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What the Lakers can learn from the Knicks (seriously)

Posted by on Mar 13, 2015 in Lakers Analysis, Opinion | 1 comment

There’s a narrative that states the Lakers “can’t afford” to rebuild as another, less glamorous team might. They’re the Lakers, after all. Fans wouldn’t tolerate it. Season ticket holders would abandon ship. The stars would stop showing. Sponsors would revolt. Media partners would freak out. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria

L.A., a city famous for its entertainment options, would move on to other things.

It’s compelling stuff, playing well into the championship image the team and fans are so rightly proud of.

It’s also completely untrue.

Sure, if the Lakers suffered through another couple seasons like this one, it would be embarrassing. Fans would be angry. Stars wouldn’t line the courtside seats. The rest of the NBA would point its collective finger towards El Segundo and laugh. But do you know what would really happen? Absolutely nothing of long term consequence. And all the evidence you need for visits Staples tonight. The New York Knicks have been an acrid, smoldering tire fire for most of the new millennium. And yet going back to 2001, they’ve never had a year where the Garden was filled to less than 96 percent capacity. Forbes values them at $2.5 billion, which is far less than they’d sell for on the open market.

The Knicks are, and will remain, a money printing machine, despite a tradition and track record that doesn’t approach what the Lakers have.

Last week, I was talking to a season ticket holder I’ve grown to know over the years. Big money, ungodly expensive seats. He’s had them for years, and he’s not giving them up, even knowing the Lakers could suck for a couple more years. Nor does he know anyone who will, because they’ll get snatched up in a heartbeat and can never be had back. In a world where live broadcast rights have never been more valuable, media partners aren’t going anywhere, either. If other sponsors ducked out for a couple years, they’d be back (perhaps paying higher rates) as soon as the team is good again. People who stop watching now, entertainment glitterati and salt of the earth alike, come right back when there’s something to see. That’s how this works.

The moral of the story? Don’t confuse a hit to the collective purple and gold ego with actual damage. That kind of thinking is what gets teams to do stupid things. The best way for the Lakers to make themselves relevant again (assuming you buy the supposition that they’re not, which I don’t) is to build something sustainable, by which the team can contend — legitimately contend — on a year-to-year basis. When that happens, or even appears to be really, all the heat returns.

If it takes an extra year or so to get the rebuild right, so be it. Panicky moves designed to win summer TV broadcasts and brochures for season ticket holders don’t do much good when the games actually start. There have been signs the Lakers understand this better now than they did before. Mitch Kupchak speaks openly about not mortgaging the future to try and send Kobe out a winner, for example. They’ve used language, at least periodically, talking about how it could take a couple years to get this thing back on track. But if the Lakers can’t shake the star-(bleep)er mentality as the primary means of roster construction, they’ll run into real problems.

Which is a shame, because assuming you believe the organization is still committed to winning — there is zero evidence to the contrary — the reality is they have all the time they need to do it right.

Just look at New York.

 

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How media makes playing with Kobe Bryant hard

Posted by on Nov 5, 2014 in Jeremy Lin, Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis | 9 comments

Everyone knows playing with Kobe Bryant is difficult, but people tend to focus on those things related to his personality and playing style. Kobe demands hard work and total commitment, doesn’t trust easily, has the ball in his hands a lot, and so on.

Noted far less frequently are the ways in which Bryant’s presence over nearly two decades has Kobe-fied the city and media, and how that influences his teammates, both present and potential. Take this exchange with Jeremy Lin, following Tuesday’s loss at home to Phoenix:

The Lakers are a bad team off to a terrible start, and Lin hasn’t looked good (his mini-bounceback Tuesday notwithstanding). They’re all frustrated. But after the game, in which Kobe scored 39 points on 37 shots over 44 minutes – voluminous usage likely annoying teammates on one level or another, even if we all understand why Bryant might feel compelled to take this much on himself – the focus isn’t simply on Kobe. That’s to be expected. It’s about how much Kobe poured into the game. How hard Kobe worked. How Kobe gave it his all.

