Archives For May 2007

Sick and Tired

Kurt —  May 30, 2007

Power.

It’s all about power. The last few days of the Lakers soap opera has been about power, the power to control the direction of the franchise. The power of trust. Kobe’s power as the star player. Jerry Buss’ power as the owner. Jim Buss’ power as the heir apparent. Mitch Kupchack’s power. Jeannie Buss’ power. Jerry West’s power. Magic’s power. Phil Jackson’s power to try to bring it all back together.

And I’m sick of it all, weary of the four-year-olds fighting over the sandbox.

Any regular reader of this blog knows how I feel about the soap opera surrounding the Lakers — I despise it. I like it as much as I like the trend of flopping. I started this blog in large part because I wanted to talk about the Lakers on the court at a time all regular media wanted to talk about what Shaq thought of Kupchak and who Kobe’s wife was talking to at games. I just wanted to talk about the games.

And yet, in the last few days I got sucked into the front office power struggle made public, the “who is the insider?” soap opera. Certainly all this impacts the team on the court, but it’s still more General Hospital than NBA professional. And I feel like I need a shower just following it.

Is it really all that hard for Kobe, Jim and Jerry Buss, Mitch, Phil and anyone else in the loop to sit down in a room and talk? Is negotiating through the media really necessary? Don’t successful organizations have a master plan that everyone is aware of and working toward? Isn’t talking things out face-to-face what good managers and mature adults do? Not everyone has been mature, but now everyone is being immature.

These are the days that try fans’ souls. It is the kind of day that makes me question my fandom (which Dan said so well) and makes me question blogging about it all.

Kobe says he’s tired of talking. I think I speak for a lot of fans when we say we’re sick and tired of this whole situation, too.

Maybe it costs me a bunch of readers, but I’m stepping away from the edge of insanity for a couple days. Write what you want in the comments, but I’m done updating who is fighting for what part of the sandbox for now.

I hope that Kobe and the entire front office can get on the same page, start pulling in the same direction. Like Kobe says in his latest diatribe, I love the Lakers as a franchise and want to see it return to winning. Maybe that is without Kobe, although I’d prefer him to stay.

But the last few days made me queasy. And I need a break from it.

The Downward Spiral

Kurt —  May 30, 2007

In case you missed it — Kobe just asked to be traded.

(Hat tip to Nate Jones.)

I always wanted this blog to be a calm, thoughtful space in the swirling vortex of controversy that can be the Lakers, but I really lack a good big-picture view here. I have but one big question:

Why has nobody from the front office talked to Kobe in the last couple of days?

Maybe they have tried and we don’t know about it, but from what Kobe has said he has not heard from them. To me, that sounds impossible.

He went public right after the team was eliminated from the playoffs, and I doubt his exit interview was a love-in. Now, nothing is going to happen fast — Kobe knows big deals are not made before the NBA Finals even start — but how come he isn’t brought into the loop more on planning? Then, when he goes to the LA Times and ESPN and starts putting on more pressure, how is it nobody from the front office takes charge of the situation, gives Kobe a call and talks him down off the ledge? How are meetings not set up? How do you let a “Laker Insider,” whoever it is in the organization, pick at the one sore scab Kobe has, the trade of Shaq? How do you not calm the man that lets you have $350 seats not even courtside (and puts butts in those seats)?

That, as much as any trade or shot down trade, shows the lack of a coordinated front office. This is basic management stuff.

Now, to be fair, I have heard Kobe do radio interviews in the past year where he said he has been consulted on trades, where he said, “Al Harrington isn’t coming here and I was consulted on the trade.” He has not been totally out of the loop, but exactly what concentric circle he was allowed into is a fair question. To use my own analogy, it’s like trying to figure out the Soviet government what is going on over there.

There are roughly a million problems with trading Kobe, which we can discuss if this really does move forward. There are a lot of problems with the Lakers making any big move (namely the lack of pieces that can be moved). But to me, the ball is in Laker management’s court. I want to see them do something with it.

