There are very few things the world agrees upon when it comes to Kobe Bryant. Every aspect of his game, it seems, can be wielded like a double-edged sword, used by both sides of the debate as evidence of why their opinion on Kobe is correct. Kobe is a great scorer; Kobe is a selfish player who takes too many shots. Kobe makes incredible shots; Kobe takes incredibly stupid shots. Kobe's won five rings; Shaq was more important than Kobe to three of those, and he's only won 1 MVP. On and on it goes, stopping only when you get tired of arguing with the other side. He is the most polarizing athlete in the sport, possibly the most polarizing of any sport.
There is one part of the Kobe Bryant oeuvre, however, that is almost universally accepted; the man works hard. The only argument one can have regarding Kobe's work ethic is whether he is one of the hardest working players in the NBA, or is THE hardest working player in the NBA. His off-season training regime, the constant additions to his offensive repertoire, the massive volume of game tape he devours between games, even his treatment regimen (when healthy and when injured), all of it hammers the point home that Kobe Bryant lives, breathes, eats and sleeps basketball. Even the haters will cede this point, left with only a sideways jab about how Kobe works hard to make sure you know he's working hard. In the constant battles over Kobe Bryant's relative greatness, his work ethic is the high ground which no hater can ever hope to conquer.
As such, complacency is not a term often used when discussing Mr. Bryant. After all, there may not be two more antithetical concepts than that of hard work and complacency. Complacency is what happens when you don't work hard, when you lose your drive, when you get self-satisfied. A strong work ethic is what breaks through the cloud of complacency, that voice inside your head that pushes you ever onward even though you know in the back of your mind that you don't need to go any further. Complacency tells all of us that what we have done is good enough, so now we can relax. A person with a strong work ethic knows there is no such thing as good enough. Kobe Bryant knows there is no such thing as good enough. So why is it that his teams never seem to learn the same lesson?
For as long as Kobe Bryant has been a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, complacency has been an issue the team has struggled with. It seems crazy to say, because Kobe Bryant's Lakers have also been wildly successful, but the Lakers have turned winning with complacency into an art form over the past 15 years. Lots of folks remember the Lakers' stunning 16-1 run through the 2001 NBA playoffs, but how many folks remember the mediocre team that won just 56 games prior to that run? Every Shaq-Kobe team after the first dominating championship treated the regular season like a chore. Shaq was the boy-king of complacency, playing his way into shape, delaying surgery until the start of the season because "I got hurt on company time so why shouldn't I get better on company time". Eventually, those Lakers stopped being able to "turn it on" at the right time, and a 50 win season doomed the Shaq-Kobe Lakers from putting together one of the more dominant runs in NBA history.
Fast forward to the next mini-era of Lakers' dominance, and you find more of the same. Hell, the Kobe-Gasol-Odom Lakers actually invented a new trick; Complacency within the playoffs itself. Even in their first of two championship seasons, before most of the team had actually won anything, that Lakers squad took entire playoff games off against the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets en route to their first ring. Hell, without the complacency of the Lakers, I might not even be sitting here typing out words for you to read. That complacency is why so few people, within and without the Lakers organization, actually saw the 2011 playoff series against Dallas for what it was. Even as the Lakers went down one game, two games, three games, there was a great deal of hope that the Lakers would flip the switch and turn things around, like they did so many times before.
And now we arrive at this monstrosity of a season. This year, the Lakers have never been good. They have only recently achieved mediocre. Most of the season has been spent in an injury and chemistry-induced funk, and until recently, the playoffs were considered a pipe-dream. Despite the great expectations of a star-studded cast, this team has never come close to achieving something which looks like greatness. And yet they are complacent.
When the buzzer sounded as Kobe Bryant clanked a fading three last Friday against the Washington Wizards, the Los Angeles Lakers lost for the 4th time after holding a double digit lead. That's actually not bad at all (the Spurs, for example, have also lost four times from the same position, albeit with a lot more occurrences of double digit leads). However, what is telling is who those losses have come against. Washington, Phoenix, twice against Houston. And this game against Orlando barely misses the cut. The Houston losses aside, those are three of the worst losses the team has suffered all year ... bad opponents, home games, and worse, a game in complete control that goes completely awry. Looking at the game flows, except for one of the games in Houston (where the Lakers shot out to a 14 point 1st quarter lead that was quickly erased), all of these games look like a clear case of the Lakers letting their foot off the gas pedal. The Lakers, who have struggled all season just to stay above .500.
After the Washington game, coach Mike D'Antoni launched into a tirade that should have happened 40 games ago. He talked about how the team's championship hopes are a joke, but he also talked about how "every time we get up 16 [points], it's like, 'Well, we're really good and we don't have to play hard,' He later clarified that everybody on the team was to blame. Regardless, the idea that this team, this underwhelming, just-struggling-to-survive team, could possibly have a problem with complacency is stunning.
That stunning complacency has been in place for the Lakers franchise for well over a decade now, and there is only one constant over that same time frame: Kobe Bryant. There is, has, and probably always will be, a more logical target to blame for the team's complacency than Kobe. He's been teamed up with a steady dose of highly talented players who take the game less seriously than the average professional (Shaq, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard might also qualify). Most of Kobe's tenure coincided with a coach (Phil Jackson) who was the master of making sure complacency found the exit door at just the right time, but didn't try to fight it all that much the rest of the time. PJ's teams rarely suffered the normal consequences of complacency, but that doesn't mean the complacency wasn't always there. And since PJ's retirement, the Lakers have had two coaches that have failed at a lot of things, so why would it be that surprising if motivation were just another thing that Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni just don't do very well. Kobe Bryant, the hardest working man in basketball, can't possibly be to blame for the Lakers' complacency, right?
After 15 years, and multiple eras, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate that statement. It's tough to make an argument that it was Kobe's fault that the Shaq era teams had problems with complacency, because that whole era might have failed too early because Kobe was furious about the team's (i.e. Shaq's) complacency. But since then, Kobe Bryant has been the clear and absolute leader of this team, and complacency has remained one of the team's greatest faults. The team has not adopted anything close to his legendary work ethic. Whatever inner voice drives Kobe in his quest for basketball immortality never seems to bubble to the surface to push his team towards that same goal. Whenever the Lakers have trouble with complacency, Kobe always seems to gloss over the issue. "No, I'm not worried." "You just have to move on to the next one." Always cool, always confident, but also always smug.
Maybe the fact that Kobe Bryant never worries when his team gives away a game is one of the reasons why his teams give away so many. Maybe Kobe's confidence in his ability to rescue the team is why he never gets mad when his team requires rescuing. It's not like Kobe is shy about getting in his teammates' faces if they do something he doesn't like. His glares towards teammates and coaches have been immortalized through internet GIFs the world over. He'll clap and wave his arms when he wants the ball, and he'll say critical things about his teammates to the media whenever he deems it necessary. Kobe has proven, time and time again, that he does not believe in boundaries when it comes to doing what he feels is necessary to get the most out of his team. But I can't think of a single time that he's mentioned guys being too self-satisfied with what they've accomplished. Not a single timeout where you can see him launching expletives at his team in the huddle after they've lost a 15 point lead.
It seems more logical to blame the coaches. It seems more logical to blame the other players. But, through numerous combinations of coaches and players over the past 15 years, the Los Angeles Lakers have had three constants: Success, complacency, and Kobe Bryant. Maybe it's time to acknowledge that all three are related.