Pincus: Lakers – Pizza and Goodbyes
The Los Angeles Lakers completed their exit interviews on Wednesday afternoon, providing pizza to the assembled media after goodbyes were said to Kobe Bryant, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Coach Phil Jackson and General Manager Mitch Kupchak.
Obviously the Lakers were disappointed by their surprising sweep by the Dallas Mavericks. Multiple mentions were made (with contempt) that Dallas is a "jump-shooting team," but no one denied the Mavericks put a decisive hurt on the Lakers.
Bryant summed up the season as, "a wasted year of my life."
He admitted that his team was worn out, possibly because of the three-straight years to the NBA Finals.
"I think the biggest thing was the fatigue factor. Guys were tired," said Bryant. "A lot of times when you get tired, you get burdened by things that you’re normally not burdened by. I love quoting Tex [Winter] who always used to say, ‘Fatigue makes cowards of all men.’ It’s definitely true."
Kobe was optimistic heading into the offseason healthy with the opportunity to truly work on building up his body, notably his knee which was operated a year ago.
"This is a good summer for me to train and get strong," said Bryant. "I haven’t the last two summers. Last year I had surgery. The year before we played deep into June so I didn’t have a chance to kind of grind like I would like to, but this summer I have that chance."
Kobe downplayed the injury to his foot that he suffered in the first round against the New Orleans Hornets.
Seriously though, the rumors at the time that he had a stress fracture BEFORE he even had an X-ray or MRI were ludicrous.
So too was the gossip surrounding Pau Gasol, his girlfriend and Bryant’s wife.
"People will reach for absolutely anything when we struggle," said Kobe. "It was ridiculous."
Bryant then joked that the Gasol rumor, though false, was more true than the notion that his wife was set to participate in a reality show (another wild one that had bounced around the internet).
Getting back to reality, although there are some that would call it fantasy as well, Kobe said he believes this team can win as is.
"I remember the [Showtime Lakers] had a pretty good era in the 80′s where they didn’t win three in a row," said Bryant. "They didn’t break up that team up. If you’re asking me do I believe we can come back and do it again? I absolutely believe that we can come back and do it again."
Of course they’ll have to do it without Jackson who Bryant said he didn’t even try to convince to stay, because Kobe noted that he could tell that Phil was serious . . . this was it.
Bryant has endorsed Assistant Coach Brian Shaw but has also noted that he’ll keep clear to let Dr. Buss, Jimmy Buss and Kupchak make those decisions.
Barnes followed up Bryant and was openly emotional about how difficult the season was for him after a knee injury knocked him out for eight weeks.
"That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through," said Barnes. "To finally have an opportunity to play for a championship organization with a legitimate chance to win a championship, and the season starting off so well – to tear my knee up and never really get back into the flow of the game.
"Once I returned, I just never really was comfortable – never really got back in the rotation so to speak – so I’m still beating myself up about that."
Barnes has a $1.9 million option and he indicated that he’s already made a decision on it – and that he let Kupchak know in his exit meeting.
Of course Matt wouldn’t let it slip and while Kupchak talked around it, he did note that nothing was official and that players have been known to change their mind. Mitch also said he wouldn’t say . . . so for now that remains unanswered.
Odom, the last player with most going on Tuesday (Pincus: Lakers Reflect in Exit Interviews), said the press conference was his first time out of the house since the loss (although he copped to getting some sun in the backyard). He noted that he’s avoided sports channels, isn’t watching the rest of the playoffs, isn’t listening to sports radio and is generally doing his best not to think about what just happened to the Lakers.
He noted the irony that, "The one year I get noticed or get accolades, get to work with my wife and have a reality show and a fragrance happen, is the year we come up short."
Given that Kupchak would later say that Odom was the only player to individually have a great year for the team, the outside stuff didn’t appear to be a distraction.
Lamar was given the Sixth Man of the Year Award but he was outplayed in the playoffs by runner-up Jason Terry. Then again just about every Laker was outplayed by their Dallas counterpart.
Again the buzzword "fatigue" was raised but Odom pointed primarily to the team’s inability to get stops as the reason they lost.
"We never got to that consistency of playing defense at a high level," said Lamar. "I didn’t think we did that throughout the year, making it hard enough on teams."
