Los Angeles Lakers: Jerry Buss
As in, the Lakers have a 21.5 percent chance of vaulting up to one of the top three spots in next month's draft, and Worthy -- the franchise's last No. 1 overall pick back in 1982 -- will be representing the team when they find out their fate at the lottery.
The Lakers finished with the sixth-worst record in the league last season at 27-55. They have a 43.99 percent chance of ending up with the No. 6 pick and a 30.44 percent chance of getting No. 7. The more remote possibilities are moving up (6.3 percent chance at No. 1, 7.1 percent at No. 2, 8.1 percent at No. 3) or dropping even further (3.96 percent chance at No. 8, 0.1 percent at No. 9).
Worthy caught up with ESPNLosAngeles.com to discuss luck and the state of the franchise, while also offering his endorsement on whom should be the next coach of the Lakers:
What was the genesis behind you being the representative for the team? You were the last No. 1 draft pick by the Lakers, and that is an obvious part of your story, but maybe it could have been Jeanie Buss in that role. Maybe it could have been Jim Buss. How did it come about?
"Well, I got a call. I got a call from [Lakers general manager] Mitch Kupchak and [Lakers vice president of public relations] John Black, and I’m not sure what the process was before that. I don’t know whether Jeanie just didn’t feel like going, or Jim, or one of the Buss children. I don’t even know if they asked Kobe [Bryant]. I don’t know that.
"But, when I got the call, Mitch kind of joked around and said he had heard me on a telecast saying we were overdue for a really high pick and he asked me if I would represent the Lakers at the lottery. So I felt honored, being an old-time Laker from that '80s era. Hopefully we'll bring some of that magical, mystical luck and get us to a good pick. I’m feeling good about it."
"Well, the piece I'm still looking for is Bill Sharman. Bill Sharman was very instrumental in making the trade that brought me to Los Angeles, so I’m looking for [a bobblehead doll of] him. And Chick Hearn was at the draft in 1982 when I was drafted. Chick Hearn was there representing the Lakers. So I'd like to have three bobbleheads up there –- Chick Hearn, if I can get Bill Sharman and then Dr. [Jerry] Buss. Hopefully that will be enough to get us a top-3 pick."
What’s your opinion on how important this draft is going to be or how important this pick is going to be for the Lakers, considering where the franchise stands right now?
"I don't think they're looking for a quick fix. I don't think that’s what they're looking for. I think most teams kind of look at new-coming rookies as a projection. Something they can grow in the future, two to three years. I think that’s what they'll be looking for. There used to be a time when you looked for a certain position, or centers were available back then –- the Ralph Sampson days, those kind of things –- but I think the way the game is evolved is talented players are [defined by] talent, athleticism.
"I haven't talked to Mitch about anything about what they're going to pick, but based on what I've seen in the league the last 10 years, I think that’s what they're looking for: The best pick that’s going to fit their unit."
Another Laker legend, Jerry West, who we know for his irascible-type personality, once told me at the 2006 draft lottery that he doesn’t really like the event because it’s a “celebration of losers.” Is there any sense of this being below the Lakers’ standard to be involved in this?
"[Laughing] You know, I'm certainly not going to argue with Jerry West. He’s the king of lottery drafts and precision. But, yeah, it’s unfortunate. The Lakers don’t like to be in this situation. We’d like to be where we used to be in the past and being a top team, or one of the top three teams. So, it’s unfortunate that we’ve found ourselves here. It’s not something we’re used to. But I look back over the last three to four years. We thought we had Chris Paul and didn’t get him. That was very unfortunate. We get Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and we only have a plethora of injuries. Then we lose Dwight Howard, when we were thinking of him as the future-of-the-franchise type of player. And now we have only three players coming back under contract [for next season].
"So, it’s unfortunate, but this is where we are. There’s really no shame. We just have to deal with it and get back the brand that we're accustomed to, and this is part of the process. It’s unfortunate, but I think we're happy to be where we are. I don’t think we’re happy to be where we are, but we’ll utilize the situation the best we can to get us back where we want to be."