I wasn’t there, but have heard this done enough to know how common questions like these are, and more importantly, how they sound to the athlete. Allow me to translate:

What is asked: “Jeremy, Kobe played 44 minutes and scored 39 points. He’s 36 years old. What’s it like to see a guy like him give it his all and post big numbers, 19 years into his career?”

What he hears: “Jeremy, Kobe played 44 minutes and scored 39 points. He’s 36 years old. What’s it like to see a guy like him give it his all and post big numbers 19 years into his career because you guys around him are such untalented shitbox slack-asses he has no alternative?”

Nobody outworks Kobe, but Kobe isn’t the only player who works hard. Kobe has a remarkable tolerance for pain, but he’s not the only guy who plays hurt. The implication of questions like the one asked Lin isn’t simply that the other Lakers are failing themselves, their teammates, or the organization, but that they’re failing Kobe. And it’s insulting.

Five games in, the Lakers don’t have a problem with effort, but talent. Guys are doing what they can, they just can’t do enough. Most of the time, someone asks the question and Kobe’s teammate delivers the “right” answer, marveling at Kobe’s work ethic and effort, and the quote is there to fill whatever need. Occasionally, you get a less filtered answer like Lin’s.

This is part of the landscape for potential free agents coming to Los Angeles. Our collective perception of Lakers basketball and how players are supposed to be successful now reflects Kobe’s unique makeup, his accomplishments, and the mythology surrounding him. The annoyances might be minor individually (how I’d classify Tuesday’s postgame exchange) but they do add up, and make playing here less appealing. And for stars, constant comparisons to Kobe can be draining (and they won’t end just because he retires).

At this point, Bryant is a master of media, knowing exactly how to convey any message he feels necessary, whether publicly through Twitter, for example, or behind the scenes. He’s unafraid to play those cards. But the phenomenon I’m noting here isn’t really something he controls or instigates. It’s an evolution. Having someone like him in a city like L.A. on a franchise like the Lakers for so long with so much success can’t help but influence the culture.

But it’s real, and it matters.

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Kobe Bryant, the Lakers, and loyalty

Posted by on Nov 4, 2014 in Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis, Opinion | 2 comments

I love my wife.

I’m fortunate, too, to have a strong and (far as I know) happy marriage. Still, because it’s a marriage there are moments of frustration and tension. When they come, I still have no interest in leaving because I love my wife and live a far better life with her than without. But while that is the primary and overwhelming consideration, it’s not the only one. I wouldn’t do anything potentially jeopardizing access to my boys. Pushing 40 and off the market for a decade (sorry ladies), the idea of dating seems foreign and absurd. I don’t want to divide all our stuff in half, not that there’s that much of it. Independence, if I wanted it, comes with real costs.

Which brings me to Kobe Bryant.

Before the legs grew too long, Bryant shot down the (and I use this term in its loosest possible sense) “rumors” of potentially asking — or perhaps demanding — his way out of L.A., ostensibly to escape the brush fire quickly enveloping the 2014-15 season and end his career with a title opportunity.

Via Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports:

“I hear the chatter of Kobe should ask out and he should go and play for a contender in this latter stage of his career,” Bryant told Yahoo Sports. “But that’s not what I do. I’m extremely loyal to the Lakers… I believe in fighting through the tough times as well as enjoying the good times. It’s my responsibility to get us to be the best that we can be. It’s important that we approach that on a day-to-day basis.”

and…

“I’ve enjoyed a great amount of success here. You can’t just enjoy the successful times and then run away from the bad ones. No, I don’t even think about [departing]. I’m a Laker.”

There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. Kobe should be loyal to the Lakers, supported for nearly two decades with aggressive roster building and about $280 million in salary, with another $25 mil on the way next season. When the Lakers had to choose between him and Shaquille O’Neal, they (rightly) chose Kobe. When Colorado happened, they stood by him. When he demanded trades to far flung former planets, the Lakers attempted to oblige him, but then quietly rode it out and eventually acquired Pau Gasol.