Jackson spoke after Odom, in what will likely be his last media event with the Lakers.
"I wanted to thank the LA fans," said Jackson. "The Lakers fans particularly have been generous to me. When I first game here they thanked me for coming to LA. I hope they thank me for leaving."
Phil always had a wry sense of humor.
"It’s been a remarkable run," continued Jackson. "It was a devastating loss. We have to accept that and move forward as a team."
Well the team will move forward together, those who do return. They’ll have to do it without Jackson.
For those who know the politics of the Lakers, there’s the Jeanie Buss business side of which Phil was naturally a part of. On the other end is Jim Buss, who Dr. Buss has charged with the basketball decisions.
Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps, depending on perspective) Jeanie has no say on basketball side and Jackson’s input was limited.
"I haven’t spoken to Jimmy Buss this year," said Jackson in what is a pretty bold statement, but it does reflect some of the deeper schisms that reside within the organization.
Ultimately Dr. Buss has managed to consistently steer the organization about as well as any owner of any sports franchise. The question comes up what will happen when he steps down from that role but he’ll certainly have his say as the Lakers look to replace Jackson.
The well-rumored choice has been Shaw but as noted at HOOPSWORLD, signs have suggested otherwise.
The Lakers have not renewed the contracts of their physical therapists and trainers (outside of Gary Vitti). Video and other departments won’t be retained through the prospective lockout.
That doesn’t mean they won’t be rehired but if Shaw was really next in line, charged with the task of furthering the legacy that Jackson had helped create, the team would probably want to surround Brian with the same support staff as Jackson.
Sources have told HOOPSWORLD that Shaw was never approached by the Buss family with word that he would be the successor.
Kupchak would later note that there are a couple of assistants who would likely be interviewed (likely Shaw and Chuck Person) but unsaid was that Jackson’s long-time assistants Jim Cleamons and Frank Hamblen are likely to move on.
The Lakers have also allowed Shaw to talk to the Houston Rockets and soon Brian is expected to interview with the Golden State Warriors (given his Oakland roots, that could be a good fit).
Perhaps Shaw is the next Laker coach but the tea leaves have suggested otherwise for some time.
Also as noted recently by HOOPSWORLD, Rick Adelman may be the best available coach for a veteran team like the Lakers. Adelman may be the favorite although Kupchak said that he had yet to speak to ownership about their intentions but would over the coming week or two.
Kupchak also said the Lakers would go through the hiring process like they would any other year regardless of the expected lockout (which he didn’t refer to directly).
Adelman is well-loved by most of his ex-players. Ron Artest speaks very highly of Rick, who has always found a way to get the most out of his players both offensively and defensively.
Adelman’s system is somewhat similar to the triangle in that it doesn’t rely on set plays but reads and reactions.
Rick has NBA Finals experience and while some have noted that he can be a "whiner," some of that may be residual animosity left over from Adelman’s days with the then-rival Sacramento Kings.
Meanwhile Phil took time to thank the local press for how he was treated during his tenure. Jackson basically said the Lakers won’t be open to his input but that the team, "needs to have some speed and they need to get some easy baskets as a group. I think that’s the biggest key in basketball, you have to find a way to score that’s not always in a set offense, not always in the half-court offense."
That’s an interesting statement for a system coach like Jackson but equally he had Michael Jordan along with Bryant, perhaps two of the greatest all-time when it comes to individual creativity coming out of a team concept.
Some argue that Jackson’s reputation is built on the shoulders of Jordan, Bryant along with Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen.
"Talent wins," said Jackson. "When you have talent to coach, it makes all the difference in the world. I’ve coached some of the best talent that’s every played the game. That’s the real fact of the matter."
Phil noted his short-comings when it comes to X’s and O’s but noted that he’s had tremendous staffs along the way that helped make up for his weaknesses.
The argument that Jackson isn’t the best ever because of the talent he had overlooks the fact that none of those players (save O’Neal in Miami) have won titles without him.
Without the six/five rings, Jordan and Kobe would be some variation of LeBron James – great players who never got it done. O’Neal was a monster in his day but before Jackson he had a penchant for getting swept out of the playoffs.
James and the HEAT are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals so perhaps that analogy will be short-lived.
"The strengths that I have are probably about community, about groups, about the chemistry on a team," said Jackson.