What’s your opinion on the various reports out there that the Lakers would be open to trading the pick? Should you bring them luck, you move up into the top 3 and suddenly you could maybe deal it for an established veteran. For instance, Kevin Love. What do you think about going that route?
"For all of my NBA career and for what I’ve seen since then, that’s an option. That’s an option that’s very feasible, and if you can get the right pick, you can use it for your team or you can use it to get some players or trade that. Knowing Mitch, he’s extremely methodical and he’s going to weigh all the scenarios and I’m sure if it makes sense to trade the pick, I’m sure that’s one of the plays in his playbook. Like I said, I haven't had any conversation with him about it, but just from my experience in what I've seen, it’s possible."
1. Will the team be up for sale?
In a word, no. While the Lakers were purchased by Buss for $67.5 million in 1979 and now are estimated to be worth $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, the Buss family does not plan to test the market. "We unanimously agree that we have no intention of ever selling the Lakers and intend to keep ownership of the team in our family for generations to come,” the Buss family said in a statement in January. Lakers minority owner Patrick Soon-Shiong could look to own a larger part of the team even if the Buss family doesn’t intend to sell, however.
Soon-Shiong owns a small percentage of the team after buying out Magic Johnson’s stake in the Lakers a couple of years ago. With the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) -- which owns approximately 30 percent of the Lakers, along with Staples Center -- up for sale, Soon-Shiong could grow his share of the team tremendously. The billionaire already has been linked to the sale. Soon-Shiong’s representative, Chuck Kenworthy, told the L.A. Times in September 2012 that Soon-Shiong “is keenly aware that AEG is in play” and is “interested.”
2. Who makes the decisions?
In the past several seasons, the Lakers have relied on a three-headed decision-making team of Buss; his son, Jim Buss, who is the team’s vice president of player personnel; and Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager. But Jerry Buss had the final say. “If there’s a decision to be made that’s important to the franchise -- a player movement -- he’s the final hammer,” Jim Buss told ESPNLosAngeles.com in April. “I’ll have a recommendation, Mitch might have a different recommendation, and we’ll just let him decide.”
The Lakers' upper management will have to decide whether and how to diversify the decision-making process now that Buss’ 34-year run at the helm is over. For a long time, all of the decisions were made by a four-man crew that also included assistant GM Ronnie Lester, who worked for the Lakers for more than 25 years before being let go right before the lockout in 2011. The Lakers since have promoted Glenn Carraro to help fill Lester’s role, but this could be a time for the team to consider adding another smart basketball mind or two to the mix to help continue steering the franchise in the right direction.
3. How has Jim Buss prepared himself for this moment?
Apart from dealing with the pain of losing his father, Jim Buss will be challenged to replicate the success the Lakers have accomplished over the past 30 years. “It’s like watching your kid grow up,” Jim Buss said about taking on more responsibility. “Somebody that you haven’t seen in a year comes in and all of the sudden says, ‘Holy crimminy! Look how tall they’ve gotten!’ I do this every day, so I don’t think it’s one day I walked out and started doing this [Buss flaps his arms] kind of thing. I think it’s so gradual that I really haven’t seen the growth that I have.
“Now, if I look back five years, yes, there’s a lot of responsibility and a lot more say and a lot more decision-making, but it wasn’t overnight. It’s been a long process. It’s a fun process, but it’s been a long process and a lot of teachers. So this year I think it’s coming to fruition because my dad has mentioned that I’m responsible now for the decisions. But really, I haven’t felt it. It seems like I do this all the time.”
Jim Buss was able to live in relative anonymity during his five-year apprenticeship, but now the moves of the franchise will come under even more scrutiny from a Lakers fan base that had complete trust in the father but is still forming its opinion of the son.
4. Will the Lakers' power structure stay the way it is?
Jim Buss seemingly was groomed to take over the basketball side of things after Jerry Buss died, and Jeanie Buss has worked as the executive vice president of business operations for more than a decade. It appears that will remain the same going forward.