Everybody, from the organization to Bryant to Lakers fans, has been a huge winner in the relationship. It makes total sense for Kobe to stay, even if the team is losing. But his comments don’t provide a full view of the landscape. Bryant obviously understands the optics, and how awful it would look to force his way out after being given a $48.5 million contract before actually playing a game following his Achilles surgery. It’s a deal, after all, contributing to the predicament in which he currently finds himself.

(And no, I do not buy his explanation that the Lakers simply granted him this money. If there was no negotiation, it’s because the Lakers knew the numbers they had to hit to avoid any controversy. Whether they handled it properly is a separate debate.)

And where would he go? Yes, he’s looked good this year and still carries tremendous cache, but Kobe is nonetheless a 36-year old guard coming off two big injuries, with a massive cap number this year and next, for whom the Lakers would demand major assets in return, holding veto power over any deal potentially stripping his new team of too much stuff. For all the talk of New York being an ideal landing spot, with plenty of organizational familiarity in Phil Jackson upstairs and Derek Fisher on the sidelines (plus the sexiness factor of Kobe playing every night at The Garden), I don’t think the Knicks would actually pull the trigger. Phil has a plan. Giving up picks and young talent to have Kobe obliterate $25 million of his cap space next season isn’t part of it.

Particularly since Carmelo Anthony, Kobe, and J.R. Smith don’t make a likely championship trio, even in the East. Phil knows that, and more importantly, so does Kobe. His well-documented hyper-competitiveness notwithstanding, he’d recognize the brand and emotional connection built playing every year of his transcendent career with the same iconic franchise has more value than a very speculative shot at a sixth ring, even in New York.

And if not the Knicks, where? He’s extremely hard to trade, and the only thing more damaging to Kobe’s rep than forcing his way out of Los Angeles would be trying and failing.

For all the chest-puffing, social media driven, “Winning is the only thing” hyper-Lombardi-ism infecting our sports culture, there are still things we value as much as final scores. In different combinations for different situations, fair play, honesty, character, and loyalty all matter. Titles can be tainted should too many of those qualities be compromised in the process. Kobe might want more hardware, but doesn’t need it. Does a sixth ring really help Kobe’s legacy if brought by bailing on the Lakers? Is even a crack at the postseason enough to sacrifice everything else he’s built up?

In the end, the Lakers and Kobe are married to each other,* for better or for… well, this. When the two-year extension was offered and signed, both sides understood what could be coming. There would be attempts to improve the team, but they might not work. Fingers crossed, the Lakers might surprise people. But they might not, and the Lakers could not afford any heroics aimed at saving the end of the Kobe Era at the expense of whatever comes after. Kobe, eyes open, chose, deep continuity and money. The Lakers knew, and did the same. They didn’t offer Bryant that contract purely out of loyalty after years of success, after all. He keeps them relevant and brings income. They made PR calculations, too, particularly in the post-Dwight Howard aftermath.

Doesn’t devalue the loyalty the Lakers and Kobe are showing each other, but nobody should pretend it’s the only thing in play.

Maybe something comes along, changing the calculus for one side or the other. Maybe the perfect opportunity presents itself to give Bryant one last chance at a chip while helping the Lakers rebuild faster after he’s gone. More likely, though — much, much more likely — Bryant stays, ending his career in purple and gold, honored and revered for his accomplishments, just with less glory than everyone would have hoped.

*It can be argued, fairly easily really, a trade demand from Bryant — petitioning for a divorce, to flog the marriage metaphor that much more — does the Lakers a favor, since it takes the blame for ending the Kobe Era in L.A. off their hands. He, by definition, asked for it, and that’s the only way this process could start. But that’s a different discussion. 

 

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Nine interesting things about the upcoming Lakers season

Posted by on Sep 3, 2014 in Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis, Lakers statistics, Opinion, Steve Nash | 12 comments

The calendar says September, still the NBA’s Season of Possibilities, where the Lakers are limited only by lack of imagination and inability to suspend disbelief. But eventually the games will begin, and like most I expect the Season of Realities will be unkind to the purple and gold. A playoff run isn’t impossible, but given the depth in the West, they’ll need a string of things to go right in specific ways, in the same way Powerball winners need a string of things to go right specific ways.

