Kobe: "I'm Ready to Play. Period."Prepare for a new onslaught of Kobe Bryant media overkill focusing on two themes: a possible trade of the Lakers' superstar to the Chicago Bulls and a quote from Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson questioning Bryant's commitment to the team. This site does not usually give much credence to rumors but where there is smoke there is fire and there are indications that the Bulls and Lakers are seriously contemplating a deal. Bryant's no-trade clause gives him veto power over any move but Chicago has enough young talent to put together a package that can be satisfactory to all sides: L.A. would obviously be rebuilding without Bryant and would need an infusion of young talent, while the deal can only work for Chicago if the Bulls retain enough of their core group to be a contender with the addition of Bryant, who would obviously not agree to any trade that guts his prospective new team.
Jackson's broadside is what makes me really believe that the Bryant era in L.A. is coming to an end. In addition to being a great coach, Jackson is a master of office politics and public relations. In Chicago, he rallied the Bulls around him in part by nurturing the players' us versus them relationship with General Manager Jerry Krause (which is not to say that Krause was blameless). In L.A., Jackson understood from the start that he must win Shaquille O'Neal's loyalty and he did a masterful job of that, culminating in making some comments--including some passages in his book The Last Season--that gave many people the erroneous perception that Bryant forced the Lakers to trade O'Neal; when Jackson returned to the Lakers he admitted that this was not true and said that his book was a diary reflecting his feelings at a particular moment and not necessarily an objective view of the overall situation. Bryant accepted this explanation and he and Jackson have seemingly had a closer relationship than ever since then--a relationship that will be tested by this cheap shot by Jackson: "Obviously he hasn't thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor. That hurts me a little bit...He was going to work at this thing and [would] put his full being into this. Right now, he's having a hard time doing that." That is the surest sign yet that Bryant is about to be shipped off and Jackson is attempting to shore up his relationship with the Lakers' ownership and management. Until Jackson made that statement on Saturday he had been squarely in Bryant's corner, agreeing with the two-time scoring champion that the team has done a poor job of surrounding him with enough talent.
Not surprisingly, Bryant--whose work ethic and dedication are legendary and have never been questioned by anyone, even his biggest detractors--took great umbrage at Jackson's assertion: "That [should be] the least of his concerns or anybody's concerns. You don't have to worry about that...I'm ready to play. Period. You don't have to worry about me." Bryant's preseason statistics have not been great and he is currently dealing with a wrist injury but he brushed off any concerns that he won't be ready to go when the regular season begins, noting that Jackson has asked him to be more of a playmaker this season: "I experimented with different things. I have a different role this year. It's not something where people should be concerned that I'm going to come out and play like [bleep]. Let's not push the panic button over a couple of preseason games."
When Bryant missed Friday's preseason game due to the wrist injury, Jackson gave no indication that anything was amiss in terms of Bryant's dedication. Jackson's sudden about face says a lot more about him--and about the increasing likelihood that Bryant will be traded sooner rather than later--than it does about Bryant, who was the widely acknowledged leader of Team USA this summer and who carried the Lakers to the playoffs last year by posting the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in the past 43 years.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 PM