Questions remain, however. Now that Jeanie Buss is engaged to Phil Jackson, her longtime companion and former Lakers coach, could the most accomplished championship coach in NBA history enter the picture again once he is officially part of the family? The relationship between Jim and Jeanie has sometimes been tense, according to multiple sources. Now that their father is gone, will everyone be content with the roles they have assumed before, or are there new options to be explored?
5. Are the Lakers going to have the same commitment to winning as before?
This is a big question for Lakers fans. Buss seemingly had the same mentality that they did, saying at his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2010: "There were times when I was in the locker room and I would be surrounded by five Hall of Famers. As a fan, you can't imagine how that feels." All fans want for their favorite teams are more titles, regardless of luxury-tax implications. Buss approached it the same way, always investing in his team rather than being satisfied with the revenue it generated for him.
"We are spending way too much money," Buss said with a chuckle in the summer before the 2010-11 season. "It's tough. You sit there and you say, 'We really can't afford this, we can't afford this and we can't afford this,' and then somehow the next day we end up spending some more money and getting another player and signing a new extension, etc., etc."
With the new collective bargaining agreement threatening punitive luxury-tax penalties and dipping into big-market team’s pockets through substantial revenue sharing, will the Lakers still operate under a “whatever it takes” credo?
6. How will this affect the Lakers players this season?
Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace are the only members of the current team who were on the Lakers’ most recent championship squad in 2010. "He means everything to me," Bryant recently told USA Today. "He took a chance on a 17-year-old kid coming out of Philadelphia when nobody really saw that potential. He believed in me the entire way."
Could the loss of Buss be a rallying cry for the 25-29 Lakers in the final 28 games of the season, led by the memories of Bryant, Gasol and World Peace? Could the loss of Buss be something that spurs the Lakers back to dig deeper in pursuit of a return to glory?
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Magic Johnson, who has been critical of recent moves by the Lakers, continued to speak his mind to a small group of reporters after a press conference to introduce new Dodgers pitcher, Hyun-jin Ryu, on Monday afternoon.
On whether there is still time for this year's Lakers team to turn things around:
“This team has time, now I’m not giving up on the season, we’ve got time to improve. We started off the same way in ’90, not quite this bad, but we were there. So this team has time to turn it around, I think they’re gonna have to look each other in the eye and say, 'Look man, I’m committed to whatever, but I’m gonna commit to the defensive end first.' And then whatever happens on the offensive end, let it happen, but they gotta commit to each other on the defensive end.”
On whether Kobe Bryant needs to talk to Mike D’Antoni if things continue the way they've been going:
“If it keeps going the way it’s going, and this road trip is going to say a lot about our team. Then yes, he has to talk to him.”
On letting Mitch Kupchak make personnel decisions:
“You gotta rely on Mitch Kupchak's basketball knowledge, you gotta, you gotta reach out and let -- look, Dr. Buss let Jerry West make basketball decisions. He just came and said, 'Hey Dr. Buss, this is who I want to trade, this is the reason I want to trade them.' And Dr. Buss said, 'Ok.' You know make the move, if it’s gonna help our team. Jim wants to make the move and then tell Mitch to do it. No, you don’t have that basketball expertise. You gotta let Mitch Kupchak make those decisions and then we all live with that, whatever happens.”
On his hope that D'Antoni's approach will work:
“I’m hopeful that it will work out because I love the Lakers, so let’s see, but I still feel if he doesn’t change his system to fit the talent that he has, it’s never gonna work or you’re gonna have to make some major trades -- one or the other.”
On how the team handled a possible return of Phil Jackson as coach:
"If you weren’t gonna consider him for real, then why talk to him? Cause you got all of us excited, I’m excited, all L.A., the whole country was like, 'Oh, Phil’s coming back, maybe.' And then you turn around, not even negotiating or not knowing what he wanted and then you hire D’Antoni and again, you hire a coach who wants to run and you don’t have a running team.”
On the attitude he sees among the Lakers players right now:
"I don’t see the guys happy, it’s one thing to lose, but there’s no spirit. There’s no spirit, I hope they get back the hunt, where’s the spirit? Where’s the love of the game and love of playing with your teammates? Now that’s another thing I don’t see. It’s gonna take us time to get that, but we gotta get the feeling good about playing with each other as well.”
