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Trouble at the top

Kobe has right to be frustrated with Lakers brain trust

Posted: Wednesday May 30, 2007 3:53PM; Updated: Wednesday May 30, 2007 6:20PM
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Kobe Bryant and the Lakers haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since Shaquille O'Neal was traded in 2004.
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers haven't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs since Shaquille O'Neal was traded in 2004.
John Biever/SI
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It's hard to picture Kobe Bryant wearing anything but the Los Angeles Lakers' purple-and-gold. Even the sight of the three-time champion in the Western Conference All-Star uniform is a shock to the system, so you can imagine the NBA-wide ripples emanating from Bryant's shocking trade demand Wednesday from the franchise he's been a part of since 1996.

Even through the bulk of Bryant's on- and off-court troubles, he's kept his emotions close to the vest. Though he still brandishes a sense of menace that allows him to lay waste to wing defenders and opposing teams, he isn't usually prone to outbursts through the media. Until Wednesday, at least.

Bryant is upset, and he's got a right to be. When the knees are right, he might be the NBA's best player. Given a sound roster to work with, relative health and creative leadership from the bench and front office, he should compete for titles every year.

He watched as a gimpy Kevin Garnett endured a third straight year in the lottery. He noticed as Paul Pierce had his future hinge on the bounce of a lottery ball, and took notes while Allen Iverson had to wait until the fringe of his prime to move on to a second team. Kobe has little interest in going out like that. And you know what? Go Kobe. Raise the hackles. Challenge your superiors and co-workers. Get back to those Finals.

You can't question Bryant's will to win, in any instance. He may go about things incorrectly, shooting too much or gambling too often defensively, but the man wants to win. But he's also been incredibly na´ve regarding what he sees as Los Angeles' recent commitment to mediocrity. And he also needs to understand that this franchise isn't one or two (or 42) easy answers away from contending for a championship again.

Though the Lakers tend to stick out quite a bit in the NBA landscape, grabbing all the headlines while the conference finalists slug it out, this still comes down to what creates the usual bits of NBA-style tension: a well-compensated superstar who thinks wholesale roster change is as easy as leasing a private jet; an overmatched GM who talks himself into too many bad moves during the long offseason; a hard-working coach who doesn't mind relishing his role as a martyr; and an out-of-touch owner who loves the sellout crowds but balks at having to pay the luxury tax. They don't have to dance for us. We've seen this dance before.

Bryant is beyond upset at a Lakers brain trust that fields Mitch Kupchak as GM (and, ostensibly, a man who boasts the final word on personnel decisions); Jerry Buss as the hands-off owner who isn't; Phil Jackson as the brilliant on-court tactician who seems content to have his influence spread only as far as the locker room; and Jim Buss as the owner's son and GM hopeful who wields an influence that seems hard to measure but impossible to ignore.

Kobe seems the most peeved with Kupchak's inability to land a second or third star to play alongside him and versatile forward Lamar Odom, who struggled through an injury-plagued 2006-07 season. The frustration, however, goes much deeper than that. The Lakers appear relatively unchanged since Jackson took over as coach in 2005: They're stuck in the lower tier of Western Conference postseason participants, and they don't appear to have much chance (due to salary and personnel issues) to make any quick and/or profound changes.

It's good that Kobe is making noise, and it's of paramount importance that he holds the Lakers' front office accountable. One can only wish that Garnett and Iverson had done the same over the last few years. But he also has to understand the same basic NBA salary-cap issues that keep teams from adding a 20-and-10 guy every summer.


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