The Lakers Summer of Living Dangerously

Mitch Kupchak is facing a summer of decisions, and even though his job is being threatened by his boss, this isn’t the most pressure Kupchak has faced. This summer is nothing like the summer of 2007.

The elite expectations of Kobe Bryant did not include a first round playoff exit. That was a fall from grace. At 28, Bryant was unchanged, no different than he was at 21. He revered work, loathed laziness, accepted winning as a birthright. But, he neglected to add up the linear sum of everything else, such as how do you bring your teammates with you? All he knew was what he did not want and that was twofold. Misery for misery’s sake, and more wasted time on a losing team. Three years of failure and defeat left him with a bitter education. He knew what was in front of him and it was not appealing. But, and this was the conflict: he was out of choices.

It was the summer of 2007 and Kobe Bryant was letting go.

All throughout the 2006-07 season, his third without Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant was as powerful and electric as his legacy suggests: 32 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists. But, as the Lakers wilted, the whispers continued to haunt him like a bad dream he couldn’t escape from, what he described as Chinese water torture: he could not lead a team. He would never win a title without Shaq. He could never be compared to Michael Jordan.

A 42 win season was all Bryant and his teammates could muster in 2006-07. They were fifth in the NBA in scoring, 6th in assists, 11th in rebounding but near the bottom of the league in defense. The team had injuries to Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Luke Walton. In early February through early March, they were absolutely miserable, losing 12 out of 15 games. Predictably, it sent Bryant into basketball psychotic mode.

He scored 65 points against Portland. 50 points against Minnesota. 60 points against Memphis. 50 points against New Orleans. 43 against the Warriors. 50 against the Warriors. The Lakers were 5-1 in those games. But, he alienated the rest of the team with his usage rate. Whatever chemistry existed was suddenly and quickly buried, and of course, on cue, Bryant was blamed for what had been wrought. Subsequently, when the Lakers made the playoffs, they barely made a ripple. It was the sort of failure that did not disappear as the weeks passed.

“I’m tired of being a one-man show”, Bryant said after the playoff elimination and he was entirely correct. He was a one-man show, a progressive talent that was like a fine piece of glass you admire but you can never, really change. Or, break. At the age of 28, the narrative he had self-written, all of a sudden, had exhausted him. It was mental fatigue.

“I’m about winning. I want to win championships and win them now…so the Lakers have some decisions to make.”

It was a threatening overture, a derivative of Bryant’s rising frustration. Bryant put into a game and a season, velocity. He pushed his body hard. He had the singular focus of a savant. He manipulated those around him to dizzying but unattainable heights. His desire could never meet his teammate’s capacity. What he thought of himself was indeed true in one sense and it was very false in another. You can’t push and pull at the same time. It wasn’t an accident that he was unhappy, gravely so. This was a long time coming, this frustration reaching the point of no-return.

2002 was the last perfect June for Kobe Bryant. Since then, in five years, he had devolved into a writ of anger and bloodthirsty angst. A long time ago, Bryant had almost defected to the Clippers but at the eleventh hour someone reminded him he couldn’t trust Donald Sterling. In this new version, it was Jerry Buss he didn’t trust.

It was all so one-sided. Bryant had done his part, taking the team and putting it on his shoulders, scoring 50, scoring 40, scoring 81, playing ungodly minutes, doing everything he could possibly do to lead the team to wins while neutering his pride. But, what he received in return for his excellence was nightmarish: Smush Parker, Chucky Atkins, Devin Green, Tony Bobbitt, Tierre Brown, Von Wafer, a very old Jim Jackson, Sun Yue. Bryant was appropriately pissed off and willing to wallow in it.

When someone from the Lakers leaked to the Los Angeles Times as if to embarrass him, or worse, put him in his place, that it was all Bryant’s fault, well that was it, the last straw. Bryant was filled with rage. He took his anger and contempt with him to Barcelona. It would be the summer of letting go. If the Lakers collapsed, to hell with them.

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Doors open and doors close. Time fades. Memories don’t matter. Memories do matter. Mitch Kupchak under pressure in the summer of 2007 is Mitch Kupchak under pressure in the summer of 2016, particularly with the Jeanie Buss ultimatum about to choke him. With a Hall of Famer nearly gone, Kupchak has added three young talents to the roster that have the potential for quality NBA careers. Still, there are a lot of ifs. If Julius Randle works on his footwork and jumpshot. If D’Angelo Russell gets into the gym and improves his strength. If Jordan Clarkson works on defense. Add to that $66 million dollars in the Lakers greedy hands.