To say the least, the last seven days have been a whirlwind, even by the Lakers' high standards. With the dust now settled, does the franchise still appear on the right track?
The show can be heard by clicking on the module, and a breakdown of talking points is below.
- (2:30): After sharing some secrets for aspiring journos everywhere, we discuss the firing of Brown. Was it fair? Was it the right decision? Why did things ultimately go wrong for Brown?
- (7:19): The Lakers shocked the world by hiring D'Antoni, despite all the reporting (and fan noise) that strongly pointed in a third tour of duty for The Zen Master. First things first. What does this development do to the Buss Family Thanksgiving dinner just around the corner?
- (10:26): We examine why Jackson may have deemed a lesser fit than D'Antoni. There are legitimate reasons to question this roster's compatibility with the triangle, and more important, how fully invested Phil would remain, given the physical and mental toll the NBA grind seemed to take on him through the 2011 season.
- (14:23): What adjustments could be necessary by D'Antoni to get the most out of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and the supporting cast? How will this team eventually look with everyone healthy and on the same page? (By the way, it occurred to me after recording how the better "Where does Pau fit in?" comparison player was probably Boris Diaw, rather than Shawn Marion.)
- (19:10): Our biggest concern about D'Antoni might be his habit of running very short rotations, which simply cannot happen with a roster so collectively long in the tooth. However, we're not nearly as concerned about the "no defense" reputation that has plagued the coach since his days in Phoenix. While those Suns were hardly the second coming of the Bad Boy Pistons, they were actually better than credited.
- (20:55): The Kamenetzky brothers are gonna miss interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff sooooooooooo much.
Friday they fired Mike Brown just five games into his second season after one infamous "death stare" from Kobe Bryant during a game in Utah. Two exceptionally quick hooks that are so eerily similar it's hard to believe they are simply coincidental.
As it turns out, they aren't. According to multiple Lakers sources, Lakers owner Jerry Buss learned a lesson from his experience with Westhead that he, his son Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak remembered this week when they made the decision to to fire Brown.
"When you're ready to fire someone, don't wait," one source said.
The Lakers had actually decided to fire Westhead two games earlier, sources said, before they played the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 15, 1981, but they didn't do it right away. When the team beat both the Pacers and the Utah Jazz three nights later, things got awkward. The team's issues hadn't changed -- Johnson was unhappy with the way he was being used in Westhead's offense -- but now after losing four of their first six games, the Lakers had rattled off four straight wins. When Johnson asked to be traded following the Jazz game, it created the perception he forced Jerry Buss' hand when in actuality the decision to fire Westhead had been made several days earlier.
That experience was brought up several times in the Lakers' decision-making process this week. Kupchak was a player on that Lakers team and remembered it well. As ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported early Friday morning, Lakers management had initially decided to evaluate team and Brown during this six-game homestand. But the more they thought about it, sources told ESPNLosAngeles.com Friday night, the more they realized there was a lesson to be learned from their own history.
Save bringing point guard/Kobe confidant Derek Fisher back into the fold, Mitch Kupchak and Dr. Buss responded to the outburst by presenting Bryant a roster essentially untouched. Thus, speculation swirled as to whether 24 would actually report to camp. Lest anybody assume this was simply the media churning the waters to create drama, think again. After 15-20 minutes with no sign of Kobe, I vividly remember Kwame Brown asking me if I'd seen the superstar, and if I knew whether he was gonna show up. This was truly the $1,000,000 question, and nobody was quite sure how the day would shake out.
Eventually, Kobe did emerge, palpably unenthusiastic, but committed to remaining professional. The season turned out considerably better than expected, even before Pau Gasol trade. Since then, Kobe has collected his fourth and fifth rings, and despite this offseason presenting seemingly few avenues for upgrading a team stuck in good-but-not-great purgatory, we're now looking at a starting five of Steve Nash, Bryant, Metta World Peace, Gasol and Dwight Howard.
And Oct. 1, 2007 feels about 100 years in the rear view mirror.
It reminds me of this exchange between Glen (Sam McMurray) and H.I. (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona:
Glen: It's a crazy world.
