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Holding Court - Kobe Bryant must take responsibility for Lakers fate

There’s been a story going around lately that Kobe Bryant wants to be consulted by the Los Angeles Lakers when they go about the process of choosing their next coach following the resignation of Mike D’Antoni. Bryant has also publicly pronounced that he didn’t care that D’Antoni resigned, and that he believes Jim and Jeanie Buss are on the right track in the effort to return the Lakers to their accustomed place among the league’s elite. 

Right off the bat, one can see that the future Hall of Famer, the highest-paid player in the league this season at $30.45 million (he later got a two-year extension worth $48.5 million in November 2013), is playing politics, or at least the proverbial PR game. That game could be directed at both the Lakers front office and the public, Bryant being the savvy and world-wise veteran he now is. It’s only like a few years ago that he came here to Manila for the first time in 1998 as a high-school phenom that just completed his rookie season with the Lakers. That time, he didn’t have a trace of the swagger nor the doublespeak that he’s become very good at as somebody who turns 36 in three months.

Bryant recently said he hopes the Lakers will consult him as a choice is made for the replacement of D’Antoni, who accepted a buyout of almost $2 million from the team rather than continue to coach it next season.

“On the last two they didn’t,” he said, obviously referring to Mike Brown and D’Antoni, who both failed to finish the number of years stipulated in their contracts before leaving unceremoniously. “On the third one, I’m hoping they do.”

Problem is, while he was obviously hoping Phil Jackson was hired back when the Lakers fired Brown in November 2012, Bryant himself was a passive party to the entire process, unlike former Lakers superstar and ex-part-owner Magic Johnson who made it known in no uncertain terms that the hiring of D’Antoni over Jackson by Jim Buss, whose issues with his sister Jeanie’s fiancee are well-known, was a terrible mistake.

Kobe at that time chose to keep silent, apparently satisfied that the Lakers were bringing in a childhood hero, with whom he had a relationship while growing up in Italy as his father Joe was playing in the Italian League. D’Antoni was then the star point guard with the Olimpia Milano squad.

But after almost two seasons where LA compiled a 67-87 record, Bryant is quick to turn his back on D’Antoni, who in fairness never won over Bryant even in the time before the latter got injured despite giving him unlimited shots and minutes.

“Honestly I didn’t care,” Bryant cold-bloodedly declared when asked during a guesting stint on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last May 8 if he was happy D’Antoni opted to resign after the buyout.

What makes Bryant’s duplicitous declarations even more obvious is how he spoke of the people at the top, who just last March he took to task for a seeming inability to do their job right.

“Jimmy and Jeanie both, they’re just really determined and excited about the possibilities of next season and rebuilding this and building on their father’s legacy and everything that he’s accomplished,” Kobe said in the same TV appearance. “And they’re taking the challenge extremely, extremely seriously.  They’re both on the same page and they want nothing but excellence here, so I have no doubt that we’ll make it happen.” 

But just last March, Bryant was fuming mad, saying he had “not one lick” of patience for the Lakers’ management team of Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak in the effort to rebuild the Lakers into a contender.

“Oh yeah, let’s just play next year and let’s just suck again,” the 16-time All-Star then sarcastically said. “No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It’s my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. Right? You got to get things done. It’s the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both.”

“I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team,” Bryant declared. “What kind of culture do we want to have? What kind of system do we want to have? How do we want to play? It starts there and from there, you can start building out your team accordingly.

“You’ve got to start with Jim. You got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority.”

Are you not confused yet? But no, the doublespeak is easy to understand, and woe unto Mitch and whoever between the Buss siblings is unable to do Kobe’s bidding. Bryant obviously wants a clear say in the way the team is rebuilt, from the choice of the coaches to the drafting, signing and trading of players.

If he had his way, for example, he would want to bring back buddy Pau Gasol, who becomes a free agent in July and is thinking of joining his younger brother Marc on his original team Memphis. The Grizzlies can conceivably become a real, real threat once Marc and Pau get to team up on that frontline with Zach Randolph coming off the bench as sixth man. The Grizzlies stretched Oklahoma City to a full seven games in this year’s playoffs, and only Randolph’s ill-advised punching of the Thunder’s second-string big man Steven Adams and subsequent suspension could have prevented the Grizzlies from advancing.

But more than seeing the players he wants as teammates, Bryant should also begin assuming greater responsibility in seeing to it that the Lakers are able to afford those players. If he wants to have Gasol brought back, for example, he has to help ensure that he fits into the Lakers’ payroll, which this season was the fourth-highest behind Brooklyn, New York and Miami at $77,423,614. Including taxes and penalties, the Lakers were set to spend $94 million for player payroll alone.

