This is how it starts.
In benching Kobe Bryant with six minutes to play against the Memphis Grizzlies, Mike Brown delivered a message loud and clear: Play the game without the proper focus, mentality and effort level, and you will be held accountable. It doesn't matter whether you are the 12th man or the 1st, Mike Brown will point you out and say "You are not playing up to the standard."
Kobe deserved to be benched. For once, we get to have a discussion about Kobe Bryant's play that has nothing to do with shot attempts. He did not shoot too much. He did not shoot poorly. The shots he took were the same mixture of good and bad that qualifies as a normal game. And he still deserved to be benched. He deserved it for completely and totally abandoning the concept of getting back on defense after turning the ball over, playing a role in allowing the Grizzlies a 3 on none fast break in a game the Lakers were trying to get back into down the stretch. He deserved it for letting the refs get to him, letting the physicality the Grizzlies were allowed to play with get in his head. Kobe Bryant did not receive a technical foul in this game, but that is a minor miracle, because there were many points, especially in the fourth quarter, in which Kobe was more interested in giving refs his death stare than in playing basketball. Kobe deserved to benched, because he was allowing his frustrations to get the better of him, throwing a temper tantrum a 5 year old would be proud of right there at center court. Kobe deserved to benched.
But he wasn't the only one.
Kobe wasn't the only one who played poor defense on the night. That 3-0 fast break mentioned earlier was the catalyst for this whole situation, and Kobe's failing only amounts to 20% of the overall team's. Kobe was shooting on the baseline ... where was his cover. Where were Sessions, Barnes, Drew and Pau? As a team, the Lakers gave up 116.7 points per 100 possessions, a terrible, terrible evening. Kobe's D-rating on the evening (meaning how well the Lakers performed defensively while he was on the floor) was 118, and the entire starting lineup (save Pau Gasol) was in the same boat. Andrew Bynum, in particular, deserves to be low-lighted for playing 41 minutes and picking up just 4 rebounds on a night in which the Lakers lost the rebounding battle. Drew was unstoppable offensively, doing whatever he wanted in leading the team in points and shot attempts. But this was also the fourth game in a row in which he's failed to reach double digit rebounds, and that is a disturbing trend. It seems we've come full circle with Andrew, a kid who used to play hard offensively and defensively all the time, then started playing poor defense when he wasn't getting the ball offensively, then learning how to play strong defense without worrying about whether he gets the ball or not, to now, playing poor defense because he is finding offense so easy. Actually, I have no idea why he's playing poor defense, but in the past few games, we've gotten more "I need to be more engaged defensively" quotes from Drew than blocked shots. Drew, despite being an offensive juggernaut, deserved to be benched. You could make the case for others. Matt Barnes had the worst defensive rating on the team last night. Pau Gasol was putting in the effort, but was way off with his shot. The bench players deserve to be benched all the time, which is why they usually are.
But you can't bench everybody, and if it's gotten to the point where you feel you need to, Kobe Bryant is a pretty good target. Not because his play was worse than everybody else's (it wasn't) or his attitude is worse than everybody else's (it was), but because when making the kind of play Mike Brown made in benching Kobe, going after the biggest target you can find is a good way to make everybody else take notice. Here is the reaction Mike Brown is hoping for: "Did coach really just bench Kobe? Man, if he can do that, he sure as hell can bench me. I better get my ass in gear"
I respect Mike Brown for making that call. I respect him for setting out to prove that he is not a superstar's puppet of a head coach, that there will be accountability. But I also recognize the danger in making that play. Mike Brown is banking on his having enough cachet to make that call. He's banking on the idea that the team will follow his lead, and start to play with more accountability for themselves and each other. And he's banking on Kobe to recognize that he was singled out because he is the leader of the team, not in ignorance of it.
This is how it begins, but it may also be how it ends. If Kobe seethes at being benched, if it breeds in him rebellion and mutiny instead of respect. Last night, Kobe said all the right things. How does he feel about being benched: "I'm not happy about it" Of course he's not, who would enjoy being benched. Is he mad at coach Brown: "It's his decision to make. I have to back his decisions. I have been backing his decisions all season and I can't stop now". It's exactly the right mix of angry and deferential that you'd want a star player who has just been publicly chastised to take. But only Kobe Bryant knows what is going on in his head. Only Kobe knows whether he can accept Brown's overall plan to get a team that is stuck in the mud back in gear. Only Kobe knows if Mike Brown commands enough respect to even be able to make this play. Kobe is the leader of this team, and if he wants to, he can sink Mike Brown. Fast.
Last night was a turning point, but we're not sure which direction the Lakers are now headed. They might be headed towards greater accountability, a situation where everybody plays hard together because that is the expectation, and the expectation must be met. Or they might be headed towards greater dysfunction, where the star player bristles at being singled out by the coach when he is not the (whole) problem, especially when Kobe's legacy as a player far outstrips Mike Brown's as a coach.
Which way are the Lakers headed? Only Kobe Bryant knows. He's the one driving the bus. The only question is whether he listens when Mike Brown gives him directions.