H.I.: Someone oughta sell tickets.
Glen: Sure, I'd buy one.
Enjoy the season.
"This is the last season the Lakers will pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty for exceeding the luxury-tax threshold, meaning that their league-high payroll of $99.2 million will cost them an additional $28.9 million in taxes, because that's how far they are above the $70.3-million tax level. The tax will raise the tab for their player costs to $128 million.
Starting next season, the tax burden gets significantly heavier. NBA teams must pay a $1.50-to-$1 ratio for the first $4.99 million they are over the luxury-tax threshold, a $1.75-to-$1 ratio for being $5 million to $9.99 million above the threshold, a $2.50 ratio for $10 million to $14.99 million over, and a $3.25 ratio for $15 million to $19.99 million beyond the threshold.
Teams that are $20 million or more over the tax level accrue additional penalties, increasing by 50 cents per dollar for every $5 million...
The Lakers already have $79.6 million committed to eight players for the 2013-14 season. Assuming they re-sign Howard next summer to a maximum contract that calls for him to make $20.5 million in the first year, that bumps the Lakers payroll over $100 million.
If their final payroll was $105 million, that would put them $32 million over the league's projected tax threshold of $73 million, triggering a tax of $94.5 million and putting the team on the hook for a staggering total of $199.5 million — a 55.9% increase over the total for this season with essentially the same group of core players."
This in addition to the team's revenue sharing bill, adding tens of millions more to the "Outgoing Payments" category on the big Excel budget spreadsheet. While the Lakers certainly are a revenue monster, particularly in light of their multi-billion dollar deal with Time-Warner, there is always an upper limit somewhere. Even the Yankees, the gold standard in franchise largesse, have hit a top end when faced with MLB's more punitive tax policies.
Additionally, things only get pricier for the 2014-15 season when the new CBA's "repeater tax" kicks in. While the only player under contract at that point will be Steve Nash, they'll probably need others (if only to fully take advantage of Nash's passing skills). The assumption is he'll be joined by Howard, but who else?
It'll be fascinating to see how the Lakers handle things in the long view. Does Kobe stay for less? Does he retire? What about Pau Gasol? Do they spend a season resetting the luxury tax clock by getting under the salary cap for a year? The answers are likely dictated by the next two seasons, and reinforce their urgency. Unlike the Heat, who could absorb a couple empty seasons after constructing their SuperTeam! because of the squad's age/financial demographics, the Lakers don't have that luxury.
If they're going to push Dr. Buss past Boston or Kobe past Michael Jordan, they may very well need to bat 1.000 over the next two seasons.
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- After months (and months and months and months) of speculation, the trade finally bringing Dwight Howard to Los Angeles came together quickly. So, too, did the press conference. Howard and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak met the media Friday afternoon, and to say the least there was a buzz at the team facility in El Segundo.
For what it's worth, Howard seemed genuinely excited not just about the end of the Dwightmare, but more specifically to be in Los Angeles. And seated next to him, Kupchak looked equally satisfied. Given the challenges facing them heading into the offseason -- zero cap space, no draft picks of value, only a mini-mid level and veteran's minimum contracts to offer, trade chips difficult to turn into superior talent since they're already very good (Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol) -- this becomes one of the most impressive offseasons in modern league history.
After the big Howard show ended, Kupchak answered more questions for the assembled writerly hordes and delivered some interesting comments on the evolution of the deal, Bynum, Mike Brown's reaction to getting Howard while keeping Gasol, and the willingness of the Buss family to spend what's required to win.
The transcript is below...
Going forward, having Dwight, your payroll is huge. Any concern about that?
“Absolutely. Sure, it’s a concern, and if you’re familiar with the collective bargaining agreement, there have been some significant changes made for teams that exceed certain thresholds.
"But once again, over the last year there has been some criticism. When we traded Lamar, that it was just a way to save money, and I think this proves when it comes down to it, and I’ve always said it, certainly nobody who owns a family owned business doesn’t want to make a profit so their business can survive and prosper. But when it comes down to it, Dr. Buss is a very competitive owner, and his family is also very competitive. And when it comes down to making a decision about a couple dollars or a million dollars or 10 million dollars or putting another banner up? He can’t help himself. He chooses to go for the banner."