The Lakers summer decisions will directly affect the organization and Kupchak in particular. It could cost him his job in 12 months. If he woos DeMar DeRozan then why commit to Jordan Clarkson? And if they don’t commit to Jordan Clarkson, why are they breaking up a backcourt duo that has proven, at least past the All-Star break, to have great chemistry? Furthermore, Clarkson is a great influence on D’Angelo Russell. Clarkson’s maturity, seriousness and work ethic is in direct contrast to Russell’s playfulness, immaturity, arrogance and casualness. They like playing together. Why break it up? Even for a talent like DeRozan.

Who do you add? Al Horford? Joakim Noah? Chandler Parsons? Harrison Barnes? DeMarcus Cousins? Do you dare trade the pick to Sacramento for the gifted but volatile big man? And what do you do with Byron Scott?

As promised, Scott has taken the two guard draft picks and developed them into starters. Does he get rewarded for that or, better yet, should he? There is a point of view that Scott has done what he was supposed to do, navigate the ups and downs of talented guards, turn them into starters who can play 34 minutes. Now, Byron Scott can go away.

Scott’s antiquated offense leaves a dull mark on the NBA formula of incessant ball movement and spacers. Even with their recent success, the Lakers dribble the ball too long, don’t move and cut, are reluctant passers. And their defense is atrocious.

The Jeanie Buss threat is always lingering and when Kupchak closes his eyes, the reality is he may be out of a job.

But then in 2007, Kobe Bryant was breathing down his neck and he had to make a choice. Give in to Bryant. Or follow his gut.

ideas pull the trigger, but instinct loads the gun (Don Marquis)

In 2007, Phil Jackson had his own private army of critics. While appreciating his championship mythology, many of his coaching peers found Jackson aloof, arrogant, strange and privileged. With Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Jackson won titles. They were three of the top 10 players in NBA history. But, when had Jackson ever taken an average team and developed them into a contender? It was pretty clear that Jackson and his triangle offense was overly dependent upon stars.

In the 2006-07 season, his only star, Kobe Bryant, was killing himself trying to win games.

Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant had an uneasy truce from the very beginning. Their relationship was hot and cold, varying by degrees, depending on the situation. Kobe was young and aggressive, arrogant and so confident in his abilities, while Jackson was intent on ridding Bryant of his selfish instincts.

“Kobe was one of the most creative shooting guards I’d ever seen, capable of dazzling moves comparable in many ways to those of his idol, Michael Jordan. I admired Kobe’s intense desire to win, but he still had a lot to learn about teamwork and self-sacrifice. Though he was a brilliant passer, his first instinct was to penetrate off the dribble and dunk over whoever was in his way. Like many younger players, he tried to force the action rather than letting the play come to him. I was toying with having him play point guard but I questioned whether he’d be able to contain his ego long enough to master the triangle system.” (Phil Jackson).

His first year as the Lakers head coach, Jackson split duties between Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant ran the floor while O’Neal was the primary offensive threat. Jackson didn’t always trust Bryant’s ability to include his teammates all of the time and so he wasn’t the captain. Bryant was only 21 years old, an age he took for granted, as if he would always be young. Because he had coached Michael Jordan, Jackson had a particular understanding of how Bryant differed from almost every player in the NBA. “He (Kobe) would have to experience failure directly”, Jackson wrote in his biography.

And so it was. Kobe Bryant was in Barcelona in the summer of 2007 because he had experienced failure directly. He was less humbled by it then he was agitated and annoyed, like a rich man who suddenly found out someone had stolen his watch. Although this was a turning point for Bryant, it only made him ordinary. Every man has a crises at one point in his life, he falls down. Most happen in middle age. But an athlete’s time line is skewed towards a different decade. Bryant was not thirty years old. He was rarely sentimental. He hardly gazed back.

But everyone else did. So many years had passed since Bryant won his first title coached by Jackson, so many heartbreaks and beautiful moments and fulfilling endings, so much drama and trauma and second guessing. But, for Bryant, this was where the rubber met the road. He simply could not do it anymore, he could not be Kobe and have the rest of the team be average, he could not be the tyrant and have the rest of the team be free- spirits, he could not be great around the horribly average and, God forbid, the low-level competitors who didn’t feel the same way about winning as Bryant did.

He wanted out and there was no appeasing him.

don’t let your happiness depend on something you might lose (C.S. Lewis)

It’s part of human nature to ask questions that can never be answered, to pretend things have not changed. If Jerry Buss were here, would the mediocrity have been this self-sustaining, three summers, three winters of hell? Where would Buss’ innate instincts for business lead him after three years of not making the playoffs, not fielding a team that could compete on both ends? Would he have drafted Jordan Clarkson? Would he have taken a risk on D’Angelo Russell, or would Buss have stayed close to Lakers roots and drafted Jahlil Okafor?

