Bryant Case Causes Uncertainty for Lakers

LOS ANGELES – After adding two of the NBA’s top players to give the Los Angeles Lakers their own version of the “Dream Team,” general manager Mitch Kupchak was a most happy man.

His joy lasted barely a day, cut short by the news that Kobe Bryant faced a felony sexual assault charge.

Now, Kupchak must wait and see what develops in a Colorado courtroom and perhaps come up with a contingency plan, although his options are limited.

Though there’s time to maneuver — training camp doesn’t start until early October — one thing’s clear: Bryant’s future and that of his team are certainly in question.

Bryant was charged Friday — one day after Karl Malone and Gary Payton (news) were introduced as free-agent signees at a joy-filled Staples Center news conference.

Malone and Payton give the Lakers two more likely Hall of Famers (in addition to Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal) and, on paper, one of the best teams ever assembled.

Bryant and O’Neal led the Lakers to three straight NBA championships before being derailed by San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals in May, prompting Kupchak to say: “We felt we needed help — a lot of help.”

They got more than anyone expected, making them odds-on favorites to win another title.

Malone promised last week that the Bryant case wouldn’t be a distraction, but how could it not be?

“Karl supports Kobe as his teammate, something he made very clear,” Malone’s agent, Dwight Manley, said Tuesday. “He’s hoping for the best for Kobe and is remaining very positive.

“This information, the possibility of this indictment coming forward, Karl was very aware of that before he signed with the Lakers. And he still signed and believes they’ll win the championship. He’s looking forward to playing with Kobe and the other 10 members of the team.”

A trial date could be set Aug. 6 when Bryant is expected to appear in court in Eagle County, Colo. He has said he is innocent.

Bryant’s attorneys have said a trial could last as long as six months, meaning it’s likely the 24-year-old superstar’s career will be interrupted to some degree if the case gets that far. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation.

Larry Bird, for one, didn’t believe Bryant’s legal problems would affect the Lakers.

“I think that will all play out,” the new president of the Indiana Pacers said from Salt Lake City where his team was playing in a summer league. “I feel bad for everyone involved in the situation. Hopefully, Kobe gets back to playing ball, which is what he does best.”

As for the rest of the team: “Obviously they’ve got a lot of talent,” he said. “Any time you’ve got Shaq on a team, you’ve got a chance.”

The Lakers have had little to say since the charge was filed last Friday. At the time, Kupchak said the team would wait for the judicial process to play out and continue to support Bryant and his family in the meantime.

Coach Phil Jackson lent his support for Bryant, saying:

“He has consistently demonstrated responsible behavior to me both on and off the basketball court. … As his coach and mentor, he has my full support.”

Jackson will certainly play a key role in how the team regroups and responds.

And if anyone is qualified for the assignment, it’s him. Jackson helped mend the well-documented O’Neal-Bryant rift 2 1/2 years ago and deftly handled the erratic Dennis Rodman while coaching the Chicago Bulls.

A backcourt of Payton and Bryant would be one of the NBA’s best ever, but the backcourt of Bryant and Derek Fisher was good enough for three championships.

The Lakers might be in the market for a backup guard, but won’t have much money to offer. They are well over the salary cap and used their $4.9 million midlevel exception to sign Payton.

Starting forward Rick Fox is recovering from surgery on his left foot and almost surely won’t be ready to play when the season begins, opening a starting spot for Devean George. It could be that rookies Luke Walton and Brian Cook will see more action than first-year players usually do for Jackson.

Bryant is also a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team but didn’t figure to play in next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico after undergoing surgery on his shoulder and knee.