source: Chris Broussard | ESPN
It was an odd time for a players-only meeting -- minutes after a blowout victory over Portland -- but the Los Angeles Lakers felt they needed to clear the air. So, according to sources, team leaders Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher gathered everyone together in the Lakers' locker room Monday night and tried to set the tone for the second half of the season.
Their message was clear: Trade rumors do not matter; your feelings about management or the coaching staff don't matter; all that matters is that the 14 men in that locker room support and believe in one another. If they stay together and stay on the same page, they can get to where they want to go as a team.
Since the Lakers' impressive 103-92 victory over the Blazers took place before the meeting, it's hard to tell what effect the talk will have, but the Lakers seem to believe the meeting was productive and that the club is making progress.
The reference to trade rumors obviously concerned Pau Gasol and the nonstop chatter that he may not be a Laker after the March 15 trade deadline. Bryant came out in strong support of Gasol after Sunday night's awful loss at Phoenix, saying that while he doesn't want Pau to be traded, management should either move him quickly or announce that he's staying in Los Angeles.
"It's just tough for a player to give his all when you don't know if you're going to be here tomorrow," Bryant said. "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."
General manager Mitch Kupchak responded to Bryant's criticism by issuing a statement that essentially said that while he understands times are tough for Gasol, the big man is still on the block.
"To say publicly that we would not do this would serve no purpose and put us at a competitive disadvantage," Kupchak said. "Taking such a course of action at this time would be a disservice to ownership, the team and our many fans."
Kupchak's statement, released shortly before Monday's tipoff, probably had a lot to do with the players' postgame powwow.
But there are other issues as well. Some of the Lakers are having trouble adjusting to Mike Brown's coaching style, which is a sharp contrast to Phil Jackson's. Some players are upset about what they perceive to be an ever-changing rotation and the up-and-down distribution of minutes, sources said. Others aren't liking the long practices and shootarounds, while still others have bristled at Brown's heavy-handed approach, as opposed to Jackson's more laid-back style.
The players were not happy that after beating Phoenix at home Friday night and flying to Phoenix Saturday afternoon, they had to get up for a 10 a.m. shootaround Sunday morning. With Sunday's game starting at 6 p.m., it would've been more typical to skip the morning shootaround in exchange for a pregame walk-through. One player said the Lakers' body language and attitude at the shootaround was poor and that it set the tone for Sunday's listless performance. But he expressed optimism that Brown, without being asked by the players, chose not to have a shootaround before Monday's game.
"I think we're starting to learn this coaching staff and they're starting to learn us,'' the player said.
Another sign of growth in the relationship between Brown and his players may be his decision recently to grant them more freedom on the floor. For most of the season, Brown has called out offensive plays practically every time down the floor. After spending the last six years in Jackson's triangle offense, where there were few play calls from the bench and the players made reads, some Lakers were having trouble handling Brown's micromanagement of the offense.
But about a week-and-a-half ago, Brown began taking his foot off the brakes and now he's calling plays only about half the time, according to a player. Having won two titles in the past three years, the players feel they deserve that kind of freedom and will blossom with it.
With Metta World Peace and Andrew Bynum recently going to the media with criticisms of either Brown or his decision-making, the dynamic between the coach and his players is still a work in progress.
But at Monday night's meeting, Bryant, Fisher and Gasol told their teammates to come to them with any issues they have with the coaching staff, and then they, as the club's leaders, will talk it over with the coaches.
The true effectiveness of the meeting will be tested on the court. With games coming up Wednesday in Dallas and Thursday in Oklahoma City, there won't be a long wait for an answer.
Senior writer Chris Broussard covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin was used in this report.