UPDATE:
Good point by Cary D. in the comments:

But Kobe is a hot-head as well. He’s not in the clear on this one. Has he ever picked up a phone (except to the press) to clear the air on a situation?

UPDATE #2: Nate Jones says one thing that crossed my mind as a possibility (and John R. said it yesterday):

Kobe’s been burnt enough by public relations in the past that he knows how to handle the media now. He’s playing all of us. I think he wanted to get traded but needed to make the Lakers look bad enough first to make him look like the good guy. And from what I’m reading around the nets, it seems like that ploy actually worked.

UPDATE #3: Trading Kobe will be very, very difficult. From the LA Times:

Bryant will obviously waive his no-trade clause, but he has a trade kicker in his contract that is believed to add about $13 million to his total contract value, a cost to be absorbed by any team that acquires him. The money would be paid like a signing bonus and would not count toward the salary cap. The Lakers had to pay a similar fee to Lamar Odom when they acquired him from Miami three years ago, paying him about $8 million.

UPDATE #4: Thanks to LG Gold for putting up in the comments the words of Jerry Buss (via Kevin Ding at the OC Register):

“We are aware of the media reports. However, Kobe has not told us directly that he wants to be traded. We have made it very clear that we are building our team around Kobe and that we intend for him to be a Laker his entire career. We will speak directly to Kobe and until we do that, we will not comment publicly about this.”

I think this supports what I said in the main post — Laker management has been too slow to react. They should have talked to Kobe already, they should have called him days ago.

Now, apparently, Phil Jackson has asked Kobe to calm down a little and wait a few days (via anonymous commenter who heard another ESPN radio interview). If Phil pulls this all back together, how much more power does this give him in the organization?

UPDATE #5: If you have not read the comments at True Hoop from Roland Lazenby, he gives his usual smart and reasoned take on the events, saying that the worst of this “Cuban Missile Crisis” can still be averted. (This is just a portion, go read the whole thing):

If I could do one thing to fix the Lakers? I would send Jim Buss off to owner school with his dad.

Shaquillle O’Neal told me in “The Show” that once Jerry West left, there was never anyone he could trust. (The hubris of the situation smells like the Bulls in 1998, when Jerry Krause determined to rebuild the Bulls.)

It’s a mess in the front office, especially if you’re a player in his prime who is ready to compete for a championship. (Someone pointed out to me once: with all the money the Lakers wasted on players like Brian Grant since O’Neal left, they could have paid Shaq his money.)

Jerry Buss is at an age where it’s transition time. I don’t know if anything can save it. The ideal thing would be for Jim Buss to stand up and say: “I’m going to let the personnel people do their job. We’re going to clear up the front office picture, and re-establish the trust that the players have a basketball person running the show.”

Kremlinology and the Lakers

Kurt —  May 29, 2007

Back decades ago, when the Soviet Union and the United States were embroiled in the cloak-and-dagger Cold War, there was something called Kremlinology. The simple definition is this — nobody really knew what was happening inside the very secretive Soviet government, so there were experts who tried to divine what was happening by reading subtle public cues. For example, who was standing near Brezhnev at the big May Day military parade meant a lot.

Trying to figure out what is happening in the Lakers front office usually involves some Kremlinology — Jerry Buss, good poker player that he is, tends not to tip his hand or thought process. The Lakers front office is really a pretty small group of people, and figuring out how decisions are really made is a bit of a mystery. How much power does Mitch Kupchak really have to make big moves? How much is Jim Buss involved day to day? There aren’t any May Day parades to see who is sitting next to Jerry Buss any given year.

More and more, this amateur Kremlinologist thinks Kobe’s recent campaign to bring pressure on management is part of an effort to get the various factions moving, ideally in the same direction. Recently there have been signs of a fissure.

