Is Kobe Bryant to blame for the Lakers "downfall?" It's way more complex than that.
Kobe Bryant is many things, some of which Los Angeles Lakers fans will have to come to grips with over the final years of his incredible career. He's a five-time NBA champion, partnering with Shaquille O'Neal to bring glory back to the Lakers following Magic Johnson's early retirement, then doing so again with Pau Gasol and a well-rounded supporting cast. He's the torch bearer, standing as the lone franchise player remaining at the end of a glorious era. He's a declining and aged player, coming off of two significant injuries after playing an amount of minutes so high it's not even worth quantifying anymore. He's a stubborn asshole, with demands and expectations so high he's considered one of the most difficult players to co-exist with in the NBA.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is many things, but that doesn't mean he's everything, and he certainly isn't the lone and leading reason the Lakers are a franchise in the midst of a "downfall," though Henry Abbott of ESPN came to this conclusion in a feature set to run in ESPN Magazine.
Basketball is a complex sport that isn't dictated by a single aspect.
There's no question the Lakers have fallen on hard times. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at their franchise-worst season and conclude the Lakers are a team in dire straits. This isn't Kobe Bryant's fault, but a cycle of what a franchise goes through. What goes up must come down. Inhale, exhale.
Basketball is a complex sport that isn't dictated by a single aspect. Yes, superstar players are a significant piece of the puzzle, but the pieces around it are just as important. The Lakers completed their puzzle not long ago, capturing two NBA titles in three straight NBA Finals appearances capped off in 2010, and were far from a collapsing organization.
But eras only last so long.
Players get old and decline. Trades happen and they don't pan out. Tendons tear and careers are altered. Salary cap flexibility disappears as contracts inch closer to their expiration dates. People make decisions that are based on numerous variables. A trade gets vetoed, creating unprecedented situations. Visionary leaders, like the great Dr. Jerry Buss, pass away. Unfortunately for the Lakers, they were on the wrong end of all of those occurrences. Now they're scraping themselves off the highway after a 27-win season.
What's really brought the Lakers here? If it's not Kobe eroding the franchise, then what is it that has the Lakers at the bottom of the NBA ladder?
To chronicle the Lakers' fall from grace without taking into account the Chris Paul veto is to ignore the moment that the walls crumbled around the Lakers. This is where it all began.
There's no reason to go over the merits of whether or not the then-Hornets would have been better off with the Lakers' package than what they received from the Clippers. This event was unprecedented territory for the NBA, and the Lakers were on the losing end of making history. They not only lost Paul, who would have immediately addressed the Lakers' biggest positional need for the last decade, but they essentially lost whatever value was left of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
The front office knew it was time to cash out of their frontcourt to move in a new direction, but the post-trade veto changes the course of the Lakers' franchise history. Odom was then scrapped for a trade exception, and the front office never found the right value and package to make it worthwhile to trade Gasol.
Kobe had nothing to do with that, and the veto is the most damaging thing to happen to the Lakers franchise since Shaq's departure or Magic Johnson's early retirement. It left them incapable of getting the kind of investment necessary for their assets to reshape the team.
Dwight Howard's exit
Love him or hate him, Dwight Howard's exit was a big blow to the Lakers. The Lakers packaged up future first-round picks and shipped out Andrew Bynum, who's been a shell of himself in the rare moments he's been able to play basketball since, in order to land the superstar center. Losing him for nothing isn't something many franchises can withstand, and even the Orlando Magic, who actually received talent and draft considerations when they traded him, are still rebuilding from his departure.
This is where the water gets murky. How much did Kobe Bryant have to do with Dwight Howard leaving Los Angeles, a place the big man once pined for? There's no question they were an odd pairing to begin with, and the two instantly felt like oil and water. Kobe made demands and laid out expectations while Howard just wanted to play basketball without the high-pressure being applied from Bryant. There's no reason to disparage Howard, who returned early from a serious injury but was never able to play at a level he was accustomed to.