But hey, just because the end result isn’t likely to add substantively to the franchise’s illustrious history, that doesn’t mean we’re staring down the barrel at 82 games of boredom. The 2014-15 season offers plenty of legitimate intrigue, nine examples of which are listed below, in no particular order:

1. Kobe Bryant. 

As outlined here, the track record for elite scoring guards after 30 years old is borderline catastrophic. At 36, Kobe would already be defying history to play at, or even close to, career levels, even before factoring in his injuries. Mentally, how much patience will he have, whether with any new limitations placed on his ability to exert influence on games and seasons? If the Lakers fall out of the playoff race? Were he to drag this bunch into postseason contention, it would go down as one of his most impressive achievements.

Really, how much explanation does putting Kobe on this list require?

2. Julius Randle. 

Rare is the Lakers rookie counted on to develop into a franchise cornerstone (or the type of player potentially garnering one in a trade), but Randle obviously qualifies. There’s plenty to like. Randle has great athleticism for his size, and has a bunch of the requisite intangibles — excited to be a Laker, wants to be pushed, wants to learn, etc. The motor, to use the parlance, seems to be there. He’ll have to adapt to the length and size of NBA competition, which could take time, but the first big hurdle is fitness. Byron Scott has already spoken publicly about the need for Randle to get in shape, which is both a warning and a challenge, and not necessarily reflective of where he is today, physically. Could just be a helpful reminder that whatever a rookie thinks qualifies as being in shape is probably 30-40 percent away from where he actually needs to be. Watching his development, hopefully not hindered by excessive playing time for Carlos Boozer, will be a lot of fun.

3. What does Ed Davis do with a season’s worth of playing time?

When the Grizzlies managed to offload Rudy Gay to the Raptors, plenty of people believed Memphis won the deal not just because they shed Gay’s salary, but also snagged Davis in the process. To that point, particularly in the weeks leading into the trade, Davis had been a pretty efficient scorer with moments, albeit inconsistently, of solid offensive rebounding. For a variety of reasons, he never was given enough consistent playing time to grow with the Grizzlies. Still only 25 with legitimate production at the NBA level under his belt, if Davis can carve out a season’s worth of consistent playing time, he has the most breakout potential of anyone in L.A.’s Short Contract Gang.

4. The last stand of Steve Nash. 

I realize the guy has become a symbol of catastrophe and the whole “I want the money” thing didn’t endear himself to the fan base, but we’re talking about one of the greatest point guards of this or any other generation trying to exit the game on something even kind of resembling his own terms. Those rare moments last season where Nash was able to play effectively — this one, mostly – were great to watch. He doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of equity locally as Kobe, nor should he, but Nash’s story arc this season has the potential to be engrossing. Low risk, high reward.

5. The trade deadline. 

If the Lakers aren’t legitimate playoff contenders in mid-February, attempting to flip Jordan Hill, Jeremy Lin, and anything else not to the floor isn’t a problem. But what if they’re within imagination’s reach of the top eight? On the one hand, even if they beat the odds to make the postseason, as things stand now you’d have to be smoking, and probably eating, piles of northern California’s finest to believe a title is a genuine possibility. Is it worth preserving a quick first round loss to hold assets that might otherwise be traded? On the other, does the front office think they can sell the fan base (and Kobe) on short-circuiting a season in the name of a rebuild? Will they believe they’re obligated to?

6. The Jeremy Lin Phenomenon. 

More than the player himself, who I don’t think lasts more than a year in L.A., I’m interested in the culture around him. The Lakers have a massive following in China. Or maybe more specifically, Kobe does. Still, the brand is powerful there, as is Lin. Moreover, Los Angeles itself has a thriving Chinese community. Linsanity was a phenomenon unlikely to be repeated, but could there be some sort of small scale revival, locally and abroad?