LOL: If ever there was a quote summarizing why Lakers fans should raise a monument to Dr. Buss, that's it. "He can't help himself. He chooses to go for the banner."
Based on your conversations with team Dwight, how much of a risk is it he’ll walk?
“You know something, we’ve had no discussions? The press conference started at four o’clock. They came into my office at about a quarter to four, and I had a little private chat with Dwight that maybe lasted four or five minutes, and that was it.”
So no point, you never had anything in there to measure his interest in staying here?
“No, in fact our decision was independent of anything you may have read about what maybe his desires were or weren’t. Our feeling was, no matter what anyone says, let’s just get him to Los Angeles and we’ll take our chances.”
Is the thought process that winning takes care of it?
“It’s the organization, ownership, the city of Los Angeles, our ability to win games, surrounding Dwight with players that will make it easier for him to play the game and not have to burden a load that’s maybe not fair."
It had been a while since the basketball folks had something to cheer about, and a sense of genuine optimism permeated the building. It certainly was missing during hard slogs through the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, the exit interviews punctuating them. Same for the day Mike Brown was introduced, and the days following the end of the lockout, with the scuttled deal for Chris Paul, and the ensuing trade sending Lamar Odom to Dallas.
The transition from father to son has scared many Lakers fans, but they should stop worrying for now.
Wednesday it returned, in the form of Steve Nash's introductory news conference. While few think the Lakers became instant favorites, most rightly think they're part of the conversation, and just as important, Nash will inject some excitement and fun into an on-floor product desperately needing both. General manager Mitch Kupchak looked about as giddy as Mitch Kupchak can. There was a buzz through the sizable media throng. Metta World Peace stuck his head out of the locker room. Brown sat in a back row, smiling. As was his boss, seated next to him.
Executive vice president Jim Buss even tossed a question at Nash during his news conference.
Like Kupchak, Buss looked loose and comfortable, rightly pleased with what his team had accomplished. After it was over, Buss spoke casually to a small group of reporters, but when asked if he would go on the record, he politely but quickly declined.
If ever there was a day Buss could wade safely into media waters, Wednesday was it, but better safe than sorry. Buss, introverted and a little awkward, isn't a natural media operator, and probably never will be. In this regard, Jim is truly the anti-Jeanie. He's working on it, though. Over the past year, Buss has made far more appearances on local radio and in print (virtual or otherwise), "far more" being defined as a number greater than zero, more or less his previous level of exposure.
Thankfully, Kobe didn't wear that Hornets hat very long.
However, there is the mission statement, and there is reality.
In reality, no team wins it all every year.
In reality, the new CBA will make it near impossible to win the "Lakers way," which has largely involved a willingness to spend. Obviously, success doesn't come purely by shelling out bucks like a drunken sailor. You have to spend wisely, and the players have to make good on that investment. The Knicks have proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that you can't just purchase titles. But there's no question that money had a hand in that success, and life as a luxury-tax-paying team will soon become exceptionally punitive.
And in reality, the Lakers as currently constructed aren't legitimate contenders, despite (knowingly false) claims from vice president of player personnel Jim Buss or general manager Mitch Kupchak. What's more, any fix will be difficult. They have a mini midlevel and veteran's minimum money available for free agents. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and a theoretically signed-and-traded Ramon Sessions are the only assets of any discernible value, and it's debatable how much they'd fetch in return. (There's also the Lamar Odom trade exception, but who knows whether they'd actually use it.) Derrick Williams as a potential centerpiece for Gasol doesn't necessarily make the Lakers much better, at least for now. Josh Smith and Andre Iguodala pop up in rumors, but the talk doesn't seem to be gaining much traction. And players like Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Deron Williams seemingly have no interest in donning purple and gold (which in and of itself feels like a paradigm shift).
