2331...
NEW TGS HOOPS...DYSFUNCTION JUNCTION AT STAPLES CENTER
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Rewind to the summer of 1973. The basketball world was stunned by Wilt Chamberlain's announcement that he was jumping from the L.A. Lakers to the ABA's San Diego Conquistadors as player-coach. The Lakers would sue, claiming Wilt still owed them the option year of his contract. But the Lakers were just partly successful in their legal challenge, as Chamberlain was only barred from playing for the Qs...not coaching the ABA team. So, Wilt, to the disbelief of many, became a head coach, albeit in the ABA.

Basketball insiders were startled. Including the great Jerry West, Wilt's teammate with the Lakers. While this writer attended former Southern Cal head coach Bob Boyd's basketball camp that summer at Occidental College, West was the guest speaker one day, and during a question-and-answer session, West was asked, predictably, about his reaction to Chamberlain becoming a head coach. "That," said West, "I would like to see."

Whatever, Wilt was gone and a bright era of Laker greatness was coming to an end, too. West, into his mid 30s but still able to score better than 20 ppg, was having trouble staying healthy and would play only 31 games in the subsequent 1973-74 campaign. Minus Wilt, the Lakers would make a trade for a big man on the eve of the season, in September, when GM Pete Newell sent F Jim McMillian to the Buffalo Braves in a straight-up swap for third-year C Elmore Smith. For a while, the shot-swatting Smith appeared to be a very serviceable alternative to a later-career Wilt, and HC Bill Sharman was able to steer the Lake Show into the playoffs, where they would be dispatched in the first round when losing in five to the Bucks.

West, however, having played in a limited number of games, would retire after that campaign, and all the Lakers would then have left from their title team of three years earlier would be Sharman, star G Gail Goodrich and backup G named...Pat Riley. The 1974-75 season would thus be a difficult one, with a late 1960s St. Louis Hawks reunion of C Zelmo Beaty and F Bill Bridges part of a new, jerry-rigged cast of Laker characters. Los Angeles would limp home at 30-52, its worst record since relocating from Minneapolis in 1959.

But the Lake Show would quickly recalibrate the next season when Newell engineered a massive trade that brought Kareem Abdul-Jabbar back to L.A. (with none other than Elmore Smith one of several dealt away to the Bucks), where he played collegiately with UCLA. Even with Kareem, the Laker roster was still thin, with the likes of Cornell Warner, Don Ford, and/or Corky Calhoun often paired with Abdul-Jabbar on the frontline, but a new seed had been planted around which a forest could grow, as the Lakers improved 10 wins and barely missed the playoffs. Sharman, who had started to lose his voice in the 1972 playoffs, would retire to the front office after that season to be replaced by West as the head coach. With the still-dominant Abdul-Jabbar in the middle, the Lakers quickly climbed back to relevance, adding extra pieces every year until Magic Johnson arrived for the 1979-80 season and proved the final ingredient in a championship mix that would endure for the duration of the '80s.

Fast forward to summer, 2004. After losing in the Finals to the Pistons ("the first five-game sweep in playoff history," according to sports talk host Jim Rome), the Lakers, two years removed from their last of three straight titles, began to disassemble. Coach Phil Jackson would retire. Shaquille O'Neal would be traded to the Heat. Rudy Tomjanovich was hired as the new head coach. The roster, then with Kobe Bryant (who had clashed with Shaq) as the unquestioned headliner, was otherwise talent-shy, with a supporting cast featuring the likes of G Chucky Atkins and C Chris Mihm. Kobe and new running mate Lamar Odom (acquired from the Heat in the Shaq trade) would eventually miss time due to injury, and Tomjanovich, citing health reasons, would resign halfway through the season. With longtime Jackson aide Frank Hamblen assuming the coaching reins, the Lakers would collapse down the stretch and finish 34-48...their first losing season since 1993-94 (when Magic Johnson would assume coaching duties in an ill-fated experiment during the final month of the campaign).