7. What can Byron fix? 

For about six thousand different reasons, ranging from coaching to personnel to psychology, the Lakers were a catastrophe on their end last year. Scott is expected to bring a much more developed sense of defensive commitment, but unless his thinner mustache has supernatural rock-bleeding powers not granted Mike D’Antoni’s somewhat thicker mustache, the results could still be spotty given their lack of perimeter defenders and rim protectors. Yes, teams can exceed the sum of their parts, but the parts do matter. Pushing the Lakers somewhere near league average in defensive efficiency would be a significant achievement. They’ll be all over it early, while everyone’s fresh and full of commitment. Except even last year’s team was 13th in efficiency through the first 16 games. How well do they sustain things through injuries, attrition, and the natural ebbs and flows of 82 games?

8. Swaggy P, Year 2: Electric Swaggaloo. 

Last season, he was solid gold. Imagine how he’ll be now, with a four year deal under his belt?

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Phil is gone, so does everyone get along? 

He was the elephant in the family room for a long time, but now Phil Jackson is officially, positively, unequivocally not coming back. The Possibility of Phil was a great source of tension between Jim and Jeanie (and for that matter, the organization and fans), but now he’s in New York. So does that help everyone here stay on the same page for good?

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Hunting for coaches, experience required

Posted by on Jun 12, 2014 in free agency, Kobe Bryant, Lakers Analysis, NBA Draft, Opinion | 8 comments

Late last week, I put down a few thoughts following the big day of workouts in El Segundo, talking about what the Lakers might want to do with the pick then tacking a few lingering questions about the coaching search on at the end. I held off on publishing just to make sure it was put together in semi-competent English (the business of self-editing is perilous, and benefits from time between drafts), but got caught up in other stuff, and here we are almost a week later, and the important stuff is totally different.

The Lakers have made it clear, barring a change of heart, they won’t be hiring anyone lacking NBA coaching experience. There are a few potential reasons, some better than others. A first-time coach:

  • … wouldn’t be able to handle the pressures of the market.
  • … wouldn’t hold the respect of Kobe Bryant, the most conspicuous pressure of the market.
  • … wouldn’t be a good lure for potential high-end free agents.
  • … isn’t worth the price, at least if Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher even marginally reflect the market for well-sought sideline rooks.
  • … isn’t appropriate for the Lakers, because the Lakers aren’t a “starter” gig. Consider it a corollary to the “We don’t rebuild, we reload” ethos. First year coaches are for smaller markets with smaller ambitions.

(There’s also the question of whether L.A.’s preferred newbies have been as amenable to L.A.’s overtures as the team might like. I don’t think the Lakers want to be spurned by a rookie. That’s not inside information, just thinking aloud.)

Throughout the season, long before Mike D’Antoni was fired but assuming he would be, I wondered if the Lakers would have the intestinal fortitude — the balls, if you will — to make a bold hire. Would Jim Buss stick his neck out one more time after Mike Brown’s slightly-more-than-one-and-done, and D’Antoni’s disastrous run? Would the Lakers risk a pouty Kobe and a questioning fan base in the name of identifying and cultivating someone they believe to be the NBA’s next big sideline talent? Will they at least try to think creatively?

Or would they hire Byron Scott, whether conceptually or literally?

The point isn’t that Scott is a bad coach (he’s not), or that experience is worthless (of course it has value). But Brown and D’Antoni both had experience, and look how that went. So many other factors play a role in a coach’s success. Neither “Byron Scott” (the type) nor Byron Scott (the person) are hires with vision. Particularly when removing guys like George Karl and Alvin Gentry, both impractical choices after pushing D’Antoni out, everyone else on the current, and likely future, list is relatively uninspired and safe. Scott’s Laker-ness is a nice bullet point on the press release and satisfy the nostalgia centers in the brains of many fans, but won’t make him more invested or successful than other candidates.

It would be one thing if the Lakers were excluding first-timers while courting truly elite coaches. They’re not. The guys on the list are perfectly respectable, but not titans. The Lakers have talked about being deliberate and casting a wide net, but a willingness to shut out an entire category of candidates shows otherwise. Cutting off a line to potential talent because they don’t tick one box on the long list of important qualities is, frankly, stupid. Particularly for a franchise that has seen two first-timers (Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy) lead them to the Finals.

