|Kobe's issues go higher up the Lakers' hierarchy than GM Mitch Kupchak (right). (Getty Images)|
Kobe Bryant spoke, and his words carried all the way back to Los Angeles, and beyond.
He spoke up for his teammate, Pau Gasol, in the hopes that his words would bring some sort of closure to the novella surrounding the Spaniard's future with the Lakers. Bryant likes Gasol, wants him to stay with the Lakers, but enough is enough with the limbo.
"When Kobe speaks up, it means things are getting bad," said a person with ties to the Lakers superstar. "It means nobody's telling him anything."
But there were other motives behind Bryant's words, and people familiar with how things have been running within the Lakers organization believe it's about time somebody unleashed those words and the motives behind them. General manager Mitch Kupchak issued a written statement Monday night responding to Bryant's rant, essentially saying the only thing that could be said: Management will explore trades, and to say otherwise would be futile and detrimental to the team.
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But Kupchak was not the intended target of Bryant's profanity-laced screed Sunday night in Phoenix, when he said of trading Gasol, "If they're going to do something, I wish they would just (expletive) do it. If they're not going to do it, come out and say you're not going to do it."
As a practical matter, this can't be done; the Magic have stated publicly they're not trading Dwight Howard, and that hasn't stopped the maelstrom, hasn't stopped the offers from rolling in. But the real motivation behind Bryant going public was to shed light on the dysfunctional, borderline comical way the Lakers are handling their basketball business and hope it prompts someone to fix it.
So here it is: The Lakers' front office is an uncommunicative, rudderless fiasco, and the unrest and paranoia that have been festering for years threaten to derail the team's plans to ride Bryant to his sixth NBA title while they still can. And much of it can be traced to the growing influence of executive vice president Jim Buss, the owner's bon vivant son, who has helped transform a great franchise into a steaming pool of nepotism and nincompoops.
In the months leading up to the lockout, the Lakers got rid of assistant general manager Ronnie Lester and most of his scouts. Rudy Garciduenas, the equipment manager for nearly 30 years, was let go. Alex McKechie, a renowned sports science expert, was told to pack up and was quickly scooped up by the Raptors. International scout Adam Fillippi wound up with the Bobcats.
The list goes on. Longtime associates of former coach Phil Jackson were let go as the Lakers tried to "wash off anything that had touched" the decorated coach, a person with ties to the front office said. Brian Shaw, Bryant's preference to succeed Jackson, was interviewed for the job but came away with the clear impression that any efforts to associate himself with Jackson would "hurt him, not help him," a coaching industry source said.
None of these people, who formed what a longtime NBA executive called one of the best front office staffs in the league, was given the courtesy of knowing whether they would be brought back after the lockout ended. Some are still waiting for that phone call.
Joey Buss, another son of the owner who runs the team's D-League franchise, has moved into Jackson's old office. Jesse Buss, 23, who was arrested for alcohol intoxication in Lexington, Ky., on a "scouting" trip in December, has moved into Lester's former office.
Not that anyone supposedly doing scouting or other basketball work is seen much around the team's facilities these days. Jim Buss, who supposedly is the team's director of player personnel, is virtually unreachable -- including by me. He didn't respond to my request for comment through the team's media relations department, and his direct number is not listed in the Lakers directory that is distributed to teams. Even people who work in the basketball operations department have "no clue who's on the staff," said a person with direct knowledge of the organization's structure.
"It would be interesting to find out who's doing the scouting," the person said.
Kupchak tried to fight to keep his staff, and his efforts were appreciated by some and viewed as not enough by others. The GM is "on an island by himself," said another person familiar with the situation.
"He doesn't know who to trust anymore," said another.
The advance pro scout, Clay Moser, was brought on board by coach Mike Brown. Of the three college scouts listed in the Lakers' media guide, Ryan West -- Jerry's son -- is the only one with a résumé and a workload. The others are Jesse Buss, who's currently unable to travel due to an injured leg, and a guy known throughout the organization simply as "Chaz." His name in the media guide is Charles Osborne, and supposedly he's a nice guy.
"A good guy," said a person who has dealt with the Lakers' front-office dysfunction in various management roles with other teams. "Great bartender."
That's right, the book on Chaz is that he's a former bartender who also happens to be longtime friends with Jim Buss from their days in the horseracing business. But if you're looking in bars and racetracks, you're much more likely to find a sports writer to chronicle this circus than a viable trade option for Gasol.
And that brings us to what all this means in the grand scheme of things for the Lakers. Bryant isn't the only one who doesn't know what's going on, who isn't being kept in the loop on the organization's plans. In short, nobody is. And that's a problem.
Brown, hired in May, learned of the team's decision to trade Lamar Odom to the Mavericks for essentially nothing after the deal already had been completed. Sources with ties to the team say no explanation has been given to Bryant or Brown as to what the Lakers plan to do with the trade exception received in the deal.
Odom's frustration erupted after he was included in the aborted trade to New Orleans that would've sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. And now the same lack of communication, indecision and inertia are eroding Gasol's fragile psyche and pushing Bryant to the point of disgust.
"Kobe's exploding, and he should," said another person with ties to the franchise. "Your lead player, you should always have communication with him let him know what's going on. There's no communication, and that's ridiculous."
The only Buss who's around less than those in the scouting department is the one Buss who should be around more: Jeanie, the Lakers' vice president of business operations and Jackson's longtime girlfriend. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, Jeanie Buss explained her frequent absence from her customary seat across from the Lakers' bench in this way: "This year has been just different for me."
"Change is hard, nobody likes change," she said. "This has been hard for me. I like the old coach. I was biased. But you can't freeze time, and we have to move on."
But move on to what? The Lakers are a mess, have been decaying for a few years now. Once one of the finest and classiest organizations in sports, it is no longer a fun place to work, to put it mildly. From the Odom salary dump to nearly the entire scouting staff being thrown overboard, pennies are being pinched at a time when the Lakers have entered a 20-year regional cable deal worth a reported $3 billion.
"For such a storied franchise, supposedly first class and all that, it's not what you think behind the bars there," said the person who has dealt with the Lakers as a longtime executive with other teams. "It's overrated."
And in trouble. And if Bryant was trying to wake people up -- "embarrass" them, as he told the New York Post in December when describing the motivation behind his infamous 2007 trade demand -- it was a good try. Kupchak is just trying to hold what's left of the organization together, putting out statements and putting out fires. But no one else is around to listen, and so this one might blaze for a while.
"The other GMs know what's going on," said one of the people familiar with the Lakers' chaos. "Jim has no relationships with other GMs, and they also know they're going to be able to swoop in there and do things [in trades]. This is a real critical time. The chances of Dwight Howard coming in there are slim and none at this point."
Before the Lakers even consider such a move, it would seem they need to get their own house in order first.