On Monday, Henry Abbott of ESPN caused quite a bit of commotion by posting a long piece discussing the negative impact that Kobe Bryant has had on the Lakers franchise in recent years. The heading and sub-heading simply reads "KOBE: He is arguably the greatest player in the history of the Lakers' franchise. He is also destroying this from within." While there are some valid points illustrating the much-discussed criticisms of Kobe on and off the court (and some absolutely dynamite quotes from sources that any reporter would use if they had them), I can't help but feel so many people, including Abbott, are missing the entirely missing the point of why the Lakers are terrible.
"I've had a lot of clients in the last five years, good players, who didn't want to play with Kobe," says an agent who has had numerous NBA stars. "They see that his teammates become the chronic public whipping boys. Anyone who could possibly challenge Kobe for the spotlight ends up becoming a pincushion for the media. Even Shaq."
By all indications, Kobe is not an easy player to get along with. He has had multiple reported clashes with teammates over the years, from Shaq to Smush Parker to Dwight Howard. It would seem, given how this summer turned out, that there also is quite a shortage of marquee free agents lining up to play with the 16-time All-Star. Yet, there's also the very real possibility that Carmelo Anthony, who is reportedly close with Kobe, simply didn't want to turn down the extra money that re-signing with New York would provide. You would think also that LeBron James' motivations for returning to Cleveland were quite clear after reading his well-executed essay for Sports Illustrated.
The instances where Kobe nearly irrefutably had a negative impact were the departures of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard. Yet at least with Dwight, it appeared that Kobe was willing to do everything he could to make it work on the court. In 2013 Kobe had a career high in assists per game (6.0) and assist rate (29.7%), much of that in making a concerted effort to get Dwight Howard the ball, while Howard spent most of the season complaining about lack of post-touches in a Mike D'Antoni system that more suited Howard's strengths. But off the court, it would seem that the two just didn't get along. Antawn Jamison had this to say about the Kobe-Dwight friction, via NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper:
"The writing’s on the wall," Jamison said. "Whatever you say happened between the coaching staff, Kobe and Dwight – it was a combination of everything. Not understanding roles. Not being up front with roles. Our two superstars didn’t get along. Inside the organization as far as which coach to bring in. With that talent, that’s tough to deal with. But of course, championships and successful seasons don’t run because of what’s on the roster. You have to deal with injuries, you have to deal with certain situations that we just didn’t handle the situations at all."
Alas, things did not work out. Dwight took a shorter deal with less money to sign with the Houston Rockets, and the Kobe/Dwight era ended as suddenly as it began. Thus, the argument that Kobe is the reason for the Lakers losing out on major players is an easy one to make, but it's missing the bigger picture.
The problem with the Lakers franchise, and the one that is significantly easier to quantify and analyze, is the organization's subpar asset management the past several years. Several mistakes have put the Lakers in the position of trying to keep an aging Kobe happy with the likes of Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, and Nick "Swaggy P" Young.
Let's get two caveats out of the way: the Lakers nearly pulled off a heist of Chris Paul from New Orleans while only giving up Pau Gasol (who at the time had only begun to show signs of decline), Lamar Odom, and a couple of picks. The nixing of that trade has been much-discussed and doesn't interest me in this discussion. What interests me is what the Lakers did going forward from this, and it isn't much.
Secondly, there's a decent amount of this that isn't anyone's fault. The NBA is often cyclical. You build a good team, stars come together, you win a championship (or two). Stars get old, a few mistakes are made, you become bad. You get a few good draft picks, the cycle continues. Let's examine the mistakes the Lakers have made.
The Lakers failed to trade Pau Gasol when he still had value, though everyone knew they were open to moving him. There were reports of multiple teams being enamored with the four-time All-Star center, and if the Lakers successfully moved him, they almost certainly would have gotten significant value in return. Instead, Pau continued his sharp decline (if you want to be sad, look at his O-Rating from the year the Lakers acquired him, and see what happened to it afterward) and he and the Lakers apparently reached a (mostly) mutual agreement to part ways, with Gasol landing in Chicago. The Lakers were left with nothing.