The seven-foot Gasol, clearly the Lakers’ best player in a dolorous season despite having been thrown under the bus by D’Antoni on several occasions, earned $19.3 million this year. Can he take a salary cut to fit in with the Lakers? Or perhaps more fittingly, shouldn’t Bryant start looking at himself? For starters, shouldn’t Bryant look at his own paycheck and perhaps voluntarily take a pay cut? Kobe is set to receive $23.5 million in 2014-15 and $25 million the next campaign, and while veteran franchise stars like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have gladly taken pay cuts in recent years to accommodate reinforcements for San Antonio and Dallas, for instance, Bryant’s tack has been different.  

Okay, while it may be true only Bryant, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, and Nick Young and Kendall Marshall (both team options) have live contracts going into next year, the only way for LA to become the playoff team that Bryant quickly wants it to be is to bring in at least a couple of stars, or near-stars, alongside whichever lottery pick the Lakers are set to get in the draft this coming June. And this has become a huge task given teams that have previously surpassed the luxury tax threshold, as the Lakers have, are now set to pay the dreaded repeater’s tax, which would double whatever amount goes over that threshold. The threshold is projected at $77 million next season.

Assuming Gasol returns for approximately his old salary of $19 million next year, and the Lakers’ projected remaining payroll stays at $38.1 million, including that of the lottery pick, the Lakers would be left with barely $6 million to sign a significant free agent based on next year’s projected salary cap of $63.2 million. That would obviously not be enough to sign even a borderline star, unless that player is willing to cast his lot with LA in exchange for the glamor and projected endorsements playing for a big-market franchise – as long as it’s winning, that is – brings.  

If Gasol, and especially Bryant, are willing to take a pay cut, however, it’s conceivable that more space can be created to bring in another star to make the Lakers’ rebuilding a shorter, faster process. But it’s doubtful if Gasol will take that gamble in exchange for the uncertainty of creating a legitimate contender in LA when he can very well get a better deal in Memphis while already playing for a surefire contender, and, as a bonus, playing with his brother.

It’s up to Bryant then to convince Gasol that staying the course could bring in more rewards in terms of playing for a title. And obviously, the first step in that effort is assuming a greater responsibility in making the Lakers’ payroll more tenable.

No second-round sweep 

There will be no sweep in the second round as Portland lived another day by beating San Antonio 103-92 at home to reduce their series deficit to 3-1.

Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard led the Trail Blazers in staving off a sweep and in winning their first second-round game since 2000 against Portland. Batum helped limit fellow Frenchman Tony Parker to 14 points and put in 14 points of his own to go with a game-high 14 rebounds and eight assists. Lillard, meanwhile, had a game-high 25 points to outplay for the first time his point-guard counterpart, Parker, who had 33, 16 and 29 points in the Spurs’ three earlier blowout wins.

Will Barton, a 6-foot-6 second-year guard out of Memphis, also helped secure the Blazers’ win with 17 points and six rebounds off the bench.

“If they lost today it was a sweep, but they’ve got pride and they played good,” Manu Ginobili, who just had two points in 20 minutes, said. “They played the game more desperately than we did.  We didn’t bring the same emotions the first three games. The bottom line is they played better than us in every aspect of the game.”

Miami, meanwhile, took a commanding 3-1 series lead against Brooklyn by beating the Nets at their homecourt 102-96. The game did more than put the Nets on the brink; it showed more than ever how the Heat have unmistakably become LeBron James and his buddies. James tied a playoff career high with 49 points, falling just four points short of matching the rest of the Heat’s output.

It was James who put Miami on his back. Every time he came out for a breather, the Nets would come close or take the lead.  But the Heat would again take the initiative once he gets back. James scored 34 of his total on plays built around his strength – attacking the basket either on cuts, drives, postups or putbacks. He shot 11-of-12 inside the paint compared with 5-of-12 on jumpshots.  His 49 points also shattered the club record of 46 set by Dwyane Wade in a losing first-round series against Boston prior to the Big Three era in 2010. 

“This is very difficult to swallow,” Nets center Kevin Garnett said of the game where neither team led by double digits.  “Hard to take, but it’s what it is. Coulda, shoulda, woulda doesn’t help us at this point.”

It certainly doesn’t. They now have no choice but to win in Miami in order to survive. –


Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.