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After announcing his retirement at season’s end, it’s clear Kobe Bryant is living an experience that 99 percent of this league never will. He’s been able to choose when to walk away while still being paid his maximum value.
In my experience, the league is often done with a player long before that player is done with basketball. And instead of writing a letter to the fans and going on Good Morning America to talk about your decision, it isn’t until September rolls around and the phone isn’t ringing anymore that you realize the league has moved on. It’s jarring.
Kobe’s announcement should lift a burden off of himself, his team and the people around him. Some of those people have known a decision like this was coming this truth since the summer. But you only have to look at his playing time to see that with Kobe things don’t always go as planned. In conversations with the Lakers, it was hinted that Kobe would only play a limited number of games—less than half the team’s dates, in fact. Clearly they haven’t followed that script. There seems to be a lot shade being thrown as to the reasons why, but the truth is it did not have to be like this.
Once the Lakers missed out on the marquee free agents they chased this summer, the team seemed to float along haphazardly without a great deal of rhyme or reason. In dealing with the Lakers you never get the impression that Byron Scott has a great deal of interest in choosing his roster. I have dealt with him in his two other stops in Cleveland and New Orleans, and he’s never struck me as a person who was going to take responsibility for anything more than he had to.
There are organizational models in the NBA where the coach simply coaches whomever he is given. But it would be beneficial for a team like the Lakers, going through a rebuild, to identify a leader outside of Kobe. Yet in dealing with them, you sense there’s no plan and no leadership. That is not meant to be a knock on GM Mitch Kupchak—he is one of the most honest people in the NBA, and if every GM in the league was as easy to negotiate a deal with as Kupchak, things would be a lot easier for guys like me. But you definitely get the sense that he is not able to choose what he thinks is best for his team.
There are multiple ways the Lakers could have made this season easier for Kobe, but through sheer stubbornness—or simply shell shock—it’s almost like they are frozen. For starters, it’s hard to understand how the Lakers didn’t take Jahlil Okafor. Leading up to the draft I heard the Lakers liked D’Angelo Russell, but it never seemed like a real consideration that they would draft anyone but Okafor, who filled a position of need. But on the day of the draft word was leaked from within their group that Russell was going to be their guy. When something like this happens early on the day of the draft, it usually means one of two things is happening:
1. The team is throwing a smoke screen to either have a player fall to them or to create a trade market.
2. Someone has had the decision made for them by someone above, and they are hoping that leaking a decision they believe to be wrong they will create enough backlash for the decision-maker to go back on their choice.
In the Lakers’ case, it was definitely door number two. Except, they never talked themselves out of it.
Drafting Russell made no sense on any level; the Lakers best player outside of Kobe was a point guard, Jordan Clarkson. Not only that, but Byron Scott had already proved to be unable to think outside the box and properly utilize a lineup in which two point guards shared the floor.
Even after the decision was made to select Russell second overall, they should have signed a veteran point guard to both help their rookie and deal with Kobe.
Kobe has shown throughout his career that if he doesn’t trust the players he’s playing with, he will disrupt the offence and try to do everything himself. Last season, Kobe absolutely destroyed teammate Jeremy Lin on a daily basis, to the extent that it made some of the other players uncomfortable and clearly effected Lin’s play. People associated with the team say that, for whatever reason, Kobe just did not like Lin. At all. And he let him know about it on a daily basis.
So instead of signing a proven veteran point guard (Ronnie Price did a great job for the Lakers last year) they inexplicably went out and signed a 30 year-old rookie point guard from Spain, Marcelo Huertas. Huertas was a nice player in Europe, but no one was in a rush to sign him to a roster, let alone make him a rotation player. Up until the day Huertas was signed, the Lakers were telling people they were not going to sign another point guard. It was quite bizarre.
Now that the Lakers have gotten into the season, their style of play has only underlined the glaring errors in their roster makeup; each game they seem to be more tone deaf than the one before.
The sad part now is watching them prop up Kobe as the organization’s human shield—the one explanation for all of the losing. There is a belief that the TV deal the Lakers signed a few years ago—the most lucrative in the league—contains incentives heavily tied to ratings, and obviously having Kobe as a part of the team helps the ratings. If that’s the case, then obviously each side is benefiting in some way. But from a basketball perspective, you watch each game and wonder why they can’t make the process slightly easier on Kobe. Instead they put him on an island when he’s on the floor and hope the time machine kicks in.
But this is the catch-22 with aging superstars; they clearly are in a different class then everyone else. A player like Andre Igoudala can go to another team, come off the bench, play 20 minutes a game and be embraced for adopting a lesser role on a winning team. For one of the NBA’s all-time greats and a face of the franchise like Kobe, that simply isn’t the case. Having him do something similar just wasn’t, and isn’t, possible.
Hopefully Kobe’s announcement will lift some of the pressure off him and the team. If it does, we can all get back to simply appreciating his career, and, come the day after the season ends, wondering where in the heck the Lakers go from here.