Jackson, however, would be lured back to the bench the next season, and would quickly rebuild the Lakers into a title contender once more. The Lake Show would get back to the playoffs in Jackson's first two years of his second tour of duty, then emerge as a serious championship threat in Jackson's third season (2007-08) when reacquiring G Derek Fisher, a key cog in Jackson's title winners from earlier in the decade, and frontliner Pau Gasol, the final piece added in a midseason trade with Memphis. The following year the Lakers would win the NBA title and, for good measure, do it again in 2009-10. But when the Lake Show was swept out of the playoffs by Dallas the following year, Jackson would step down once more.

Still, Laker fans believed their team would quickly make adjustments as needed on the fly. After all, hadn't the Lake Show always recovered quickly from any bumpy seasons?

We mention all of the above, and the quick bounce-backs the Lakers have always made from rare poor seasons in the past, because something feels entirely different about the new plight of the Lake Show. Last year the team dipped to 27-55, its worst record of the 55-year L.A. era. And there are early indicators that there will be no quick recovery this season, either. In fact, if early performances are indicative, the Lakers appear hard-pressed to reach the 27 wins they recorded a year ago. Moreover, if the first week of the new season is any indicator, this Laker edition would appear to be the worst in the Western Conference...perhaps by a good margin.

Now, the Lake Show is making news for all of the wrong reasons. But it is still making news, more so than many playoff-caliber teams, much of it triggered by a recent article that appeared in ESPN The Magazine and written by Henry Abbott, which has become one of the most-discussed editorial pieces about the NBA--or any sport--in recent memory.

The focus of the Abbott piece was Kobe, also the name of the story. And Abbott would hardly portray Bryant in a flattering light

The response to the Abbott story has been a bit curious, given that no one is really disputing much about Kobe that appears in the piece. Abbott, however, has come under a lot of fire from various corners about running a piece that liberally quotes unnamed sources. Judging by some of the reaction to the Abbott piece, however, one might think that Abbott is the only journalist who would dare to quote unnamed sources.

Earlier in this football season, we did a comprehensive TGS review of a story written for SB Nation last April by Steven Godfrey entitled Meet The Bag Man, a review of the seedy side of college football recruiting. Godfrey would also cite numerous unnamed sources throughout his story.

To the uninitiated, we remind you that "unnamed sources" do not mean fabrication of fact, or unreliability of information. There are various ways a reporter can seek confirmation of information without revealing names. In fact, laws protect writers who wish confidentiality of their sources. Courts cannot compel a journalist to reveal the identity of an anonymous source for a story. The right is based on a recognition that without a strong guarantee of anonymity, many people would be deterred from coming forward and sharing information of public interest with journalists. As a result, problems such as corruption or crime might go undetected and unchallenged, to the ultimate detriment of society as a whole.

Now, the Kobe Bryant piece by Abbott in ESPN The Magazine has no real impact on society as a whole (aside from those Laker fans who thought the piece to be blasphemous). But Abbott, like Steven Godfrey, is merely the latest in a long line of journalists that might stretch around the equator who have cited unnamed sources and have been perfectly within their journalistic rights to do so. Indeed, perhaps the most decorated piece of investigative journalism in American history, Watergate and All The President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, made liberal use of unnamed and deep background sources.

So, if nothing else, Abbott is in good company in the unnamed sources category.

Abbott, however, was not uncovering a lot of new information in his piece, especially the thrust of the article about Kobe's boorishness and insufferability. It has been well known for years that the self-absorbed Bryant is a pill. And while we believe Abbott was pretty spot-on about everything he said about Kobe, Abbott might have erred when suggesting that Bryant was the main cause of the Lakers' downfall. While the Kobe factor figures large in the Lake Show's current dilemma, it is not the only reason the franchise is reeling at the moment.

Many Laker fans believe the first contributing factor to the current plight of the franchise was dealt by the NBA when nixing the trade for Chris Paul from New Orleans three years ago. We do not deny that Laker fans, who believe that the blockade of the trade was done spitefully by a league which had become tired of Laker successes and one-sided deals made in L.A.'s favor in the past, might have a point. But the then-called Hornets were at the time a ward of the league, and the owners, led by Mark Cuban and others, had every right to veto the deal and seek another, perhaps better, trade for New Orleans. After all, the other NBA owners were technically the owners of the Hornets in late 2011. New Orleans GM Dell Demps, like all GMs, would need approval from ownership to make a deal, and Mark Cuban and the rest were within their rights to ask Demps to continue to shop Paul.

