Sunday, May 27, 2007

West wanted out west

The Lakers now find themselves in a tough spot this offseason. Not because in they play in the Western mega-conference with so many top-tier teams and Portland and Seattle about to get a lift from Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, but because they are finding themselves on their knees, blindfolded with the game's deadliest shooter holding them hostage.

That shooter is Kobe Bryant.

The Lakers' All-Star is upset about his team. It's not that the guys around him aren't trying hard - granted it doesn't help when some of your teammates suffer injuries from freak snowboarding accidents midseason. The problem is the guys around him just aren't good enough.

Oh, they're good players. But in the mighty Western Conference, "good players" don't really do much when you stare down a schedule that includes Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire, T-Mac and Yao, Carmelo and AI, a suddenly fierce Golden State team, and now the younger prodigies of Oden and Durant.

While everyone around them continues to improve, the Lakers remain still. Motionless. They did not pull the trigger at the trade-deadline this season, and limped into the playoffs as a result. The only major move general manager Mitch Kupchak has made during his time at the healm of this team involved sending the disgruntled Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat for Lamar Odom and contracts that couldn't expire fast enough.

During the past few seasons since the Big Aristotle became a member of the Heat, the Lakers can only win when Kobe plays well. There's no Plan B incase Bryant has an off-night.

Bryant had to know getting rid of Shaq would result in a setback for LAL. But the superstar was willing to take a step back if his Lakers could take two or three steps forward. Predictably, the Lakers took their step backward, a step that reached its apex when head coach Rudy Tomjanovich stepped down during the 2004-2005 season. The Lakers missed the playoffs that year, but rehired Phil Jackson to right their ship.

But since they brought back Phil, the Lakers haven't done much to be proud of. Bryant delt with season after season of hearing about how he should pass more, or shoot more, or really pass more, unless of course he should shoot more. Bryant made the right choice: shoot more.

He did the only thing he could do in trying to resurrect the once-proud franchise. Shoot, shoot and keep shooting. He led the NBA is scoring the past two seasons, and had more than half of the individual 50-point games this season. Depending on your definition of MVP, Kobe could easily have fit the bill. Even Shaq said he thought Bryant was the MVP of the 2007 season during a guest appearance on a TNT postgame show a few weeks ago.

So if they have MVP talent on the roster, why hasn't the Lakers front office done anything to build around him?

You know, that's what Bryant is wondering also.

Which is why - as much as I completely dislike the idea of a player holding a team hostage - I understand Kobe's frustration and have to agree with what he has told ESPN in a recent interview: Bring back Jerry West or trade me.

West built seven championship teams for the Lakers, including the teams that won three straight titles from 2000-2002 when Kobe and Shaq were more lethal than Batman and Robin (the only problem there: Kobe didn't want to play Robin to O'Neal's Batman anymore). He didn't have as much success with the Grizzlies the last five seasons, but then again what player would really want to go play in Memphis? West has proven he can succeed in the Southland, so why wouldn't Kobe want him back?

This is the same GM that sent Vlade Divac packing for the young Bryant. West made him a Laker. West made the team around him a contender. West made LAL better. Now that they've slipped from the summit, Kobe is asking for the only man he feels comfortable with to win a championship.

We shouldn't be surprised either. This is exactly what he did the year after Rudy-T coached the Lakers for 41 games. He thought it would be a good idea for the Zen-master to return to the bench in the Staples Center. Sure enough, the Lakers acquiesed and Phil returned. And now, once again, Kobe is asking for some changes.

But what he's really asking for is just a chance. A chance to be a champion again.

If Jerry Buss really wants to win, he should give into the hostage-taker's demands. After all, would you really want to be on the opposing end of such a deadly shooter's attack?

The Lakers have sided with Kobe each time he makes on of these franchise-changing demands. They moved Shaq. They brought back Phil. And if you're in El Segundo next fall when the Lakers get ready to start the season, don't be surprised to see the familiar face of Jerry West.

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