Things are heating up in L.A., but not because of anything the Los Angeles Lakers are doing on the court. In fact, there is a case to be made that the team's 19-13 showing so far this year -- good for fifth place in the Western Conference -- has been as cold as we’ve seen it in the last five years. The perennial title favorites aren’t so much competing for a championship this season as they’re competing to be listed among the teams that might have an outside shot at competing for a championship.
No, tempers are flaring in Los Angeles for the worst possible reason: because of an uncomfortable, awkward situation the team currently finds itself in with forward, Pau Gasol. Following a botched trade this past summer that was supposed to land Gasol with the Houston Rockets and net the Lakers Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant’s theoretical (current) sidekick has been left twisting in the wind wondering what his future looks like. The Lakers have made it no secret that they’re willing to move Gasol for a more coveted piece or salary freedom that they could then use to add a more coveted piece, and Gasol is all too aware of that fact.
After the team’s 102-90 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night, Bryant went on a longwinded rant about how Lakers management need to make a decision on Gasol. Either trade him or keep him, Bryant said to the press – but don’t leave the man hanging like he currently is.
"Basketball is such an emotional game, you got to be able to have all of yourself in the game and invested in the game. We didn't have that," Bryant said after Gasol had 17 points and 12 rebounds against the Suns. "Pau, it's hard for Pau because of all this trade talk and all this other stuff, it's hard for him to kind of invest himself completely or immerse himself completely into games when he's hearing trade talk every other day. I wish management would come out and either trade him or not trade him."
I'd rather them not trade him at all. If they're going to do something, I wish they would just (expletive) do it. If they're not going to do it, come out and say you're not going to do it. This way he can be comfortable, he can go out, he can play and he can invest all of himself into the game."
But 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... He's been the consummate professional. He's going out, he's trying to do what he can, but let's be real. If you didn't know you were going to be here tomorrow, if your head's on the chopping block, you feel like you're just waiting. It's tough to put all of yourself into the game."
On Monday night, right before the Lakers tipped off versus the Portland Trail Blazers, GM Mitch Kupchak responded to his star’s comments with a classic non-answer answer:
"As a former player, I understand how the days leading up to the trade deadline can be nerve-wracking for an NBA player," said Kupchak.
"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," Kupchak said. "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."
Any way you want to look at it, the Lakers have a mess on their hands. Gasol’s 16.6 points per game this year is more than two points lower than his career average of 18.8 points per game, and is a big reason for why he failed to qualify as an All-Star this season. There can be a reasonable debate regarding how much his troubles are the byproduct of adjusting to a new coach and Bryant’s decision to chase a scoring title this year (he attempts six more field goals than the next closest guy) versus his uncertain future, but obviously the big man is struggling either way.
The Lakers are waddling along this year winning some games and losing others, but nothing about them says that they’re ready to compete for a title. With his comments Monday night Kupchak may have answered Bryant’s comments from the previous night, but L.A. still looks and feels like a team that is anchored by questions. Kupchak would be wise to worry about answering those, not going back and forth with his superstar through the media.