There was Jim Buss on 570 AM saying he’s not sure Phil Jackson is good at bringing young players along (this after years where Jerry Buss had said he thought the triangle “boring.”) and says he doesn’t like Phil chastising his players publicly. Then his sister Jeannie Buss, who runs the business side of the operation and lives with the coach, goes on another show on that same radio station and says its ironic that Jim would publicly question the tactic of the coach to publicly question his players.

But I think the key thing Jeannie said is she had not spoken to Jim about this (and it was several days after the first comment). No communication there, and apparently not with Phil. Then company man Kurt Rambis comes on the same radio station and defends Phil, saying that Buss never comes to practice so how would he know how the staff works with young players. Then on top of it all Kobe brings up the specter of West (and now West is saying he wouldn’t come back and step on Kupchak like that).

It all reads like power is shifting some — Jerry Buss is giving up some of his and everyone is fighting for parts of it. Jim Buss is the heir apparent but as he asserts himself publicly (in a way his father rarely did using radio interviews) he steps on toes and finds people willing to fight back. Jim Buss said he would be willing to trade Andrew Bynum, but if (as has been reported) Buss was the guy who pushed for Bynum, he sees the kid or any fruits of the trade as his first stamp on the Lakers legacy. And so he is cautious in looking for the right move.

But cautious GMs tend to lead stagnant franchises. So do front offices where everyone is not pulling in the same direction. I guess we’ll just have to keep watching the clues to see where the needed leadership will come from.

God is a bullet, have mercy on us everyone.

UPDATE: ESPN’s Ric Bucher reported that Kobe said “bring back Jerry West or I want to be traded,” but what #24 told the LA Times for Monday is different:

Bryant said he did not link his future with the Lakers to the hiring of West, as ESPN.com reported Sunday. He has not asked for a trade and did not foresee seeking one if West was not hired.

“I would love for him to be a part of this,” Bryant said. “But it’s not something where I demand he comes here. All I can do is offer my thoughts. I love being a Laker. I want to retire a Laker. I want to fix this thing, or at least help any way I can.”

My gut reaction: Kobe rattles some cages, this is part of his “keep the pressure on” campaign. He wants to see some aggressive moves, and he hopes bringing up the specter of West will do that.

Does anyone have a different take?

• Kwame Brown undergoes ankle surgery this week, and for his sake I hope it’s not on the bad end of the scales (doctors will decide how much they have to do once they get in there). His going under the knife shouldn’t be a surprise — he basically said this during the season. And his already limited movement was even more limited at the end of the season.

• The surgery has led to the question: How does this impact the ability to trade Kwame? And what about Odom and his surgery?

I’ve said this before about Kwame but let me say it again — there was no demand for Kwame around the league BEFORE the surgery. There was no GM in the league saying, “You know who would make my team better? Kwame Brown.” Laker fans seem to seriously overestimate his trade value. He was the Lakers best center last season by default, but he was a “C-“ player this year on the whole and his reputation around the league is worse. He was only going to be part of any deal as salary filler, nothing more. The surgery will make it even harder to move him even as filler — remember the days of teams just taking on expiring contracts are fading. The surgery makes it more likely that if he gets moved it will be next season at the trading deadline. A summer trade is not impossible, but again Kwame would be an afterthought.

As for Odom, he still has trade value, but teams are going to want him to see play a little first. Again, a summer trade becomes less likely, if they do move him a training camp or trading deadline move is more likely.

• Kobe Bryant told the LA Times he’s still frustrated and wants the team to make move. Not that he’ll say what those moves are (at least publicly). And thanks to the two surgeries mentioned above, Laker management has few options.

• If there was one class I’d like to see high school and college kids take, it would be something titled “Being media savvy.” The way information is distributed today and the ways the “media” handle things often has ulterior motives (usually making money and/or gaining notoriety) and if you understand that you understand your world a lot better.

I bring that up because Bill Plaschke pulled a William Rhoden in the Sunday LA Times calling for Kobe to be traded. Read this post at True Hoop and just substitute Plaschke’s name in for Rhoden. Plaschke made Simers the rational columnist today. Enough said.

