Backing Gasol is Kobe's good move
Except ... only the Los Angeles Lakers could turn a show of support into evidence of division. Kobe's vocal outburst was his strongest statement on behalf of his struggling teammate. But general manager Mitch Kupchak's response, via a team-issued statement, showed the disconnect between the front office and the team's star.
"As a former player, I understand how the days leading up to the trade deadline can be nerve-wracking for an NBA player," Kupchak said in the statement released before the Lakers' game against the Portland Trail Blazers Monday night. "Nonetheless, as general manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities. To improve the team and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans."
I translate that as: "Look, I know how you guys feel. I've been there. Having said that, (*Seinfeld voice*) no matter what your opinion, I'm gonna do what I do. So chill. I work for Jerry Buss, not you."
Bryant didn't engage in a back-and-forth with management.
"I already said what I had to say," he said. "I'm done."
Kupchak and the Lakers would have been better served by not responding in the first place. Why come out against your franchise player? We already knew the Lakers stopped ceding to Bryant's whims long ago. They brought back Phil Jackson in 2005, with the harsh comments Jackson made in his book, "The Last Season," still on everyone's minds. Phil and Kobe managed to patch things up, and the organization returned to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus, and then got back to championship parades.
Emboldened, the Lakers decided to double down and hire Mike Brown last summer even though Bryant had endorsed Brian Shaw.
But Bryant, with that rare NBA no-trade clause in his pocket, still has the license to speak his mind and at the very least rally the locker room and sway the fans.
There was no way the Lakers were going to win this public battle.
Brown did his best to stay out of this Kobe-created controversy.
"I don't have any reaction," he said.
And: "I just coach the team."
As well as: "That discussion is done between Mitch and Kobe."
In regard to Gasol, he said: "To a certain degree, I think [the trade talk] bothers him. But I have not sat down and asked him if it bothers him or not. That's something that needs to be done between Mitch and Pau."
Apparently Brown is the only key figure in this matter with no opinion. More likely, he doesn't want to come out and alienate anyone. But the flip side of that is not having a strong bond with anyone, either.
Some coaches try to get the entire team mad at them so at least the players will be united in some way. That's not the case in L.A. There are many players who aren't content with Mike Brown, but it's for a variety of reasons. Gasol misses out on his post touches that now go to Andrew Bynum, who would prefer even more touches of his own in the course of more minutes. Matt Barnes has gone from the starting lineup back to the bench, yet his replacement, Metta World Peace, isn't content with his playing time. More often than not, Derek Fisher finds himself out of the game in the fourth quarter, when his big-play-making experience might be the only thing he has left to contribute. And on and on.
Kobe enjoys the freedom he's been given to play and shoot as much as he wants. But even he recently expressed a desire for the coaching staff to do more to create space for him within the offense, after defenses started loading up on him. It was more like a request than a demand.
Sunday's statements were much bolder.
I'm not sure how much empathy he has for Gasol. Kobe's M.O. has always been to play through injuries, roster uncertainty, whatever, so that doesn't leave much room in his heart for pity. But he recognizes that Gasol has a different mindset, one that won't let him flourish under these circumstances, and he saw the effect this was having on the team.
So he spoke out on Gasol's behalf.
"I'd rather them not trade him at all, but if they're going to do something, I wish they would just ... do it," he told reporters Sunday night.
"If they're not going to do it, come out and say you're not going to do it," Bryant added. "This way, he can be comfortable and go out and can perform and play and he can invest all of himself into the game. You can't have one of our pillars not knowing if he's going to be here or not. Do something. One way or another, do something."
He's right. The Lakers were dragged down by the uncertainty, bottoming out with a lifeless loss in Phoenix Sunday night. Did Kobe's vocal outburst provide the impetus for their dominant first half Monday against Portland, when the Lakers jumped out to a 35-7 lead?
"I don't know," Bryant said. "I think Pau feels a lot better. He looks a lot better to me. It's important to know that guys in the locker room support you, and that guys are going to step up. That's my role here. I mean, he can't say that. You guys know Pau. He's a nice guy. He would never, ever say anything to ... shuffle the deck, so to speak. But I will. I'll say it for him."
Bryant let Gasol know what he was up to ahead of time.
"I'm glad he showed big support toward me and he spoke his mind," Gasol said.
"I think it's for the rest of the guys too. We don't want any distractions, we don't need any distractions. We want to do the best we can."
They looked a lot better Monday, one day after they got the best performance of the season from Bryant.