But this wasn't just Kobe running Howard out of town. Steve Nash, widely considered one of the best teammates in the NBA, struggled to mesh with Howard, even arguing on court after a miscommunication on offense. Of course, sticking with Nash, the former-MVP point guard noted he felt Howard didn't want to be with the Lakers, never felt comfortable in Los Angeles, and the team went into the free agency meeting without a chance of retaining him, according to a radio interview he gave ESPN LA:
"Ultimately, I think Dwight wasn't comfortable here and didn't want to be here and I think if he didn't want to be here, there's no point for anyone in him being here," Nash told "The Mason & Ireland Show" on ESPN LA 710 radio on Tuesday. "So, we wish him the best and move on." ...
"Frankly, I thought before the meeting, we didn't really have a chance and I'd like to think that after the meeting we had a chance," Nash said ....
"Dwight had some issues with the season," Nash said. "I think it kind of basically goes with what he said to the media that he never quite felt embraced in L.A. He never quite felt supported. That's basically it. I think in some ways you can read into that what you will, but I think he never quite felt comfortable at home and I don't know if that's anybody's fault."
Placing the entire blame on Kobe is tunnel vision.
Nevermind the meeting, though, which Abbott makes a point to note Kobe wore casual attire to despite Mitch Kupchak insisting on treating it like an interview. Howard refused to accept the system head coach Mike D'Antoni was running - his bread and butter pick-and-roll heavy offense - and pined for more low-post touches, as reported by Mark Medina of the LA Daily News:
Howard never was completely healthy and refused to buy into his role. He fancied himself as a dominating low-post force the offense should run through.
"There was just a lot of conflict, emotionally," D'Antoni said. "People were not settled in their roles. But it's funny because a lot of times players will say 'I don't know my role.' It's not that you don't know it, you just don't accept it."
There were many reasons why Howard left Los Angeles, and while Kobe Bryant not playing nice may have been a factor, it wasn't the only one. This is all without mentioning the numerous reports Howard repeatedly asked the Lakers to replace D'Antoni with Phil Jackson throughout his tenure with the team.
Some relationships just aren't meant to be. Not holding Howard, D'Antoni, Phil Jackson publicly undermining Jim Buss or the Lakers' front office accountable while placing the entire blame on Kobe is tunnel vision.
The injury issues with the Lakers can't be ignored, either. The Lakers lost an NBA-high 320 games to injury last season, and essentially lost the Steve Nash trade from Day 1. It was difficult for Mike D'Antoni to build any consistency with the roster as health issues kept his rotation fluctuating, which stunted any growth in the Lakers chemistry.
When they were healthy, aside from Kobe, at the start of last season they overachieved. Once the injuries began piling up, they returned to the median and eventually hit the ground with a thud.
The Lakers have been the most injured team in the NBA over the last two seasons, which is a challenge few teams could overcome. Los Angeles is still dealing with injuries heading into a fresh year.
The talent drought, and the CBA
The Lakers biggest problem is their lack of talent across the board. They took a step in the right direction this summer, landing Ed Davis on a budget deal, re-signing Nick Young -- who had a very efficient season last year -- to a four-year contract, drafting Julius Randle, trading for the expiring contract of Jeremy Lin and having Bryant back in the fold.
It's still not much, but it's a step up from last season.
The Lakers had cap room for the first time since the new collective bargaining agreement was set, but they weren't capable of doing anything with it. The two big fish of free agency decided Los Angeles wasn't for them, but what kind of odds did the Lakers really have at landing Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, anyway?
Anthony has a chance to play under Phil Jackson in the triangle, which should compliment his versatile scoring talents. James went home to Cleveland in a dream scenario and gets to play beside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Lakers simply didn't have enough proof in the pudding they've only just begun mixing to attract either player.
How about another young player that's now off the table in Paul George? Abbott asserts Bryant scared off the Indiana Pacers superstar, who would be a restricted free agent and would have needed to sign as an unrestricted free agent to even have a chance to sign in Los Angeles without the Pacers matching:
Paul George, Angelino through and through, had once been the team's safest choice. But sources say one reason the two-way star had re-signed with the Pacers in the fall of 2013 instead was that he was turned off by the thought that Bryant would police his efforts.
Star rookies rarely leave the max money they can sign in an extension, and George followed suit. But is there any truth to Kobe being the lead deterrent? That seems like a reach at best, and George confirmed as much himself. He's already tweeted that Abbott's story sounds "crazy" and that the "#MediaReachingAgain."