That’s an underrated quality, especially when it comes to winning multiple championships – year after year after year.
Phil will likely have knee replacement surgery. Once fully recovered, he may take a motorcycle trip around the country or the like.
Is he absolutely done with the NBA?
Right now, absolutely. With the Lakers? Probably for good.
"What it’s going to be like in six months?" asked Jackson. "Who knows?"
Finally Kupchak said goodbye to a disappointing season.
"It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but I think the contributing factor would be that you’re now going onto your fourth time trying to get back to the Finals. That’s a mountain that’s pretty hard to climb."
While he admitted the team would look to "improve certain areas," he also said "with the core players we have intact, we do think we can continue to contend."
Kupchak noted Barnes’ injury and that while he liked what Steve Blake did defensively, "He just didn’t shoot the ball, open shots, as well as he has in the past."
Some fans reacting to the loss want the Lakers to blow things up and while Kupchak said that could be an option, "I don’t know if we’d win many games," if they did.
The Lakers have four second-round picks this draft and while Kupchak is hopeful the team can get some viable prospects at 41 or 46, it’s going to be a stretch at 56 and 58.
In addition to Barnes’ option, the Lakers need to see if Shannon Brown decides to return for the final year of his contract. Otherwise, the team’s free agents include Joe Smith, Theo Ratliff and Trey Johnson.
Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter, who Kupchak said had both finished the season in disappointing fashion (Ebanks with a leg injury and Caracter with a distasteful off-court incident), are both expected to be on training camp rosters when the season eventually does start (post lockout?). Neither has a guaranteed contract.
Trey Johnson can be a restricted free agent if the team gives him a qualifying offer, although that money doesn’t necessarily have to be guaranteed as well.
Once again there will possibly be an amnesty clause in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement which would allow for luxury tax (and possibly cap savings). There’s even been some buzz that there may be two amnesties, although nothing is clear or decided as of yet.
The obvious candidate if it comes to pass would be Luke Walton who is owed $5.7 and $5.8 million over the next two years.
If Walton is gone and Barnes and Brown opt out, that changes the team’s depth dramatically. If all three are back, that’s a different story altogether.
One player the Lakers had interest in at the trade deadline was Tayshaun Prince. It will be interesting to see what kind of offers he gets and if Los Angeles will have the spending power (via the Mid-Level Exception?) in the new CBA to make him an offer.
Prince is a small forward who defends well and has championship experience. He’s also a solid passer and capable scorer.
Other free agents who will each be looking for different levels of compensation but may make sense could be Jamal Crawford, Tracy McGrady, Chuck Hayes, Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, Shane Battier, Michael Redd, Carl Landry, Andre Miller (if cut but the Portland Trail Blazers) and Reggie Evans.
Note that restricted free agents like Arron Afflalo would be very difficult for the Lakers to get under the current rules.
When it comes to adding youth to the backcourt, that’s where Kupchak and the Lakers’ staff have to really do their homework.
Of course system will be very important which will follow the hiring of a head coach.
It’s hard to imagine the Lakers looking to trade either Andrew Bynum or Gasol. Odom would be easier to move given he has $8.9 million due next year and just $2.4 million of his $8.2 million salary guaranteed the following season although the team may not rush to move out such an integral player.
One point guard who may be available could be Raymond Felton but again, the Lakers do have an investment in Derek Fisher and Blake to think about.
LA may opt to minor changes to help fortify a team that sincerely fell apart against the Mavericks but clearly something, somewhere on the roster need to improve
When it comes to trades, deals can be made immediately all the way through the end of June (although currently active playoff teams cannot make deals).
If Dr. Buss is willing to spend, the team has about $5.6 million that can be used to bring in a player via trade without the Lakers having to send anyone out.
Something for nothing (second-round picks, etc.) can be difficult to achieve but not impossible.
For instance if the Lakers saw value in Brandon Rush and the Indiana Pacers were ready to move on at a cheap price, the trade exception can make that happen.
It’s just an example and one of the many factors Kupchak and the Buss family will have to consider as they look to keep the Kobe-era Lakers in contention.
When will the team reconvene? A lockout is likely but duration is up in the air.
Hopefully the Lakers and the NBA will start camp in October . . .