on July 1, 2007 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Lakers must remind Bryant they call the shots

With that little matter of the NBA draft finally out of the way, the Lakers can get back to what’s really important: Finding a way to keep Kobe Bryant happy.

Good luck.

Nothing the Lakers have done so far has worked. Bryant pouted and popped off when he had to share top billing _ and the ball _ with Shaq. Being The Man apparently wasn’t as much fun as he thought it was going to be, either, as evidenced by his trade demands this summer.

What, then, makes the Lakers think anything they do will make him happy?

No matter what move the team makes, it’s only a matter of time until Bryant throws his next tantrum, says he wants to be traded, takes it back and on and on. Unless they enjoy this dysfunction, it’s time for the Lakers to remind their superstar who runs the team.

And it’s not Kobe.

Unhappy as he is now, this is exactly what Bryant signed on for when he decided to stay with the Lakers three years ago.

Bryant gets blamed _ unfairly _ for driving Shaquille O’Neal out of Los Angeles. But their relationship had disintegrated to the point that team owner Jerry Buss could keep one or the other, not both.

It wasn’t much of a choice. Bryant has the most talent of anyone in the game today, was not quite 26 then and was about to become a free agent. O’Neal was 32, his body already beginning to break down.

But 7-footers aren’t easy to come by, let alone one who’s the lane-clogging, offense-disrupting, defense-challenging force O’Neal is. If the Lakers were going to win in the tough West, Bryant was going to have to carry the team _ just as he’d always wanted.

“To be putting a team together, it’s fun,” he said then. “We understand the position we’re in, we understand the type of pressure we have and I have, and we’re sort of dug down in the trenches together.”

That’s the thing about trenches, though, they’re not real fun places to be. They’re filled with mud and muck, and there’s rarely an easy way out.

Sure enough, after slogging around for three years, Bryant has little to show besides some monster individual games. The Lakers stumbled into the playoffs this season, left quickly and are no closer to being a contender than the day Shaq left for South Beach.

“I thought this team had a great chance to do some upstart things,” coach Phil Jackson said Thursday night. “It fell through because of injuries. I think Kobe would be remiss if he didn’t understand that.”

Apparently he doesn’t. Or doesn’t care, because he’s said repeatedly he wants out.

But, really, where’s he going to go?

Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak aren’t stupid, for one thing. Not only is Bryant a rare talent, he’s one of the NBA’s most popular players. No way Buss and Kupchak are going to trade him.

And since he’s due $88.6 million over the next four years, with the option to opt out in two years, no team has the capital to swing a deal, either. Not without gutting itself and its future, at least.

“There seems to be no quality, no value at all, for what we expect for Kobe Bryant, and that’s understandable,” Jackson said. “Kobe’s got to respect what this team has to do, and we’re trying to work our way through this.”

The Lakers tried mightily to acquire Kevin Garnett _ ironic, considering he’s the poster boy for suffering gracefully with a struggling team _ but they didn’t have the players or the high draft picks to get it done. There’s also talk of a deal for Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal.

The problem is, the Lakers aren’t looking for bit players. They need a big talent to placate Bryant, and that doesn’t come cheap or easy. After Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, they don’t have much to offer. Maybe Kwame Brown, but he’s no longer the catch he was when Washington made him the No. 1 pick out of high school in 2001.

Say the Lakers could swing a deal for Garnett or O’Neal (Jermaine, not Shaq). They’d still need a veteran point guard and another post player.

“We thought we were one player short of being elite at one point,” Jackson said. “At this time, we might need a couple players. I’m not sure who they are. … We’re really confident that we’re going to get this thing done _ make strides to do the right thing.”

What’s right for the Lakers won’t necessarily be right for Bryant, though.

That’s the risk he took, however, and there’s only one person to blame.



Nancy Armour is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmour@ap.org.