Against a better team, we expected the Los Angeles Lakers to lose, and they did. Against a stronger opponent, we expected the Lakers to be overpowered, and they were. With Andrew Bynum out and the Lakers needing 20+ minutes from Troy Murphy, all we wanted was a strong showing, and the Lakers delivered. So why does this loss leave me more worried about this season than ever?
Because yesterday, the Lakers had a chance to send a message, a chance to show their team is not a hastily thrown together bunch of parts, but a thoughtful, amalgamated collection of complimentary players. They had a chance to say collectively "Look, I can play." They had Murphy, providing seven points on five shots, with eight boards in 23 minutes. Steve Blake, reaching double figures and looking aggressive with the basketball, Devin Ebanks playing cool and controlled, with 8 points on 4-5 shooting. Andrew Goudelock, rewarding the most surprising playing time of the day by knocking down 2-3 from range. And Kobe Bryant. With all the injuries, and the aging, and the mysterious medical treatments, some people might forget that Kobe can still play. With 28 points on a decently efficient 23 shots, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, he had a chance to deliver that message, but he was too busy delivering another one.
"I'm still Kobe Bryant." Problem is, he's wrong.
Kobe Bryant is not Kobe Bryant anymore. Whether you can accept this fact because he doesn't have the same explosiveness as he's had throughout his career, or you can accept this fact because he's a broken down human being who has no knees and few fingers, the fact is true. He's still an able scorer, still a capable defender, and he knows the game as well as anybody in the league, but Kobe is not capable of doing what Kobe is used to being capable of doing. And he shows no signs of understanding this at all. This has always been a question we've been unsure of, whether Kobe could get past his own hubris and age gracefully into the kind of veteran player that knows his own limitations. It's early yet, in this season, in the tail end of his career, but the early signs are not encouraging.
This isn't about clutch. Yesterday, Kobe surely wasn't, and that has been a growing trend over the past season+. Kobe came in to yesterday's game with the Lakers sporting a six point lead. They scored just 11 points on their next 15 possessions. Kobe was directly involved with 11 of those possessions, going 3-7 for six points, and hitting Steve Blake for a three, but he also turned the ball over 3 times. The Lakers' end game execution was terrible last year, and it was doubly terrible yesterday, and Kobe Bryant is at the center of it all. That doesn't erase the years of success he enjoyed as a closer, doesn't add credence to the arguments against Kobe's ability to win a basketball game for his team, because these arguments are evolutions. You don't need to change your opinion of Kobe's greatness to get in line with the idea that he needs to rein in his attempts to re-capture that greatness now.
But Kobe does need to change his opinion about his own greatness. Going into the game, I can see why he might think the Kobe Bryant of old was necessary. The Chicago Bulls are a great team, and the Lakers were reeling from a variety of unfortunate concurrences. Lamar Odom being gone, the team uncertainty caused by the failed Chris Paul trade, Andrew Bynum's suspension, even the non-basketball-related issue of his newly changed relationship status. It made perfect sense for Kobe to try to raise his game, and in a way, he did. Turnovers aside, his stat line is fully developed; plenty of points, plenty of rebounds, plenty of assists. This game was not a case of Kobe going gunner. It was a case of him trying to do too much, not trying to do it on his own.
And still, we haven't gotten to the problem. Kobe played terribly down the stretch, he tried to do too much throughout the game and instead turned the ball over too much, and he doesn't seem to know that he's not going to regain the athleticism that allowed him to be the best player in the game for a long, long time ... and none of this is the problem. The problem is that this was the first game of the season, with a team full of new faces, and every single one of those faces was playing well. Incredibly well. The Lakers bench has been derided as one of the weakest in the league, and that was before Josh McRoberts was forced into a starting role. And yet, that bench went toe to toe with a bench that is considered among the league's strongest. The Lakers role players were playing those roles like a locked in ensemble. And then Kobe came in and tried to do too much, and the Lakers lost the game. 5 turnovers in the first half, when Kobe had no clue whether his teammates were up to the task? Understandable. 3 turnovers and 7 shots in 15 possessions after the rest of the team built up a lead with hustle, strong execution, and timely shotmaking? That's a problem.
It being only one game, this doesn't actually tell us anything. Maybe Kobe will figure it out the next time the Lakers play a strong opponent. Maybe he won't figure it out, and instead will go for forty points as he shows he still has the extra gear. Or maybe the Kobe we saw yesterday is what we can expect on a semi-regular basis, a Kobe who tries too hard to make up for perceived weaknesses in his team that aren't actually there. All I know is that Kobe could have had no idea that his teammates were worthy of his trust to start the game yesterday. But, by the end, with the lead built on their backs, Kobe should have figured it out. He didn't, and the Lakers are down a game because of it. This isn't a problem because of the loss. Its a problem because of the message.
The rest of the team had a chance to say "Hey! We can play." Instead, Kobe's message was the one we're left with ... "I don't believe you."