March 23, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) and shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) talk during a time out in the second half of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Staples Center. Lakers won 103-96. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Kobe Bryant dribbles slowly up court. He motions for a teammate to come set a high screen. The defender hedges the screen, so Kobe attempts to go around him. The defender pushes him towards the sideline, as Kobe's original defender trails the play, forming a sideline trap. Kobe continues to attempt to get around the help defender, but realizes he's running out of real estate. He jumps in the air to pass back to the screener, only to find his teammate isn't where he expected, and the ball sails into the arms of one of the five guys wearing the wrong color of jersey. Kobe finds his teammate with his eyes, and gives him a look that escalates somewhere between frustration and disgust.
We've all seen many examples of variations of the above passage. Kobe attempts to take on too much, and when it causes him to fail, he inevitably looks at one of his teammates like it's them who made the mistake. To be fair, this interpretation of Kobe's thoughts might be inaccurate. Maybe the look of frustration is actually directed at himself. It's tough to look introspectively in front of 20,000 people with no mirrors in sight. But regardless, it looks unbecoming, and Kobe's seemingly visible frustration with teammates who haven't actually done anything wrong is one of his least endearing qualities. There's no way around it; Kobe Bryant is a tough teammate to have.
Histrionics over mistakes is just one example, and there are plenty of others; The nights when Kobe doesn't seem particularly interested in moving the ball into others' hands, the times when Kobe fails to track his defensive mark appropriately while chastising teammates for not being in the right place defensively. Even his concept of team structure, in which Kobe always "eats first", can be difficult to adjust to, especially for big men who see a lot more of their opportunities be successful. Being on Kobe Bryant's team can be a rewarding experience in a variety of ways, but it is in no way easy.
Sometimes, it leads to frustration. Like when Pau Gasol asserted at multiple times over the past two years that the offense seems to flow better if the ball comes to him. Or when Andrew Bynum gets visibly frustrated at not getting the ball after he's fought hard for deep post position. Every time this happens, every time one of Kobe's teammates bristles under the mantle of his overwhelming will and personality, there exists the potential for long term damage to the bond that links teammates together, that unifies individual players into a collective team. You might think, based on the above descriptions of Kobe Bryant's unbecoming behavior, that the potential might be high. You would be wrong.
Kobe Bryant may be a tough teammate to deal with, but he has become a tremendous mentor.
Take Andrew Bynum for example. Big Drew has been the motivation behind equal parts ecstasy and frustration in Lakers Nation this season. For every 20-20 game, there is an ejection from stupid technicals. For every legendary 30 rebound performance, there is a benching for jacking up an unlicensed three pointer. For every game in which he increasingly looks like the most capable center in the league, there is a petulant and/or lazy display in which he shows you the difference between capability and performance. How has Kobe Bryant, who is known to become frustrated with his teammates when they don't even do anything wrong, responded to these acts of rebellion, immaturity, and arrogance? With support, understanding, and nuance.
Because Kobe Bryant has been there before. He's been Little Brother, chomping at the bit and wanting to advance his career and legacy at a faster clip than his mentors want him to. He dealt with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'neal pumping the brakes on his level of responsibility, because it was in the team's, and their own, best interests to do so. He, too, disregarded the orders of the higher ranking officers because he wanted to expand his game. He, too, acted out, acted petulantly, when he didn't always get what he wanted. When he did, Phil Jackson chided him. Shaq feuded with him. Neither coach nor "Big Brother" allowed Kobe any leeway to grow. Both relationships struggled, finally breaking from the tension, and the result was a wasted 2004 season that required the 2005 breakup of a potential dynasty far earlier than its shelf life. One of those relationships ended up salvageable and successful. The other ... not so much.
So when Andrew Bynum seems upset at his role with the team (Drew has said many stupid things over the past few months, but has never made a point of voicing anger over his role), Kobe doesn't seethe with anger at Bynum's failure to understand the hierarchy. When he acts out on the court towards the refs, Kobe voices sympathy for Drew's frustration. When lazy LA Times reporters try to bait him for Andrew Bynum quotes, he doesn't just refuse to play the game, he makes the game look stupid. And it goes beyond Drew. Whether its taking players under his wing (Trevor Ariza), being a calming and productive influence where a calming influence is mandatory (Metta World Peace), seeking out players who have been antagonists to him in the past (Matt Barnes) or pushing players to seek out new levels of competitiveness they might not have known they have (Black Swan/Pau Gasol).
Kobe's leadership has even extended to the relationship with the front office. Throughout the season, as the Lakers have struggled with a lack of depth and curious decisions from the head coach, Kobe has toed the company line at all times. He was active and engaged as it is possible to be when he missed time due to injury. The only time all year in which he has stirred the team pot was when he determined that toeing the company line harmed the company, and demanded that the Pau Gasol situation get resolved. Nothing came of that statement, and nothing needed to. He was voicing his support of Gasol in the hopes of helping the Spaniard get his head on straight, and it only cost the front office a little face. Hell, I wouldn't be all that surprised if we found out Kobe approved that statement with Mitch Kupchak ahead of time.
Kobe's seen the opposite side of this coin, and he wants no part of it. He knows what happens when a young and precocious talent is told to curtail his desire for individual growth and success for the benefit of the team, and he knows what happens when that strategy is delivered with a "Do it my way or else" mantra. On the court, Kobe seems frustrated at mistakes his teammates don't even make, can get a little possessive with the orange piece of leather that is used to play the game of basketball, and clearly dominates his team's style of play with his overwhelming will power. These are all actions that might threaten the team dynamic, but none of them ever actually seem to follow through on the threat, because Kobe Bryant is both the cause, and the preventative measure.
The Mamba is a tough teammate to work with, but he's got a PhD in team chemistry. The little brother nobody knew how to deal with has grown into the big brother who knows how to deal with everything.