West Observes From Distance
Two years removed from his only other employer, Jerry West hasn’t lost his affinity for the franchise he served as a player, coach, executive and consultant from 1960 to 2001.
“I love the Lakers,” said West, who is beginning his second season as president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. “I watch all of the drama that goes on out there and some of it you’d rather not be part of. But I will always be a Laker fan.”
As a player, West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain made the Lakers the NBA’s glamour franchise on the West Coast. As an executive, he made the moves that kept Showtime rolling in the 1980s and then ushered in the new era by bringing Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to Lakerland in 1996.
West, who said he was happy to see his successor Mitch Kupchak sign Karl Malone and Gary Payton to free-agent contracts with the Lakers this summer, has the best of both worlds. The Lakers are still, to some degree, his creation. But now they’re not his problem. West had it pretty good Monday night. The Lakers came to town, enticing enough fans to fill every seat in the Pyramid, while West’s new team walked away with a 105-95 victory.
And West won’t have to deal with any of the issues that might linger if the Lakers don’t get back to their winning ways.
The Laker defense actually regressed, allowing the weak-scoring Grizzlies to shoot 58% and produce 61 points in the first half
Phil Jackson sat Gary Payton for 21 minutes, including a 13 1/2-minute stretch in the second half, and afterward Payton wasn’t happy.
“I don’t even want to discuss it,” Payton said. “Just let me play, that’s all....
“I ain’t got too much to say right now.”
When the loquacious Payton isn’t talking it’s similar to a fish not swimming: not a good sign.
Shaquille O’Neal was talking, and after a fourth quarter in which Bryant took eight shots to his three, if you read between the lines then O’Neal wasn’t too happy either.
Have you ever played that game where you add “in bed” to the end of every fortune you read at the end of dinner in a Chinese restaurant? It’s like that in the Laker locker room. You can just add “Kobe” to every point O’Neal made in this postgame statement and you’ll get his message: “We just have to move the ball around and use the guys we’ve got and look for our mismatches and keep taking the high-percentage shots. It’s a very simple game. We just have to make it simple.”
Bryant had his own simple approach:
“Sometimes you miss ‘em, sometimes you make ‘em,” said Bryant, who finished with 19 points on five-for-15 shooting from the field, nine of 10 from the free-throw line. “But you’ll never know if you can make ‘em if you don’t shoot.”
They’re back behind the curtains again, after airing out their differences in public two weeks ago. Some people credited the counsel of West, who was working limited duty as a team consultant at the time -- with helping Bryant and O’Neal to coexist well enough to win a second championship after their feud flared up in 2001. Some of those same people think the superstars could use West’s advice now.
That won’t happen.
“I don’t have any comment on any of those things at all,” West said. “Absolutely none. That’s for them to handle. It’s not for us to handle. I think being in a media capital like Los Angeles, it’s going to escalate everything. Some of the stuff that’s said you wish weren’t said, but it’s said and they have to deal with it.
“I work for Memphis now. I have great respect for Kobe, great respect for Shaquille O’Neal, two players that I know well. They’ve got Mitch [Kupchak] there, who’s done an unbelievable job. That’s someone that they can reach out to also.”
West also said he has not been in contact with Bryant concerning the allegation of rape against Bryant, citing the NBA’s tampering rules for an executive to talk with another team’s players.
“I really don’t have any comment,” West said. “He and I have not talked for months. Have not.”
Bryant said after the game that he and West did not speak during the Lakers’ visit to Memphis.
West said he does not think Bryant’s repeated declarations that he intends to opt out of the last year of his contract after the season have any bearing on Bryant’s future in Los Angeles.
“I don’t know why you guys make such a big deal out of it,” West said. “Any player in the league would do the same thing because he can make more money. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen people talk about. I can’t believe it.
“He can get a lot more guaranteed [money] out there, that’s for sure. I don’t even know why anyone makes a big deal out of it.”
He can get more guaranteed money because he would have more years on his contract if he opts out and signs a new deal either with the Lakers (who could offer him a maximum of seven years) or another team (who could offer him a maximum of six years). However, no team can offer him a higher annual raise than the 12.5% increase the Lakers could give him each year.
“He started his career in Los Angeles,” West said. “My best guess is, he’ll end his career in Los Angeles. That’s where he made his legend, that’s where he’ll continue to make it.”
That doesn’t jibe with what Laker players and others around the league are whispering -- that Bryant wants to be considered the NBA’s most valuable player, if not its greatest player ever, and he’ll never earn those accolades if he continues to play alongside O’Neal.
There are those who believe that Bryant wants to reunite with West, although the Grizzlies don’t have enough salary-cap space to throw a lot of cash at him.
It was interesting that when Bryant was asked about the Grizzlies he said: “Jerry did a great job of putting this team together. They have a lot of young talent.”
West said, “We have some nice young players here.” But also said “We need to get a great player here.”
We think we know one who’ll be available.
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com