EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Kobe Bryant's(notes) face seemed to instantly boil as he was asked about the "decline" of the Los Angeles Lakers. Such talk has taken root ever since the Dallas Mavericks stunningly swept the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs, ending Los Angeles' two-year championship reign.
He called breakup talk "nonsense" at his exit interview with the media at the team's practice facilities on Wednesday, and believes the Lakers' current core group will make another title run next season.
"If you're asking me do I believe we can come back and do it again, I absolutely believe that we can come back and do it again," Bryant said.
One of the biggest voices leading the reconstruction chorus is former Lakers star Magic Johnson, a team vice president. He has said it is best to blow up the team. Bryant quipped that Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers of the 1980s weren't broken up when they failed to three-peat and continued to succeed.
A disappointed Bryant called this past season a "waste of a year." But unless the Lakers make a major trade, expect a similar group since all the core players are under contract next season. General manager Mitch Kupchak echoed Bryant's sentiment.
"You're not going to contend for a championship with a non-veteran team," Kupchak said. "With the core players we have intact I think we can continue to contend. We may have to look to improve certain areas, but once again that's not something we've sat down and discussed yet."
Time will tell what the Lakers' roster looks like next season, but one thing 's certain: Phil Jackson won't be coaching them. Kupchak said the Lakers have no timetable for Jackson's replacement, and that he hasn't talked in-depth with ownership about it. Bryant has previously endorsed Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw.
Without giving names, Kupchak said one to two members of Jackson's staff could be considered for the opening. The two are likely Shaw and possibly assistant coach Chuck Person. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors also have interest in Shaw, according to an NBA source.
A Lakers source also said that management and ownership are split on Shaw. The Buss family, who owns the Lakers, has a reputation of keeping their coaching searches close to the vest.
"Without having discussion with ownership, we don't have any type of parameter," Kupchak said.
In his media exit interview, Jackson referred to the Lakers as "they," showed no interest in returning as coach, said he hasn't talked to Lakers president Jim Buss "all year" and added that he doesn't anticipate the franchise calling him for advice. While the 65-year-old initially said he had no plans to return to coaching elsewhere, he also said later in Tuesday's media briefing that he will see how he feels in six months.
Gasol has denied reports that there was a conflict between his girlfriend, Silvia Lopez Castro, and Bryant's wife, Vanessa, which affected team chemistry during the postseason. Bryant echoed those words.
"It's just not true," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. "I don't know who, where it's from or who said this or what. It's just not true; it's just not true. Pau and I, we know that. It sucks for him to have that kind of stuff going on with his family or whatever he has going on. It couldn't be further from the truth. The only beef that we have is when I call him 'soft' – he gets upset when I call him 'soft.' That's it."
In regard to the offensive demands that Bynum made Tuesday with local media, Bryant stated that the ball should continue to go through him first, Gasol second.
"Ultimately, [Bynum will] have to fall in line because I'm gonna shoot the ball – we all know that," Bryant said. "Pau is going to get his touches; he's No. 2. And then [Andrew] will have to fall in line."
Bynum averaged 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds in 54 regular-season games after starting the season late due to knee surgery. The 7-footer improved in the playoffs to average 14.4 points and 9.6 rebounds in the postseason. While Bryant was the leading scorer in the regular and postseason, Bynum flip-flopped with fellow big man Gasol in the postseason to be the Lakers' second-leading scorer in the playoffs.
Kupchak seemed encouraged by the injury-plagued center's progress, but added that his offensive role will be dictated by the new coach.
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