Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson put onus on Lakers management for turnaround
Enough is enough for Kobe Bryant, who stated clearly on Wednesday that he wants to see a much different Lakers team when he returns to the court next season.
After making seven finals appearances and winning five titles from 2000 through 2010, the Lakers' 16-time All-Star guard has had to watch from the sidelines this season as L.A. has compiled one of the league's worst records.
"I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena," Bryant told reporters at a press conference announcing that his left knee injury will sideline him for the rest of the season. "I’m on edge all the time. I feel it, probably more than anybody in the organization does. I feel it more. It drives me absolutely crazy."
This season will mark just the second time since 2004 that the Lakers failed to make the playoffs. A weak roster that lost Dwight Howard to free agency last summer and which has suffered a seemingly never-ending list of injuries has endured its share of embarrassment, including a record-setting 48-point drubbing at the hands of the crosstown Clippers earlier this month.
"How can I be satisfied with it? We’re like 100 games under .500," Bryant said. "I can’t be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for, this is not what we play for. A lot of time it’s hard to understand that message if you’re not a die-hard Laker fan. It’s really hard to understand where we’re coming from, what we’re used to, what we’re accustomed to, which is playing for championships, where everything else is a complete failure. That’s just how it is. That’s how it was explained to me by Jerry [West] and all the other great Lakers who have played here, that’s how I grew up thinking and that’s just how it is."
The Lakers have fallen on harder times since winning back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010. In addition to the Howard saga, which chewed up most of last year, the franchise lost owner Dr. Jerry Buss to cancer, creating an unusual power dynamic where Jim Buss runs the basketball operations with GM Mitch Kupchak while Jeanie Buss handles the organization's business affairs. The Lakers nearly rehired Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson in 2012, only to opt for Mike D'Antoni instead. That decision led to some tense feelings, given Jackson's personal relationship with Jeanie Buss and his shared history with Bryant.
In any case, D'Antoni hasn't had the roster he expected when he was hired, thanks to Howard's departure for Houston, ongoing, career-threatening injuries to Steve Nash, and Achilles and knee injuries for Bryant. He might never get the chance. An ESPN television personality reported that D'Antoni could be out after this season, while the Sporting News reported that Bryant would welcome a coaching change, citing sources.
On the record, Bryant said that the organization's next chapter must come from the team's management.
"We have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team, what kind of culture do we want to have, what kind of system do we want to have, how do we want to play," Bryant said. "And it starts there, and then from there, you can start building out your team accordingly. ... You have to start with Jim and Jeanie, and how that relationship plays out. It starts with having a clear direction and clear authority. Then it goes down to the coaching staff, what Mike is going to do, what they want to do with Mike and it goes from there. It’s gotta start from the top."
Adding fuel to Bryant's fire was Hall of Fame Lakers guard and former part-owner Magic Johnson, who called on the organization to pursue Jackson, who has been linked to a front-office position with the Knicks in numerous reports, although an agreement has not been formally announced.
"I love Jim and Jeanie Buss, but we need Phil Jackson to be the face of our great organization, the Los Angeles Lakers," Johnson tweeted. "Kobe Bryant is the face of the Lakers' team. Who is the face of the Lakers' organization? In signing Phil Jackson, [Knicks] owner Jim Dolan and [president] Steve Mills are saying to the Knicks fans, they're ready to win now!"
What can the Lakers reasonably accomplish over the summer? L.A. is lacking in the asset department, as they have no obvious blue-chip trade pieces and already owe their 2015 first-round pick to Phoenix. The plan, then, starts with crossed fingers. L.A. is currently tied for the fourth-worst record in the league, and a victory in the lottery drawing would bring some badly-needed excitement to an organization that's been shrouded in disappointment.
But Bryant doesn't exactly sound thrilled by the idea of passing the torch to, say, Andrew Wiggins, and the only way for the Lakers to build the type of ready-made roster that Bryant is hoping for will be through free agency or trades. Adding multiple impact pieces will be difficult, even with so many contracts coming off their books this season, because the Lakers already gave Bryant a monster two-year, $48.5 million contract extension back in November. With potential roster holes at virtually every position, it's difficult to envision how the Lakers, even with their demonstrated ability to attract free agent talent to L.A., will be able to truly reload a competitive rotation by training camp. Surveying the West, playoff teams like the Thunder, Rockets, Clippers, Warriors and Blazers are all in position to bring back their core pieces, and there's also the question of how effective Bryant will be once he returns.
Rebuilding, though, isn't in Bryant's vocabulary, not at age 35 and not after suffering two major injuries in 2013. "No, nope, not one lick [of patience]," he said. "Let’s just play next year and suck again. No, absolutely not, absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. You have to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, the same expectations I have for them up there. You have to be able to figure out a way to do both."