After all the trade talk the past 4 years, they didn't move him. Zero return.
After the reported Chris Paul trade fell apart, the Lakers traded their reigning 6th Man of the Year, Lamar Odom, for a mid-first round pick and a trade exception. The subsequent collapse of Odom's career doesn't make this move look all that bad, but Odom was coming off his best season as a pro, with a 19.4 PER and 10.3 win shares. It's possible the Lakers expected a decline, but I still can't help but feel the Lakers made a panic move by immediately granting Odom's trade request and only getting Dallas' pick and a trade exception in return. The Lakers were again left with little value on a great asset.
There's a move many people seemingly forget: giving up the 2013 first rounder for half a year of Ramon Sessions. He was a decent point guard upgrade at the time, but hardly made the 2012 squad title-worthy. They lost in 5 games to OKC in the second round. Seeking a multi-year deal, Sessions did not accept his player option and the Lakers turned their eyes to Phoenix.
That 2013 pick may not have landed the Lakers a star player, but there was still talent available in the 19th slot. The pick turned into Sergey Karasev, but there were still wings like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tony Snell on the board, or big men like Rudy Gobert and Mason Plumlee.
Next comes the move that was difficult to criticize at the time: Forking over two first rounders, two second rounders, and the Odom trade exception to give 38-year-old Steve Nash nearly $28 million over 3 years. In retrospect, this is a deal the Lakers would unquestionably like to have back. Nash has hardly been able to contribute for the Lakers, missing 32 games in 2012-2013 and 67 games in 2013-2014. When he has played, he's been fairly average offensively and incredibly outmatched defensively. I don't knock the Lakers all too much for making this move, but there is no question it was an utter failure.
Finally, the Lakers had the asset of Andrew Bynum coming off his best ever season in 2012 that included an All-Star appearance and a PER of 22.9. The Lakers were absolutely right to move him then, as his value was as high as it ever would be. Unfortunately, they bet on the wrong horse. They acquired Dwight Howard coming off a back surgery from Orlando. Dwight wasn't his usual self, compounded by complaining about the coach and the offense the entire year (though, again, it unquestionably was the best system for his skills), demanded post touches, and left in the offseason. Oh, and the Lakers also gave up their 2017 first rounder (though somewhat protected) and a conditional 2015 second rounder in the deal. Though, to be fair, they also did get Chris Duhon at the peak of his dancing ability as well.
The Lakers were then left with a bunch of cap space with no one to spend it on. So, they gave their franchise legend a two-year extension that arguably hurt their flexibility, committed to Nick Young for four years and an excess of $21 million, and gave Jordan Hill $9 million for some reason (with a team option to give him another $9 million next year). Whether they can get anything in return for Hill at the deadline will determine whether this was worth anything. The Lakers missed out on Howard, James and Anthony, but seemingly didn't even try for the likes of Isaiah Thomas and Lance Stephenson, who they may have gotten serious consideration from.
Then, to top it all off, they hired Byron Scott and gave him a 3-year deal with a team option for a 4th. I suppose it is possible that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak made this move while knowing that Scott is a bad coach, and were trying to tank while appeasing Kobe for his final years. I hope this is true. I also hope that the Lakers didn't put in a claim on Carlos Boozer because they thought he was still a productive player. We may never know the intentions behind these moves, but there's little doubt they are actively contributing to the Lakers being a very bad basketball team.
The Lakers are in really bad shape. They aren't even close to being a playoff team, now or in the near future. The only plan that appears to be put in place is to hold on for a couple of years before trying again at landing a super star free agent. If you want to land that all at the feet of Kobe Bryant for being difficult to deal with, go ahead. It's incredibly easy to do. It will get you a lot of clicks. It might blow up Twitter. You might get discussed on talk radio. But you would also be shifting the blame away from an organization that has now made so many crucial errors in roster-building since 2011 that the once-mighty Lakers now appear further away from contention than just about any team in the NBA.