And especially when you consider their current context. I’ve mentioned this before, but the most important quality the next coach needs isn’t Kobe’s respect or gravitas with the media – it’s ideological flexibility. Very likely, next year’s roster will be comprised of Kobe, the seventh pick in the Draft, and a bunch of guys on short-term deals. The year following, hopefully they have a second star to join Kobe on his farewell tour. Three years from now, Kobe is probably gone, and maybe they have a couple new elites anchoring the roster. Who knows who the stars will be, or what kind of talent will round those groups out? Point being, over the next three seasons the Lakers could have vastly different rosters requiring very different styles of play, offensively and defensively. Will the next coach have the ability to adjust accordingly, scrapping what might have been effective one season to match what’s available the next? Does he have the capacity for reinvention?

This, as much as anything, is the great gift of Gregg Popovich.

Experience can be a great thing and all things being equal is a quality worth having, but the way it influences a coach isn’t automatically positive. D’Antoni, for example, was rightly criticized for a dogmatic approach to his offense based in part on a strongly felt belief system, but also informed by the success he had doing things in a particular way. Brown’s experience somehow told him staging 17 hour practices with a veteran roster was a good idea. “This is how you put in the work,” it said from under its hard hat, clutching its lunch pail. Sometimes experience narrows perspective, rather than expanding it.

It’s easy to wonder if the Lakers have a coherent vision of their reconstruction. Mitch Kupchak noted during exit interviews how the Lakers would be happy for this thing to be put back together in three seasons. It could take longer, he said. On the other hand, there’s still a strong sense of Kobe Appeasement in the air. Maybe it reflects the way media and fans treat questions of Kobe’s contract, personality, the end of his career, and so on, more than anything the Lakers are doing. But it begs the question, do the Lakers think they can execute a rebuild that will satisfy Kobe’s desire to play on a championship caliber team before he’s done, while also setting themselves up properly for the post-Bryant future? If an opportunity arises potentially addressing one at the expense of the other, which side wins?

I wonder, too, how the Lakers see themselves. If they believe the Lakers are too big for a first-time candidate, or that they don’t have time for a guy to learn on the job (whether because they have to win quickly or because Kobe won’t tolerate it), they’re wrong on both counts. Particularly when next year, barring some Carmelo/LeBron/K-Love deus ex machine, shapes up to be another in which the Lakers struggle to make the playoffs. It’s actually a perfect situation to let a guy get his feet wet. Are they fully embracing the idea of a rebuild and all it entails? Kupchak has sent some signals saying yes, but the vibe isn’t consistent.

Like when you hear they might interview Larry Brown, for example.

The Lakers come off like a rich family forced into belt tightening, but still refusing to lose the maid and the gardener because of what the neighbors might think. Their highest profile attempt to acknowledge new realities in team building and free agent wooing – the Stay Dwight billboards – were instantly ridiculed. Then Howard took off. (Then the Lakers over-reacted and unloaded the Brinks truck on Kobe’s front lawn.) Like the failed post-Phil coaching choices, it feels like the egg on the franchise’s metaphorical face left a mark.

In the end, their patience might pay off. In absolute terms, the Lakers don’t lose much by waiting to see what happens in the early days of free agency. And while this sort of attitude reinforces their lack a strong philosophical vision for their next coach, losing one of their preferred candidates to another team simply means moving down the list another spot. There aren’t enough vacancies around the league to lose them all.

Maybe the experienced candidate turns out to be the best one. Maybe the Lakers do well on Draft day and early in free agency, adding depth and assets in ways we don’t see coming. Maybe they pull one of those purple and gold rabbits out of those purple and gold hats. Maybe there’s a more fully formed roster ultimately benefitting by a more experienced hand, and they’ll hire the right guy for the right reasons. Right now, so much of this is speculation and Spidey Sense, but insofar as the coaching search is concerned, where the Lakers are trying to project calm and thoroughness, I’m just picking up fear and incoherence.

 

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