Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Kobe Bryant is calculated

By Ramona Shelburne
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Something's not adding up. It may be convenient to believe that all is right with the Los Angeles Lakers after their 103-92 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night. That a weight has been lifted off the franchise now that Kobe Bryant let Pau Gasol know that if nothing else, his teammates still have his back.

But something keeps sticking about the timing of Bryant's comments. Something that makes what should've been a simple show of affection and support seem more like the tip of an iceberg that has been lurking dangerously beneath the surface of this franchise for a while now.

Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant's defense of Pau Gasol reflects more on the Lakers' larger problem of continued uncertainty.
Why did Bryant finally speak up now? Why has he said so little on the subject when Gasol has been twisting in the wind all season?

And why would he call on management to trade him now or don't trade him at all when there are still three weeks before the trade deadline and this kind of public pressure on the Lakers undercuts their leverage?

When I posed the question to Gasol after Monday's game, it seemed to catch him off guard.

"Umm …" Gasol said while trying to come up with an answer. "Well, I think it was also after a loss. It was a little bit emotional, we were all upset and he just came out and said 'Enough.'"

Fine. Except for the fact that Gasol later acknowledged that Bryant told him beforehand he was planning to say something about the situation.

And strange too, because Bryant had an entirely different explanation for why he chose Sunday's loss in Phoenix to come to Gasol's defense. "We've got two big games coming up and I don't want that weighing on him," Bryant explained Monday night. "Is he still going to be thinking about it? Sure. But at least he knows that we all support him here in the locker room. We all got his back."

Yes, the Lakers do have two big games against Dallas and Oklahoma City coming up this week. But if Bryant was so concerned about the trade rumors weighing on Gasol, shouldn't he have stuck up for him a long time ago? Shouldn't he have been the one Gasol could lean on, instead of former coach Phil Jackson, who remains a close friend and confidant?

No, something else is going on. Something obvious, actually.

Ever since Jackson retired and took the cocoon he so artfully built around his players with him, the Lakers have lacked a leader.

There has been no calming voice to help heal the wounds inflicted on this franchise by the NBA's ham-handed handling of the failed Chris Paul trade.

Worse, there has been no authoritative figure to step up and soothe the fears of players and fans alike that the Lakers indeed have a plan to regroup after they were so wronged by the NBA.

General manager Mitch Kupchak has never been given to public displays of affection, much less attention. Owner Jerry Buss has retreated further into the background as he entrusts more to his son Jim Buss, who has always been a bit of a recluse himself and now seems determined to be judged on his performance rather than his words.

New coach Mike Brown seems to be out of the decision-making loop, and wouldn't have the clout within the organization to protect Gasol anyway. His only play is to keep grinding, keep his head down, and coach the guys who show up at practice.

Bryant's co-captain Derek Fisher's role has been so marginalized, his words wouldn't carry enough weight to help Gasol much anymore.

So under the cover of sticking up for Gasol, Bryant finally came out and said what he's wanted to say for a long time: Do something.

Trade Gasol or don't trade Gasol. Trade Andrew Bynum or don't trade Andrew Bynum. But please, don't sit back and let things keep drifting. Don't concede this season. Don't waste one of his few remaining elite seasons licking your wounds from the failed Paul trade.

It's no secret that the Lakers haven't been consulting with Bryant for a while now. It's also no secret that Bryant is a bit put off by the idea that the team doesn't see the value of his opinion.

But Bryant has learned enough along the way to know how unfruitful it would be for him to publicly whine about it. He just needed a moment like this to provide cover for him to say what he's wanted and needed to say for a long time: that if no one is willing or able to lead this franchise, he will.

"I think it's pretty obvious this isn't really about Gasol," said a Western Conference scout who has watched the Lakers extensively this season. "My thought when I heard Kobe's comments was that he's forcing the issue now. He wants them to make a trade. He knows they can't win with what they've got right now."

Gasol, the scout said, is not the Lakers' problem. Far from it, actually. He's been neutered a bit by the Lakers' new offense, but he's still playing at a high level.

"They're not using him properly," the scout said. "He should be on the court all the time when Bynum's out of the game. But now you've taken away the post-up game and he seems kind of off. But still, he's very efficient and very talented."

But again, this isn't really about Gasol. The Spaniard's role has been lessened by the emergence of Bynum. And yes, it's not the best financial decision to pay your third option on offense upwards of $19 million a season under the new CBA.

None of those are Bryant's concerns, however. This is about leadership, about direction, about what this team is now and what it's going to be in his last few, best chances to win a championship.

None of those questions have clear answers right now. Worse, it's not clear who is supposed to provide them. Kupchak? Jerry Buss? Jim Buss? Brown? None of them are even talking to the players about what's going on, much less the public.

On Sunday night in Phoenix, Bryant decided he'd had enough. For the last two months he'd put his head down and led the league in scoring while playing through a wrist injury he should have had surgery on, and his team was no closer to coming together and heading in the same direction as it had been at the start of the season.

His window to win and add to his legacy closes a little more with every 38-minute night. Bryant's focus will always be on that bigger picture. The Lakers' should be, too. If they don't want to ask his opinion on how to move forward, fine. He'll find a way to tell them anyway.

If there's a sense of relief in the Lakers' locker room after all this, it's that Kobe finally got that off his chest.

As for Gasol, he's still twisting.

"It feels good that my teammate supported me and went out and spoke his mind and said 'I want him here,'" Gasol said.

"I don't think that really changed the situation. If the team gets something that's valuable enough for the team's benefit in the present or in the future, they'll probably go ahead and do it."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLA.com.