If the Lakers were right about one thing- they have been wrong about just about everything since Buss’ February 2013 death- it is Jahlil Okafor. Okafor has been, in his rookie campaign, everything the scouts said he would be. He is a skilled low post presence. He is a 17 point scorer. He makes 51% of his contested shots. He drains 46% of his mid-range shots, stretching the floor. But he is a weak rebounder, lacks toughness and grit, and is often passive. It’s hard to ascertain if it has to do with the 76ers themselves and the punchline to the joke they have become infecting the Okafor sense of optimism. Put it another way, would Okafor have been a different player had Jerry Buss drafted him?

Jerry Buss was many things: teacher, father, friend, gambler, extrovert, joker, pitch man. Buss could sell ice to an Eskimo. He could and would talk players into anything, including taking less money, including sticking with the program, including trust me.

Until the summer of 2007.

a goal without a plan is just a wish (chinese proverb)

Jerry Buss went to Barcelona in the summer of 2007. He had affection on his side. He looked upon Bryant and all of his star players as his sons, part of his family. But families split up over the smallest, most inconsequential things. Children leave home for good and swear they are never coming back. Bryant was like that child who wanted to leave the nest, who suddenly hated his father. Nothing Dr. Buss said mattered in the slightest.

Kobe Bryant had made up his mind. His Lakers days were over.

In the fall of 2007, Pau Gasol was 27 years old. He was the best player on the Memphis Grizzlies team. A remarkable player at seven feet, Gasol who was from Barcelona and always dreamed of being a doctor, had incredible footwork, he could finish right or left, he was athletic with soft hands and an offensive skill set that is rarely found in American born seven footers. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks with the third pick in the 2001 draft and then traded on draft night to Memphis. He was Rookie of the Year.

But was Pau Gasol a star? Being drafted third seemed to say yes but in six seasons he had yet to lead his team to a playoff victory which grated on Memphis fans who were just beginning to use social media to air frustrations. As the fans grew more vocal and disenchanted, Gasol became passive and withdrawn on the court, sensitive to the public rebuke of him. It was a relief for both sides to abruptly end the marriage, even if it seemed the Grizzlies received the short end of the stick. The Grizzlies obtained the rights to Pau’s brother, Marc, who was a 2007 Lakers draft pick and had been stashed in Europe. Pau was heading west to play with Kobe Bryant whose emotions had cooled. In fact, in 2008, even before Gasol arrived, Bryant no longer wanted to be traded.

Andrew Bynum had emerged as a quality center in the 2007-08 season. The Lakers started off hot and were 27-13. By the time Gasol joined the team, the Lakers had established an identity, of which Gasol was the missing piece. They won 57 games that year, Bryant was the MVP.

In the 2008 Western Conference playoffs, the Lakers rolled, losing only three games. In the NBA Finals, against the Celtics, they had a rude awakening. Unprepared for the brutal physicality of the Eastern Conference champions, the Lakers were beaten up all series long, especially Pau Gasol. The Spaniard, whose courage was repeatedly questioned, was a punching bag for the unrelenting fierceness and hostility of Kevin Garnett, who was desperate for his own title.

But, Gasol was punished twice. First by the Celtics big men who treated him as if he was nothing more than a mistake on a page, and then by the media and fans who ripped Gasol’s basketball character and repeatedly labeled him as “soft” and “weak.” And then “loser.

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Soft. Weak. Loser. That can be said of Jim Buss as he faces his probable last year as the Lakers brain trust.

Nine years have gone by since the drafty summer of 2007. To be sure, 2016 is very different, but in an art imitates life kind of way, it is the same. Kobe Bryant’s anger can be boiled down to three terrible years. Current fans anger is because of three terrible years. But, to be completely fair about it, the Lakers only needed one piece, one All-Star in the summer of 2007. In these long and inglorious days, the Lakers need a lot. They need a rim protector. They need a small forward. They need a backup shooting guard. They need a backup small forward. They need to get rid of Ryan Kelly and Nick Young and Robert Sacre. They need a coach that incentivizes ball movement and player movement. They need effort every night, toughness. The irony of Byron Scott, the tough coach, is that on many nights his team is soft. Weak. Losers.

The bottom line frequently tells the story. Will Jordan Clarkson get a $68 million extension? Will Tom Thibodeau be the coach? Will the Lakers stick with the Clarkson-Russell-Randle combo and only fit in players whose collective games won’t alter the development of their young kids. Or, will the Lakers be Laker-like and obsess about season tickets not being renewed and try to grab the biggest star they can find?

Summer is almost here and the only danger for the Lakers is if they don’t learn from their past history, from 2007. Despite the Bryant wrath, the Lakers drew a line in the sand. They stayed in their lane and were not bold. They didn’t tear the whole thing down. They waited. They bided their time. They watched it all develop. And then they seized on an opportunity when it came their way.

 

photo via llananba