Plus, if we're being honest with ourselves, Kobe's mammoth contract does the Lakers no favors. Whether you think he's ridiculously overpaid, criminally underpaid or paid accordingly, Bryant's salary made team-building difficult under the old CBA, much less the new one. Bryant also remains a high-end player, but his age is showing, whether judged by athleticism, burst or increased propensity for injury. He's no longer able to regularly take over games, particularly down the stretch, in an effective, efficient manner. (That's not to say he's incapable, but would you bet big money on a favorable result?) Yes, German wunder-science helped his legs, and I expect similarly springy results to begin this season after this summer's scheduled procedure. But I also expect the grind to catch up with Kobe, just as it did in 2011-12. Bottom line, he'll be 34 in his 17th season, and with playoff games included, Kobe has logged nearly the equivalent mileage of a 20-year veteran. A cyborg wouldn't be impervious to that much pounding, much less a mamba.
Like it or not, it's fair to wonder whether a team with Bryant as the clear focal point still can win a title. Or whether actively continuing to build around Kobe, no questions asked, is still best for the Lakers as a franchise moving forward.
For any Lakers fan, any NBA finals without the purple and gold is by definition a disappointing series. The Lakers are a franchise that openly cries "championship or bust," and that standard has been enthusiastically adopted by the faithful. Thus, being on the outside looking into a trophy chase always leaves a bitter taste.
However, this particular Finals may really stick in the Laker Nation's craw. The Miami Heat aren't just a super-team distastefully forged, and the Oklahoma City aren't just scary good, scary young and Western conference residents. They both feature foils to the supremacy of Kobe Bryant. LeBron James has long been viewed by Lakers fans as prematurely crowned "King" at Kobe's expense and Dwyane Wade has received favorable Mamba comparisons as well. (That Flash broke Bryant's nose/concussed him during a freakin' All-Star Game doesn't help, either.) In the meantime, Kevin Durant has already lapped Bryant as a scoring machine, but a title could make it impossible to argue, career achievement aside, he hasn't passed Bryant altogether. Thus, either teams basking in championship glory packs a potential double-whammy for Lakers fans.
AP Photo, Getty Images
Unless we're talking Smush, once Lakers, always Lakers, right?
Still, from a pure basketball perspective, this should be a massively entertaining series, and I'd hate to see Lakers fans sulk themselves out of any sense of enjoyment. The solution is to tab one team as the lesser of two evils, then root hard against the other. With that in mind, I'm here to help break some ties.
Pros to the Heat Winning
• Ronny Turiaf and Pat Riley, ex-Lakers still held in good esteem amongst the fan base, will get their first and seventh rings respectively.
• Over the last few years, some have questioned James' drive, and whether he's more consumed by his game or brand. Granted, his improved outside shooting and post game have quieted that criticism to some degree. But for those unconvinced, perhaps the championship demons exorcised will result in complacency, along with opportunity knocking for a revamped Laker squad to capitalize.
• Whenever the Heat falter, the rumor mill kicks into overdrive with scenarios bringing Dwight Howard to South Beach. Obviously, all gossip must be treated with a grain of salt, but it stands to reason a title decreases the odds of Miami dealing for Superman, which keeps hope alive for an L.A. landing.
• Realistically speaking, the odds favor this bunch winning one title. I mean, let's just be honest. So if they are destined to break through, it might as well happen during an "asterisk" season, right? With any luck, that will be the only "Heatle" title, and their time together will carry as little gravitas as possible.
• For that matter, they Heat would also win without having to go through either Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in the East. Let the discrediting process begin!
• Despite logging just 83 minutes in the regular season and (likely) none in the postseason, Eddy Curry will get a ring, making Kwame Brown the lone member of the Brown-Curry-Tyson Chandler "straight from high school into the 2001 NBA lottery" trio without a championship. And Laker fans never tire of jokes at Kwame's expense.
• The Heat knocked Boston out of the playoffs the last two seasons, which didn't just allow Lakers fans to rejoice, but also prevented the Pierce-KG-Allen Celts from tying or even besting the title count of the Kobe-Gasol Lakers. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the old saying goes.
• South Beach + June weather + championship parade = wall-to-wall eye candy. And this celebration will be televised. I'm just sayin'.