Immediately after the Los Angeles Lakers declared Kobe Bryant out for the season, he already was thinking about how to make sure the Lakers will be much less miserable when he returns.
Bryant expressed only mild frustration Wednesday after the long-expected decision to end his 18th NBA season after just six games. The superstar guard’s broken bone in his left knee has kept him out since shortly before Christmas, and it still hasn’t healed enough for weight-bearing exercise.
With just five weeks left in their injury-ravaged season, the Lakers (22-42) elected to preserve Bryant for next year, when he’ll be 36. And though Bryant has barely played, he is determined to make sure the Lakers’ failures of this season aren’t repeated in 2014-15.
The Lakers’ ruthlessly competitive scorer can’t take much more of this incompetence from his 16-time NBA champion franchise.
“I feel like killing everybody every time I go to the arena,” Bryant said. “I’m just on edge all the time. Yeah, I still feel it, probably more than anybody in the organization does. I probably feel it more, and it drives me absolutely crazy.”
Bryant clearly identified the Lakers’ top offseason priorities in his mind, and they didn’t include specific free-agent additions. The fourth-leading scorer in NBA history called on the Lakers’ front office – and owner Jim Buss in particular – to set “a clear direction” for the franchise’s return to the top after they miss the playoffs this spring for just the second time in his career.
“You’ve got to start with Jim,” Bryant said. “You’ve got to start with Jim and Jeanie (Buss), and how that relationship plays out. It starts there, and having clear direction and clear authority. And then it goes down to the coaching staff, and what’s Mike (D’Antoni) going to do, what they want to do with Mike, and then it goes from there. It’s got to start at the top.”
Phil Jackson’s apparent decision to take a front-office job with the New York Knicks also drew a negative reaction from Bryant. The Lakers flirted with re-hiring the 11-time NBA champion coach early last season before unexpectedly choosing D’Antoni, whose two injury-plagued teams have gone 62-74.
“You know how I feel about Phil,” Bryant said. “I have so much admiration for him, and respect, and have a great relationship with him. Personally, it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I don’t really get it.”
Bryant said nothing about his relationship with D’Antoni, and the coach said he hadn’t spoken to Bryant about the decision to shut him down.
But Bryant said he won’t be satisfied with another rebuilding year for the Lakers, even though his two-year, $48 million contract extension starting next season will absorb a large chunk of the team’s upcoming salary-cap space. Most of Los Angeles’ roster will be free agents in the summer, and Bryant has said he wants center Pau Gasol to return.
“How can I be satisfied with it?” Bryant asked. “We’re like 100 games under .500. I can’t be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times, it’s hard to understand that message if you’re not a die-hard Laker fan. It’s hard to really understand where we’re coming from, what we’re used to, what we’re accustomed to, which is playing for championships. Everything else is a complete failure. That’s just how it is.”
Exactly 11 months after tearing his Achilles, Bryant remained confident he can return in something close to top form. He plans to approach his remaining rehabilitation as “a seven-month training program,” giving him ample time to rebuild strength in his left leg.
“I don’t want to say I’ll be back at the top of my game,” Bryant said. “Because everybody is going to think I’m crazy, and it’s the old-player-not-letting-go sort of thing. But that’s what it’s going to be.”
Bryant missed the first 19 games of this season after tearing his left Achilles tendon last April, returning Dec. 8. The five-time NBA champion was back in uniform for just 10 days before fracturing the top of his shinbone in Memphis.
The Lakers initially thought Bryant could return shortly after six weeks of recovery, but the bone has been slow to heal.
“With Kobe’s injury still not healed, the amount of time he’d need to rehab and be ready to play, and the amount of time remaining in the season, we’ve simply run out of time for him to return,” Lakers trainer Gary Vitti said.
Los Angeles began the day in a three-way tie for last place in the Western Conference with 29 losses in its last 38 games heading into Thursday’s trip to Oklahoma City.
Steve Nash hasn’t been formally shut down for the season, but D’Antoni indicated it’s also unlikely the two-time MVP guard will return this season. The 40-year-old Nash, who has one year left on his contract, has played in only 10 games this season while dealing with back problems and related woes.
D’Antoni said Jordan Hill and Nick Young are both unlikely to play on the Lakers’ upcoming two-game road trip, but Gasol is probable despite skipping part of practice Wednesday.