By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Phil Jackson is gone. Mike D’Antoni remains, for now. Two parties at the top of the Lakers pyramid aren’t going anywhere: Jim Buss and Kobe Bryant.
The latter, reduced to six games this season due to injury but signed to a two-year extension for $48.5 million, last week turned up the heat on the former to put the broken Lakers back together. This summer.
As Kobe should know after signing his over-market deal, it’s easier said than done. Yet during his press conference to officially announce that his slowly healing knee will prevent him from playing again this season, Bryant dug into the late, great owner Jerry Buss‘ son-in-charge Jim — and to an extent Jeanie, Jim’s sister and Phil’s girlfriend — to set a distinct course for the future on everything from team culture to the team’s coach.
“You got to start with Jim,” Bryant said. “You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff and what Mike is going to do, what they’re going to do with Mike, and it goes from there. It’s got to start at the top.”
Of course no one, not Kobe, was fanning distress signals at the start of the 2012-13 season when the conversation was whether the Lakers would win 70. They had pulled off a deal for Dwight Howard (no complaints at the time in Lakerland), a move the club had planned to come after trading for Chris Paul following the 2011 lockout, but everybody knows that story.
Then-commissioner David Stern, acting as decision-maker for the then-New Orleans Hornets because the league owned the team at the time, vetoed the trade that would have joined Paul with Kobe. A week later Stern stamped Paul’s ticket to the Clippers, leaving Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak fuming. The next summer, as consolation, the Lakers made the swap with Phoenix for Steve Nash, again prompting praise void of complaint.
Only nobody could foretell the freak leg fracture Nash would suffer in his second game in purple-and-gold, an injury that spawned relentless nerve damage and could well end his career next month.
Mike Brown was fired five games into the season. The hiring of D’Antoni over Jackson was, yes, mishandled, messy and ill-advised, deserving of criticism. The maniacal Kobe despised the happy-go-lucky Dwight. Dwight pouted over D’Antoni’s no-post offense. Then Kobe blew out his Achilles in the final days of the regular season. Conveniently lost in the clutter was the 28-12 finish to the season. Before Kobe’s injury and before injury would again force Nash to bow out, experts on TV, including the highly critical Magic Johnson, were calling the Lakers a serious threat to beat the Spurs in the first round.
Only now, as this injury-plagued disaster of a season limps to the end, it seems so long ago.
Now, as Jackson takes the controls of the Knicks to Kobe’s dismay, the Lakers’ future, as murky as it is, will have to unfold one step at a time, regardless of how quickly Kobe wants a contending team to magically appear around him.
Jim Buss might not be his father, but it’s also not the same NBA. The collective bargaining agreement doesn’t make a quick rebuild easy even for big-market, high-revenue teams. Kobe’s high-priced extension eats into this summer’s cap space, making it next to impossible to re-sign Pau Gasol along with a max-level free agent despite Kobe’s constant lobbying to the front office keep Pau on board.
In fact, Jim Buss believed he had already secured contending seasons for Kobe’s final years by securing the franchise’s next superstar in Howard.
Kobe had no tolerance for Howard’s playfulness nor did he hold an interest in convincing him to stay. And now Kobe is short on teammates, patience and time. He says he’s not interested in a drawn-out rebuild, even as few other choices are plentiful.
His turning up the heat on Jim Buss can’t come without also looking in the mirror. The Lakers will have cap space to work with this summer and next, and a high draft pick this June. That’s Jim Buss’ new starting point.
“It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it, right?” Kobe said. “You got to get things done. It’s the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both.”
Unfortunately for Kobe and the Lakers, it’s easier said than done.