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Thursday, October 18, 2007
Lazenby's Latest from Laker Land


Yesterday, Roland Lazenby told us some interesting stuff about the Lakers. (He is quite a guy. He wrote the book on the Lakers, sometimes runs a Laker blog, edits Lindy's Pro Basketball Annual, and does a lot of interesting things associated with the journalism classes latest insight he teaches at Virginia Tech). Lazenby just emailed some more thoughts:

When Kobe Bryant first began speaking out after the Lakers flopped in last year's playoffs, longtime Phil Jackson assistant Tex Winter figured that Bryant had to speak up.

Bryant was the only player with the power and status to make a statement. Plus, Bryant had earned the right to speak. He'd poured his heart into the team for a decade, by all accounts working harder than any other NBA player, and much harder than any other superstar. Who else besides Bryant could challenge the team's obvious personnel shortcomings?

The only problem was, Bryant has been too emotional, too angry about the issue. Each time he has spoken out, the communication hasn't been good. It has been terrible in fact, and he has angered a lot of people, including owner Jerry Buss. Winter agreed that Bryant should speak up, but like many others, the veteran coach was upset at how Kobe went about it.

Jerry Buss' recent comments reveal just how angry the owner is at being publicly challenged by his star player, and Bryant's response of sitting out three days of practice have again proved disastrous. They've irritated his ally, Phil Jackson, and they've confused fans and media alike. It appears to be another childish response, as Bryant's critics have quickly pointed out.

Perhaps Kobe needs to wear one of those WWJD bracelets. You know, What Would Jordan Do?

Facing a similar disconnect with the Chicago Bulls "organization" in 1997-98, Jordan allowed his play to do his talking. The team won, and winning trumped all other answers. In 1998, Jordan had an angry, injured Scottie Pippen as a teammate, and the Bulls struggled until Pippen found some health. Kobe, alas, doesn't have the veteran, accomplished team around him that Jordan did.

But he still has to try to answer with winning.

That's the opinion of Alan Elliott, a good friend of Jeanie Buss' who not surprisingly is a serious long-term Lakers fan. "Kobe is making $19,490,625 from the Lakers this year," Elliott told me Wednesday. "He needs to go to practice and play defense like he did for team USA. THAT is what Phil is pissed about right now. If he did that, this would all pass."

Winning does cover a multitude of sins. The Lakers have long shown that.

But the question does remain: Just what is the problem with the Lakers' front office? There is the case that Laker basketball executive Jim Buss, the owner's favorite son, has no real basketball background, that he and sister Jeanie are caught in a sibling rivalry that has affected the franchise.

Then there's the perception that Jackson has a tendency to savor the internal gamesmanship he indulges in around an organization. (Jackson, who believes Jim Buss was behind his 2004 firing, traded barbs with the owner's son in the media over the summer as Bryant was stewing.)

But what about General Manager Mitch Kupchak and his staff? The fans frequently refer to him as Mitch "Kupcake" and blame him for the poor O'Neal deal.

First, as I wrote in Lindy's Pro Basketball Annual, Jackson has a solid working relationship with Kupchak. He trusts him and communicates easily with him. Kupchak and the Lakers' fine scouting and front office staffs were all groomed by Jerry West. In terms of pedigree, they are the best in the business. Kupchak assistant Ronnie Lester, a former star-quality player who had his career shortened by a knee injury, has spent years paying his dues as an NBA scout for West. He knows the game inside and out. He has his own opinions about players and strategies, but that's what he's paid to do, have opinions.

Lester is not a tremendous fan of Jackson's and Winter's triangle offense. Lester was charged with finding personnel to build a running team (which Jerry Buss has always favored) in 2004 after Jackson was fired. Lester began finding players to fit the running game (Lamar Odom was the first) when suddenly Jackson and the triangle returned to the team in 2005 (I understand it was Jim Buss who hired Rudy Tomjanovich out of the blue, a monumental disaster for the Lakers).