• You are all just lucky I don’t turn this into an America’s Cup blog for the next month. (And you think I’m kidding, I love the AC.)

The Flip of a Coin

Kurt —  May 25, 2007

This story yesterday from True Hoop — how Portland winning a coin flip gave them the top pick this year, had it gone the other way it would have gone to Minnesota and dramatically changed Kevin Garnett’s future — reminded me how the flip of a coin dramatically changed the course of the Lakers franchise.

The story starts in 1976, when tall ships were gathering in New York and a young Romanian girl named Nadia Comaneci was the talk of the sports world. With the Lakers, Gail Goodrich, a key part of the 71-72 championship team, was pissed about what team owner Jack Kent Cooke was offering him for future salary. Goodrich, whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Staples now, was sulking his way through the rest of the season.

At the end of it, Cooke finagled a deal with the New Orleans Jazz (back when that team name made sense) — Goodrich could sign with the Jazz in exchange for two future first round picks and a second rounder. Cooke and the Lakers got absolutely killed by fans and the media for that deal — I can’t imagine the heat intensified by talk radio and the Internet today. It could have cost someone his or her job.

(By the way, the Jazz had a great idea, pairing “Pistol” Pete Maravich with Goodrich, it worked for a while. If injuries had not undone Gail that could have been an all-time backcourt for a few years. For those of you younger fans not familiar with Maravich, find some old clips, he may have been the most entertaining player in the history of the NBA. )

Fast-forward two years, to the 1978-79 season. The Lakers were a solid playoff team, picking up 47 wins with a roster that included Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and personal favorite Adrian Dantley. The Jazz were terrible, earning just 29 wins and finishing with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. Back then the worst team in the Western Conference was the 31-win Chicago Bulls (ah, remember that pre-Jordan the Bulls were not a great franchise).

But in 1979 teams didn’t just pick in order of worst record, nor was there a lottery. Instead, the teams with the worst records in their conference had a coin flip to determine which one got the first pick.

With the Jazz pick from the Goodrich trade, it came down the Lakers and the Bulls — and the coin toss came up in LA’s favor.

“Chick let up a yell that could have been heard in downtown Los Angeles.”

The Bulls then offered the 2nd pick plus Reggie Theus for the opportunity to draft Johnson. The Lakers declined. It was a good thing because if the Bulls had won the toss or the Lakers had traded the pick…

“If that coin had come up heads I probably would have headed back to Michigan State for another year.”
-Magic Johnson

The Lakers were also a team in transition. Jack Kent Cooke was in the midst of selling the team to then real estate tycoon, Dr. Jerry Buss.

The transaction to sell the team was about to be consummated and the recommendation came down that Buss draft Moncrief.

“No way,” said Buss. “Magic’s the guy, or the deal’s off.”

With the first pick in the draft, the Lakers took Earvin “Magic” Johnson out of Michigan State. Five championships and a decade of the most exciting and well-played basketball the world has seen followed.

With the second pick, the Bulls took David Greenwood out of UCLA. By the way, there was a sentiment among some fans and media that the Lakers should pass on Magic to take Sidney Moncrief out of Arkansas. What are you supposed to do with a 6’9” point guard with flash but no jump shot when you have Norm Nixon? Draft Moncrief, a 6’4” off guard who could play both ends of the floor.

Moncrief would eventually be drafted by the Bucks and fourth year head coach Don Nelson and go on to have a distinguished NBA career. Greenwood would not be so lucky, having a career that could best be described as solid.

But how different would the Lakers have been if the coin had landed the other way and the Lakers ended up with the second pick in 1979?

We may one day look back and wonder how different things would have been had Minnesota won this coin toss. The story has already begun to take on a similar arc, but sister luck can be a fickle gal.

Some quotes and facts from The Show and Magic Johnson, My Life
Also, Gatinho contributed considerably to this post.