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Scott Howard-Cooper

The problems in Lakerland have more to do with overall talent than team chemistry issues.
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Roster problems lie at the root of latest L.A. soap opera

Posted Feb 28 2012 11:46AM

Somehow this turned into Kobe Bryant dunking on management, Pau Gasol's feelings, an instant referendum on Jim Buss as future owner, Bryant standing brothers-in-arms with Gasol and Mitch Kupchak issuing a statement.

Except this latest Lakers' storm is none of that. The kind of grand theater that comes all too natural to the Lakers, sure. And it might be noteworthy that Bryant is in the general-manager business again. But it's little more. The real issue is the tangible: The team with roster concerns at the beginning of the season is the team with roster concerns returning from the All-Star break.

The front office is keeping trade options open, no matter how much Bryant pushes for a resolution that allows Gasol to move forward, a stance by Bryant that unnecessarily puts general manager Kupchak in a bad spot. The concern inside the locker room should have been if Buss and Kupchak weren't weighing trade options.

(By the way, how'd things work out last season with a settled roster?)

Very little so far is a surprise, apart from an inability to win on the road that borders on refusal.

No dependable starting small forward? No one could have seen that coming with Metta World Peace and a couple career backups as options.

Reduced depth? The Lakers traded reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom to the Mavericks, a top competitor, essentially for nothing even though he wasn't a locker-room problem or a bad contract. Of course they were going to run low on talent.

They need help at point guard? Just like last season. And the season before. And the season before ...

Most of the fresh developments are positives. Bryant, after being unable to practice most of last season because of a bad knee and then hurting his wrist early in this one, has been superstar great -- all while being overburdened by coach Mike Brown at 38.2 minutes a game, fourth-most in the league.

Andrew Bynum, usually the epitome of uncertainty, turned into an All-Star at 16.3 points and 12.8 boards a game and turned down the rhetoric volume on a Dwight Howard trade as much as Orlando management.

The perspective, if such a thing were to ever exist in the Lakers' orbit, is that they are 20-14 and fifth in the West, all of two games out of third place, even if the panicked masses are in Chicken Little mode. They are far from perfect. But everyone has issues. Tied for third in shooting defense, second in rebound percentage, with size as the great equalizer for the playoffs and a Hall of Fame closer in the backcourt. If Gasol is the third-best player on this team, the end of the world is not within sight.

(More perspective: This is looking very bad for Jim Buss, the head of basketball operations, with more grief ahead if the trade exception acquired from Dallas in the Odom deal goes unspent before March 15. And the purging of most anyone connected to Phil Jackson, just because they were connected to Phil Jackson, is inexcusable.

(But Buss was the final say on most matters when the Lakers made deep playoff runs and that's his signature on the Andrew Bynum Draft pick that is paying off in a big way. The outrage from fans and media over the direction of the franchise is fair. It's just worth keeping in mind that Jerry Buss, his father, swung a deal in 1986 that would have sent James Worthy to the Mavericks for Roy Tarpley and Mark Aguirre, before Jerry West laid on the tracks to keep it from becoming official.)

This is little more than another day inside the Lakers' tornado. The latest wind-stirrer is Bryant, who often eye-rolls his way through the drama of the the moment, saying management needs to either trade Gasol or not trade Gasol because the uncertainty is too taxing.

Bryant knew the front office couldn't make such a promise, especially not in a season when they had already dealt Gasol, only to have David Stern veto the move on behalf of the Hornets. Kobe said it anyway, and off went the starter pistol. (It would have been easier to muster sympathy for Gasol had he not once chummed trade waters by pressing for a ticket out of Memphis.)

"As a former player, I understand how the days leading up to the trade deadline can be nerve-wracking for an NBA player," read the written response Kupchak was cornered by his star player into making. "Nonetheless, as General Manager of the Lakers, I have a responsibility to ownership, our fans and the players on this team to actively pursue opportunities to improve the team for this season and seasons to come. To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage. Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans."

Kupchak handled it as well as possible, finding a response that was honest without coming right out and telling Bryant to zip it. Yes, the Lakers have actual issues with the roster, with the 6-12 road record, with Zach Lowe of asking Bynum during All-Star weekend, "Is there anything to the notion that the Lakers' offense gets too predictable in crunch time?"

"That's like pointing out the obvious," Bynum replied. "It's a problem."

The latest with the Lakers concerns the roster and a coach hired with great expectations and a front office that will continue to search for a deal, no matter how many statements it has to release. The rest of the soap opera? It just happens to come with the Lakers.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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