Shortly thereafter, Paul was dealt to the Clippers, a cruel blow to Laker fans who will never stop believing the league had it in for the team.

Regardless of opinions of the Paul trade/non-trade, it did seem to mark the next point, after Jackson's second retirement, where the Lakers began to lose traction. Since then, most of the personnel and coaching moves have backfired. As well as front office developments in L.A., starting with the February, 2013 passing of franchise patriarch Jerry Buss, who ceded command of the franchise to son Jimmy (who has final say on basketball matters) and daughter Jeanie...who also happens to be Phil Jackson's fiancee.

There is a litany of Laker mis-steps over the past two years, beginning with the aborted courtship of Jackson after HC Mike Brown was dismissed in November of 2012, to the attempts at signing Dwight Howard to a long-term contract, to the feet-dragging at naming a replacement for HC Mike D'Antoni, who resigned after the 2013-14 campaign, preceding months of indecision before Byron Scott was hired as coach. Pursuit of significant free agents went nowhere last summer, which the Abbott story claims might have something to do with Bryant. (Perhaps the most illustrative installment of the Abbott piece was Laker GM Mitch Kupchak's disappointment at not being able to make the proper push for Howard, wrecked in part by a petulant Bryant at a key face-to-face meeting with big Dwight). Still, much of the present Laker mess can also be pinned away from Bryant and upon the current franchise structure that begins with Jim Buss and works downward.

Kobe? As Abbott suggests, he's a major impediment moving forward as well, although we believe he is far from the only problem case in the Laker organization.

We have to wonder, however, what the end game is going to be with Kobe, in the first year of a two-year, $48 million deal. In five decades of watching hoops, we hardly recall a situation looking so disjointed as the current Laker plight, with Bryant in the eye of the hurricane. A brooding Kobe seems to be operating outside of whatever parameters new HC Scott has tried to put in place with the current edition of the Lakers

In the Lake Show's most recent game last Tuesday vs. Phoenix, the aging Bryant hoisted 37 shots, missing 24 of them. Even with an injury-plagued roster (more on that in a moment), we hardly believe this is what Scott has designed for whatever lineup he puts on the floor. As much, or more, than ever, Kobe is simply taking the ball and acting oblivious to teammates, forcing countless bad shots and, outwardly at least, showing no remorse for doing so. The body language for the Lakers is mostly awful, as it is apparent that no one is going to tell Bryant not to shoot so much. Kobe's expressions during the game are also illuminating, with Kobe rarely looking at teammates in the sideline huddle, and seeming to tune out whatever Scott is saying. This hardly looks like a pleasant situation for any player on the team, or coach on the bench.

As the losses mount (the Lakers were 0-5 through Thursday), we wonder what the reaction will be of Bryant, who cannot be enamored at the prospect of being the centerpiece of what might be the league's worst team (though the 76ers, also still winless entering the weekend, might offer an argument). Help is not forthcoming for the current edition of the Lakers, either, especially with promising Kentucky rookie PF Julius Randle out for rest of the season with a broken leg suffered on opening night vs. the Rockets, and vet G Steve Nash (whose contributions were going to be hard to gauge) also sidelined for the season due to a back injury. Explosive wing Nick Young, the Lakers' most entertaining component aside from Bryant, is out, perhaps until early December, with a thumb injury.

(As for the rookie Randle, his leg injury might be only part of the story with him, as it has been revealed that many teams were scared off Randle in last June's draft because of concerns over his foot, dating back to his high school days and another potential problem for the former Kentucky bruiser when and if he gets back on the floor.)

Meanwhile, new roster pieces are yet to provide much help, with G Jeremy Lin's contributions negligible to date and vet PF Carlos Boozer looking more and more past his sell-by date, and a subpar replacement for Pau Gasol, who left for the Bulls in free agency over the summer. The Laker defense, one of the league's worst last season, has been abysmal, as the team has allowed a whopping 117 ppg in its first five games. The offense has also been inefficient; Bryant, though gunning indiscriminately, also seems to be the only Laker willing to fire a 3-point shot, which has become an increasingly important offensive component in the modern-day NBA.

