Kobe Bryant taking measured approach in leading Lakers
For the first weekend through training camp, Pau Gasol wore a Lakers uniform, unsure how soon he'd have to take it off.
The NBA rejected the Lakers' attempt to trade him to Houston in a three-way deal involving Chris Paul. So while the Lakers kept trying, Gasol kept reiterating his desire to wear purple and gold, provided endless interviews to the media spouting his positive attitude and practiced as if nothing fazed him. That hardly impressed Kobe Bryant, though.
"You have your job to do and you come out and do your job," Bryant said in an unsympathetic tone. "You can't worry about it."
Three months later Bryant was worrying about it. Gasol recalled Bryant approaching him in recent days, saying how tough it must feel to remain on the trading block leading to the March 15 deadline. Bryant then took those sentiments public following the Lakers' 102-90 loss Sunday to the Phoenix Suns.
"If they're not going to do it, come out and say you're not going to do it," Bryant said. "This way, he can be comfortable and go out and can perform and play and he can invest all of himself into the game. You can't have one of our pillars not knowing if he's going to be here or not. Do something. One way or another, do something."
It's easy to note the contradiction in Bryant's statements and wonder about the ulterior motives. Believe Bryant initially remained detached because he thought the Lakers might acquire Paul. Argue that Bryant spoke out Sunday to leverage the front office into making a big deal three weeks before the deadline. Think he may have just had an emotional outburst to mask his 10 turnovers against Phoenix.
Those are all legitimate explanations. But there's also two others. First, the painfully obvious one. The Lakers' front office led by executive Jim Buss appears more and more unlikely to land a big deal before the March 15 deadline. A statement from General Manager Mitch Kupchak may have highlighted the absurdity to remove a strong trade chip in Gasol in future talks. But Bryant needed to call out the front office's misgivings, led by Buss, after giving them a three-month grace period where they accomplished little and informed him on nothing. Secondly, there's the more subtle sign. Bryant's public support for Gasol serves as the latest example of his measured approach in leading the Lakers.
"He's not perfect," Lakers rookie guard Andrew Goudelock noted before making clear he loves Bryant's brutal honesty and perfectionist work ethic. But it's definitely calculated.
"You just have to go for feel," Bryant said. "It just depends. I can tell when [Gasol's] down and when enough is enough. He went through the first phase and played through it and got out of that. Then he gets hit with another one. Then I can tell he's down and this is a little harder to overcome. We have two [road] games coming up and I don't want that weighing on him and thinking about it. Will he still be thinking about it? Sure, but he knows we all support him here in the locker room and we all got his back."
There's reasons Bryant didn't do this earlier. He didn't want to coddle Gasol as he weathered the initial storm during training camp. Bryant hoped Gasol would figure out how to adjust to Andrew Bynum climbing up in the offensive pecking order by playing with more aggression. He publicly called for his teammates not to remain consumed with the unsettled roster.
This past week changed.
It involved new trade reports. Fox Sports' Chris Tomasson reported the Minnesota Timberwolves offered Derrick Williams and draft picks for Gasol. Sheridan Hoops' Chris Sheridan reported Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose wants the organization to acquire Gasol in a trade. Even if these reports hardly suggest a deal will be made soon, Bryant wanted to make it clear the Lakers better not trade Gasol in the same fashion they traded Lamar Odom, whom the Lakers sent along with a second-round pick to the Dallas Mavericks for a $8.9 million trade exception and a first-round pick.
It involved frustration with the coaching staff. World Peace publicly lamented Mike Brown's quick rotations, while Bynum criticized Brown's prolonged shootarounds. Several players have privately stewed over that for months, but the intensity of that criticism has grown in recent weeks.
And it involved poor play. Even though the Lakers have won eight of their last 12 games, they hardly have a firm identity. They lack a consistent bench, outside shooting and have a 5-11 road record. For Gasol, he has averaged a career-low 16.6 points per game this season on 49.6%, a dropoff both to Bynum's emergence and Gasol's inconsistency. Gasol in recent games has shown visible frustration during missed shots, rebounds or passes.
"It feels good that my teammate supported me," Gasol said, "and spoke his mind that I want him here."
Only Bryant, with a no-trade clause and the team's franchise player, had the clout to do that.
Brown remained neutral on everything regarding the situation, ranging from Bryant's comments, if the uncertainty has affected Gasol's play and whether he would become involved. Metta World Peace complimented Gasol as a "team guy," but then praised Kupchak over acquiring Trevor Ariza in 2007, Gasol in 2008, and himself in 2009, all moves that secured two NBA titles and three Finals appearances. Lakers guard Derek Fisher mentioned "Pau has done an unbelievable job in keeping his nose to the grind," but mentioned the team's need not to blame problems on the coaching staff, management, new roster and compacted schedule.
But Bryant pinpointed management as a rallying cry to motivate Gasol, whose 16 points on five-of-13 shooting against Portland demonstrated many instances of the two exchanging high-fives and smiles after setting each other up.
"That's not something he has to do per se," Fisher said regarding Bryant speaking up for Gasol. "He can get backlash for it, but he does it anyway. He's evolved in his ability to go in and out of being that dominant, aggressor and talent on the court to being a guy in the locker room that will say things at the right time."
This season, Bryant's taken a measured approach in exuding his intensity and remaining patient. Though he criticized the front office for trading Odom to the Dallas Mavericks, Bryant still publicly gave the front office a vote of confidence. Though Bryant stressed the need for World Peace to focus more, he repeatedly lauded his defensive skills. Though he acknowledged Devin Ebank's inexperience, Bryant worked with him "around the clock" during training camp to help prepare him for a starting role. Though The Times' Mike Bresnahan reported Bryant kicked a trash can in the locker room after the Lakers' loss last week against New York, he's also showed public restraint with his frustration.
The results haven't always proven to be perfect. But they've always remained calculated and measured.
"I think Pau feels a lot better," Bryant said. "He looks a lot better to me. It's important to know that guys in the locker room support you, and that guys are going to step up. That's my role here. I mean, he can't say that. You guys know Pau. He's a nice guy. He would never, ever say anything to ... shuffle the deck, so to speak. But I will. I'll say it for him."
-- Mark Medina
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