There was virtually no way for George to sign with the Lakers, and it wasn't Kobe's fault. As for another play the Lakers "lost" because of Bryant, Ramon Sessions, who Abbott says "rattled" the Lakers front office with his departure, it's a pointless argument to make. The Lakers traded for Steve Nash that summer, and Sessions didn't sign his contract with the Bobcats until after Los Angeles made the move to replace him. Los Angeles moved to retain cap flexibility, had their new starting point guard in Nash, and also had money tied up with Chris Duhon who was attached to the Howard trade.
Sessions has since been traded to the Milwaukee Bucks and signed with the Sacramento Kings on a deal worth $4.2 million over two years this summer.
It's no secret that Kobe Bryant isn't the easiest teammate to play with, but he still managed to keep talent around him once the Lakers had a winning formula in hand. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum signed lucrative extensions to stay in Los Angeles when the wins were pouring in and Larry O'Brien trophies were within reach. Ron Artest found his way to Los Angeles despite going face-to-face with Kobe in an intense Rockets-Lakers playoff series, then delivered the knockout blow to Boston in Game 7.
All things Kobe Bryant
All conversations come back to Kobe Bryant. There's every reason in the world to question his ability to be the player he once was. Even before the knee fracture, returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon at his age was going to be a mountain of a challenge.
His lift isn't anywhere near what it once was, he's not as quick and sharp when driving to the rim, and his defensive lapses were already a hammering-point before the injuries. Still, his regression on the basketball court is inevitable and hardly his own fault. It's also easy to forget the insane tear he went on before his body gave in at the end of Howard's time with the Lakers.
There's no reason to pretend this is about Kobe's regression, though. It simply isn't, and Abbott hardly mentions his basketball abilities, instead relying on anecdotes that all say the same thing: Kobe is a stubborn, tough, teammate.
Painting Kobe as an asshole and ornery veteran player isn't an epiphany, either. He's said it about himself on plenty of occasions, this time captured by Sean Deveney of Sporting News:
Kobe Bryant was asked what Rajon Rondo can expect to go through in the coming years, as the team he helped lead twice to the Finals has been dismantled and begins rebuilding in earnest. Bryant went through much the same thing after the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal in 2005, falling into a rut before finally trading for Pau Gasol in 2008.
Sporting a smile, Bryant said of Rondo, "From what I understand, he's an a**hole like me, so he will manage."
Maybe he rubs the wrong players the wrong way, but enough players have come and gone from the Lakers to feel too attached to some of the role players that have swirled through the revolving door. The ones that have mattered recently -- Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest -- through the second half of his career have nary said a word diminishing his character. As far as supporting "his" guys, Kobe has repeatedly asked the Lakers to retain Gasol amid trade rumors and has always been incredibly complimentary of him as a person and basketball player, even when Gasol has been on a steep decline since the Lakers were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
If the point is that Kobe Bryant's German-engineered knees can no longer carry the weight of the Lakers, that's a fair one to make. He's 36, is in year 19 of his career, and is human despite his superhuman basketball talents. Kobe regressing with age isn't his fault, and isn't the leading reason why the Lakers are where they are today.
As for his extension, the Lakers still had more than enough space to sign free agents this summer, but simply missed out on players they felt could make a significant impact on the future, and present, of the team. Sure, they didn't have to room for the reaching scenario of signing two maximum-worthy players, but what were the odds of that happening? The Rockets had a much more appealing roster and lost talent to create salary space and still wound up with zero payout.
Only one team comes out a winner in free agency negotiations. This summer it wasn't the Lakers.
The Lakers aren't a good basketball team right now. They've fallen, for now, but there isn't a single straw man to blame. A basketball franchise is a multi-faceted operation that doesn't hinge on a single player's attitude or performance on the court.
Kobe Bryant deserves some accountability for where the Lakers are, though. So does Jim Buss. So does Mitch Kupchak. So does Jeanie Buss. So do Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni. So does Steve Nash's back and a myriad amount of Lakers injuries. So does Dwight Howard. So does David Stern. The list can go on and on, and it's clear this isn't as simple as "blame Kobe."
But if you want to, go ahead. Just remember what he's done for the Lakers, and the NBA, along the way.