The bottom line is that the Lakers remain at cross purposes. They have a triangle coach with a strong contingency in the organization, including ownership, that has never been enamored of the triangle, even though it won them three championships.

The NBA is a bottom line business. The bottom line is that it's time for this excellent front office to come up with results. "The expectations are awful high around here," as West used to say, almost pridefully.

West, though, also complained about having to do his job despite Buss' demands and interference. Buss' response was always that the organization had to watch its dollars. Now, though, it's about more than dollars. It's about Buss inserting his son several years ago into the front office as a vice president for basketball. It was laughable when Buss did that, except that it was an irritant for West and anyone who respected the game.

Now the irritant has grown immensely. And it's no pearl. From many accounts, Jim Buss is a good person and certainly no dummy about basketball. Still, he ain't no personnel guy, no way, no how, never, never, never. He's the owner's son, the owner in waiting. But it will take eons (and lots of winning) before the Lakers basketball public accepts him as the man - if it ever does.

Jerry Buss is well-known as a gambling man, which makes it stranger that he would put his son in the position of facing such long odds. As a father, Jerry Buss loves his son dearly, so you can chalk it up to the blindness of a father's eye. (Just look at the football coaches who try to make their sons the offensive coordinator. It never works.)

Given the circumstances, prudence suggests that Jim Buss should be cautious as to how he proceeds. If his father is guilty of blind love, it's understandable that Jim Buss seems intent on proving he's his own man, that he is a "basketball guy."

Unfortunately for Lakers fans, the stench of hubris is high in these circumstances, just as it was for former Bulls GM Jerry Krause in 1998 when he wanted to assert that he and his organization were the reason Chicago won all those championships. The fans are absolutely nauseated by the circumstances. (Aren't sports supposed to be the place you can go to forget about the pressures of life?)

So let's do the fans a favor for a minute. Let's forget the sibling rivalry and all the "drama" and focus on the real basketball problem.

The Lakers are a team with huge philosophical differences. In 2004 as the Lakers were getting dunked by the Pistons in the league championship series, Jerry Buss was explaining to anyone within earshot that he was fed up with the triangle. He wanted a running offense.

Now, it seems that Jackson is going to try to give Buss what he wants. The Lakers are going to run more. Tex Winter has been fussing for years that the triangle offense is great for running a controlled break, but Jackson wouldn't do it because he didn't want to piss off Shaq,
who was slow moving and wanted the offense to wait for him.

Truth be known, Jackson is a great coach, but he has never been much of an Xs and Os guy. Tex Winter has done all that for him. Which means Jackson, while fighting through health problems, has done a poor job of speeding up the Lakers offense and taking advantage of the talent the front office has brought to the equation.

Now Jackson is feeling better; the pressure of the Hall of Fame is off of him and his reputation is assured. Winter was reluctant to go to Hawaii this year, but it appears Jackson needed him more than ever. The Lakers have have shown they can slow it down and play system basketball toe to toe with San Antonio. Now they are trying to speed up to stay with the fast teams in the West that have given them trouble.

The transition to a faster tempo is going to mean a rough start for the Lakers.

Buss has had a vision since he put together an amazing deal to buy the team and the Forum in 1979. He has displayed amazing instincts. But that doesn't mean he's been perfect. Why did Buss trade Shaquille O'Neal? He was hesitant to sign him to a huge contract extension because of O'Neal's age and conditioning (as O'Neal told me, the two were never close).

Then O'Neal harshly criticized Buss, which sealed the issue. Buss has enjoyed tremendous fortune as owner of the team, but he still has a pretty thin skin. Has Bryant hurt Buss? Will Buss trade Bryant? Can he trade Bryant? Or will Phil and Tex and Kobe and everyone else get the opportunity to reinvent the team and prove once and for all Tex Winter's assertion that his triangle offense is plenty flexible and very capable of running?

Now that's what I call real drama. And it's all about basketball. Mostly.