenad Krstic and Jason Collins?

The point is, the Randolph trade has given Thomas more options to wheel and deal than he had before the draft. Even if nothing else besides housecleaning materializes, the Knicks are better off with Randolph and without Channing Frye and Steve Francis. Kobe Bryant, of course, will have the most anticipated opinion on how much better they are.

Carter opts out

As expected, the Nets' Vince Carter opted out of his contract and became a free agent. New Jersey is expected to quickly re-sign him ... A Francis rep met yesterday with Portland officials, and it appears possible that he either will be bought out or traded. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Cavs, Rockets and Heat are likely destinations.

The Curry trade revisited

The Knicks' controversial acquisition of Eddy Curry from the Bulls in 2005 has been analyzed and lampooned from Day 1. With only a 2009 second-round pick still to be exchanged, it's time to tally up the goods.

The Knicks got

Curry.

Renaldo Balkman (the 20th pick in the 2006 draft from Denver in the Antonio Davis trade).

Wilson Chandler (the 23rd pick in '07 swapped with Chicago's for No. 9).

The Bulls got

Tyrus Thomas (the No. 4 pick in '06 acquired from Portland for No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge).

Los Angeles Lakers (the No. 9 pick in '07 swapped with the Knicks' No. 23).

Thabo Sefolosha (the No. 13 pick in '06 acquired from Philadelphia for the rights to 16th pick Rodney Carney and the Knicks' No. 38 pick in '07, Kyrylo Fesenko, whose rights the 76ers traded to Utah for the rights to No. 55 pick Herbert Hill and future considerations).

Of course, if the lottery had given the Bulls the first or second pick in this draft, this deal would've gone from decent to disastrous for the Knicks. But unless the second-round pick the Bulls get from the Knicks in 2009 turns into the next Gilbert Arenas, Carlos Boozer or Manu Ginobili, the Knicks will have done OK here.

Thomas needs time to develop after averaging 5.2 points in 13.4 minutes as a rookie. But Sefolosha's name has been more prominent in trade rumors than boxscores, and the Bulls might have overestimated Los Angeles Lakers's value based on the talent he played with at Florida.

Just something to think about. Check back with me in 2012 for the final tally. - Ken Berger