Trouble at the top (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday May 30, 2007 3:53PM; Updated: Wednesday May 30, 2007 6:20PM
Publicly, Bryant is pointing to a Los Angeles Times column from last Sunday as his final straw, one that paraphrased a "Laker insider" who hinted that Kobe wanted Shaquille O'Neal off the team following its 2004 Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons. To trade O'Neal that summer, the Lakers needed to take on as much salary as they gave up. Even if Bryant, as he insisted Tuesday in a radio interview, wanted to "move forward and be positive" when it came to O'Neal's future with the Lakers, let's not kid ourselves -- Bryant wasn't exactly clinging to Shaq's leg, begging Jerry Buss not to trade the big fella.
Kobe clears his throat, and Buss jumps to hand him a selection of eucalyptus lozenges; so does anyone think Bryant could have done something to keep O'Neal in L.A.? It doesn't take an "insider" to shine a light on what really went down that summer.
But let's not belabor this point any more than need be. Shaq has played only 99 games the last two years, and Miami owes him $60 million over the next three seasons. Dealing him was easily the best move for the Lakers' franchise, as Kobe and Shaq clearly were never going to patch things up while wearing the same uniform. Bryant wanted nothing to do with playing with Shaq beyond 2004, and Jerry Buss wanted nothing to do with paying Shaq $30 million a year; so it was a mutual, sound decision with Kobe's silence speaking volumes. And to make an omelet, the Lakers had to break some eggs when it came to taking on equally salaried players in return -- and those eggshells came in the form of a perfect-for-the-triangle-offense forward in Odom, an All-Star talent.
From there, the blame would seem to shift to Kupchak. With Jerry West resigning from the Lakers in 2000, the team West put together seemed to win not only despite Bryant's and O'Neal's open animosity but also despite a new GM in Kupchak who seemed incapable of working around the salary cap to find cheap help. Isaiah Rider, Mitch Richmond, Horace Grant (in his second go-round with the Lakers), Samaki Walker, Slava Medvedenko, Tracy Murray, Kareem Rush and Mark Madsen all failed to contribute anything lasting or efficient in purple-and-gold, and the team was forced to rely heavily on the stars and role players West brought in years before.
Even when Karl Malone and Gary Payton (recruited more by Shaq and Kobe than anyone else) joined for a potentially legendary run in 2003-04, injuries forced the Lakers to live and die with the depth Kupchak failed to accrue. Yes, the Lakers had low draft picks and no salary-cap space to work with, but even mediocre GMs at least pluck a winner or two out of the ranks. Kupchak had no such success stories.
Kupchak hasn't done much to redeem himself in the post-Shaq world. His initial rumored goal of chasing either Yao Ming or Amaré Stoudemire in the 2007 offseason -- and make no mistake, those whispers came from Los Angeles -- was laughable from the outset, and once abandoned, he set about initiating a curious series of moves after bringing back Jackson as coach following a one-year absence. Trading Caron Butler for Kwame Brown is easily his worst misstep, but it's hard to find fault with only Kupchak in this instance.
Jackson has to be on the hook for some of these moves. Even knowing but a fair amount about the triple-post offense, the idea of someone like Kwame Brown having anything to do with the triangle appears an affront to the sensibilities of Tex Winter, the offense's inventor. Jackson has to know this, so how can he sign off on any trade bringing Brown to Los Angeles (at any price, for any amount of players in return) knowing that he'll have to play a major role in that offense? The fact that Brown was traded for Butler (a quick decision-maker who would thrive running the baseline in Jackson's offense) and that the beleaguered big man "earns" about $9 million a year makes the 2005 trade even more outrageous.
So, knowing what everyone has done wrong, how do all the chefs in this particular kitchen set to fixing the Lakers? Bryant would love to have West back in the fold, but West isn't talking until after his contract with the Grizzlies expires on June 30, and even this dogged competitor is loathe to take on the job of the man (Kupchak) he's been defending ever since he signed him as a free agent back in 1981. Even if West were to take an advisor's role, it seems doubtful that even the idea of usurping Kupchak's gig would sit right with the proud Hall of Famer. But it is a long summer, and anything can happen.
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