Handicapping-wise, we have to get used to the odd new reality that the Lakers are going to be largely overlooked by many teams. The Lake Show might be able to catch a lot of disinterested foes on an off night. Which is why we are not quite ready to say that the Lakers are a full-blown go-against proposition. There could be several nights like last Friday, when the Clippers were going through the motions for most of the game before finally getting serious in the final few minutes to pull away to a 118-111 win...which wasn't quite enough to cover a hefty pointspread. It would be no surprise if that scenario to repeats several times in the coming weeks and months with the Lake Show.

Meanwhile, the rumor mill has something else to whirr about now, too, as Bryant's name is suddenly coming up in trade whispers. The most popular at the moment is that the Knicks, with their many Laker connections featuring Jackson as the team president and Derek Fisher the new head coach, would be a possible landing spot for Kobe, as New York could also package expiring contracts (including Amar'e Stoudemire) back to L.A. to make a salary fit for any deal. Big Apple tabloids are certainly suggesting as much, and dreaming of a Kobe-Carmelo Anthony pairing ('Melo is supposedly on good terms with Kobe, thought we wonder how those two would co-exist with only one ball on the court). But there is nothing to indicate this is more than just idle speculation from various sports writers who are making the mistaken assumption that just because something could happen, that it will. Kobe's massive contract also makes him effectively, though not completely, untradeable, with only a few teams (like the Knicks) able to provide contract fits/swaps necessary.

Still, the Lakers, as most insiders seem to indicate, are going to be unlikely to deal Bryant as long as he remains a reason for Lake Show fans to tune into the games on the Time Warner Sports Channel, now in the second year of a mega-bucks deal with the Lakers. But much of the team's compensation from the TV deal is based upon ratings (which were fourth in the NBA last season, even with the 27-55 record). Even with the losses mounting, Kobe's presence still pulls viewers, and the Lakers need TV sets tuned into the Time Warner channel to reap their biggest rewards. Dealing away Bryant, so the thought goes in L.A., would jeopardize revenues from Time Warner, which was a reason many believe that Jim Buss decided to give Kobe a big-bucks extension, figuring it necessary to keep the TV ratings at an acceptable level.

Which brings us to another angle on the Lakers plight. The Lake Show is the main income source for the Buss family, not some high-risk part of an extensive portfolio as other NBA teams are for the several billionaire owners in the league. The Buss family is not as well-heeled as Mark Cuban, or new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. Indeed, it is fact that the Lakers are known to not pay their non-player and coaching employees very well at all. It is something of a shoestring operation because some of the financial limitations of the Buss family, at least in comparison with other NBA ownership situations.

What we will find out in the next couple of months, however, is if Kobe (or specifically his agent Rob Pelinka) might be quietly shopping for a deal outside of Los Angeles. Though Bryant has outwardly denied interest in playing anywhere else, he also realizes his dream of a sixth NBA title ring is now futile with the Lakers, who are years away from building another contender. We would keep our eyes on this situation, as we have a hard time believing Bryant is enjoying being a part of the current mess with the Lakers any more than his current teammates like having to co-exist with Kobe, who is likely to become more insufferable if the team careens toward 60 (or more) losses. We certainly could not blame Kobe, or Pelinka, for shopping, as the L.A. situation detriorates.

Meanwhile, what of the Buss clan? At some point, Jim and Jeanie might decide that the glory days are not going to return anytime soon, and that all it would take to receive a windfall that would likely exceed two billion dollars (or maybe considerably more) would be to put the team on the market. The feeding frenzy for the Lakers brand might exceed what was recently paid in Los Angeles for other franchises like the Dodgers and Clippers combined.

Whether they publicly admit as much, the temptation to sell is bound to strike the Buss clan soon (if it hasn't already). The pressure is also likely to begin ratcheting up from a fan base that will soon become angry as it realizes the franchise is not in competent hands. It does not sit well with anyone in "Laker Nation" that the Lake Show could continue to lose ground against the Staples Center-sharing Clippers, now the featured hoops show in town.

Our advice to Lakers fans? The bad times have just begun. The situation appears toxic. A divorce from Kobe might be the best thing for all parties involved. Is it really worth it to Lakers fans having Kobe as the centerpiece of this mess?


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