Published Jun 21, 2004

As an Angeleno, if only transplanted, I feel obligated to say something about this whole break-up-the-Lakers thing. This entry will consider three things:

  • Whether the Lakers are being broken up in the right way, or, should Shaq or Kobe have gone?
  • What kind of long-term deals the Lakers should be looking for
  • What this means about basketball, Jerry West, and Mitch Kupchak

Fortunately, as an occasional observer of Lakers basketball, primarily in its televised form, I am entirely and uniquely qualified to weigh in on these matters.

Shaq, Kobe, or Phil: Pick One, Maybe Two
After a fiasco like the finals, who goes? Phil was let go, and I’m sure that they made the right decision on that. He will coach elsewhere, and win, but he’d lost interest in the Lakers. No coach with his mind on the game would turn in the Finals performance that Phil did. And, frankly, a pet peeve of mine throughout the season was that he didn’t make even the smallest changes to his system to accommodate Malone or Payton — the sign of a tired mind. Time for him to go indeed.

Picking Kobe or Shaq to stay is a harder question. Shaq only has three more years in him — but those years most likely include two championships for whoever he’s playing for. If he goes, that means the Lakers don’t need to win now.

Keeping Kobe means the Lakers want to win later, to build a dynasty again after a couple of years off. Assuming that Kobe stays out of jail. Assuming that Kobe decides to stay. That’s a lot to assume — seems to me a bad risk. I’d have let Kobe go, maybe in a sign-and-trade; his numbers are lower than Shaq’s, he could be more easily packaged.

I’m obviously in favor of letting Kobe go, but, equally obviously, they’ve decided not to do that. Which brings us to the question:

Who should the Lakers get out there?
Well, now, my whole plan was that they’d do a sign-and-trade of Kobe, bringing Laker Of The Future Tracy McGrady out here. Affordable for all, if the Magic threw in Grant Hill. But Buss and Kupchak just blew that, so we’ve got to find an alternative plan.

The problem is, there’s really no big man to replace Shaq. That’s not a fatal problem, but it is a difficulty, especially if the Lakers are forced to trade the man within the Western conference. So the best solution to the “where to trade Shaq?” question is…

… Hire a coach that Shaq and Kobe can agree on! There’s some out there. Rudy Tomjanovich is the early pick, and a good one! He might keep the team together.

Failing that, Shaq needs to be traded East. It’s a pity that a team can’t pay the salaries of players it’s traded, as in football or baseball, otherwise Shaq could be traded for a good player and his cap number simply carried for a season, an investment in rebuilding the team. In many ways, the best move would be to trade ol’ Aristotle to a crap team, like the Hawks or Wizards, and take some stiffs in return; Shaq will sell tickets for a moribund franchise and stiffs can be traded or, more likely, kept for just one season before being released.

But Whither The Lakers?
This is, of course, the question. Is this the end of the Lakers’ Yankees-like dominance of the NBA? Yes, hopefully. Imagine the example that would set, a healthy league dominated for a few years by a team featuring two dominant stars, a team finally broken up by the salary cap, mixing things up and bringing fresh success to the league in the years ahead! What would Major League Baseball think?

This is not to say anything bad about Buss or Kupchak. I do think Buss has made this a personal, not a business, decision, but that’s one thing that has made the Lakers lovable champions for decades. The good Doctor is still committed to winning, but he won’t sacrifice his friendships to do it. That would be refreshing in a less mercenary era. So, expect another dynasty in the future, but expect it when the time is right, not right now.

You can’t knock Kupchak, either. His hands have been tied with two big contracts, and yet he managed to keep enough space to bring in Payton and Malone over the summer. That’s, at least, OK. He had to give it a shot. Walton and Rush are good, probably limited because Phil was not much for player development. A new coach could help them realize their potential. Give the man time.

The Lakers are a well-run franchise. The big question is, will Kobe stay or will the purple and gold enter the fall with no big names at all? It could be a short rebuilding, or a long one.