The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Portland Trail Blazers 121-103 on Saturday night. It was the Lakers second loss in as many nights and the 37th loss of the season. The team has now lost nine of their last ten games and currently sits firmly in possession of the second worst record in the league, ahead of only the woeful Philadelphia 76ers.
There are a lot of reasons for the Lakers' struggles. Despite boasting players like Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Kobe Bryant, who are primarily known for their ability to score, the team ranks second to last in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring a putrid 97 points per 100 possessions. As if that weren't enough, the team also ranks dead last in the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions, leading to a league-worst net rating (how many points the team is outscored by per 100 possessions) of -11.3. The Lakers are a very bad team.
To the surprise of many, Kobe Bryant mostly kept quiet about the team's struggles, at least until Saturday night, when Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News reported that Bryant had lit into his younger teammates for their defensive efforts, or lack thereof:
Bryant, who posted 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting and five turnovers in 25 minutes through three quarters, became upset both with the Lakers (9-37) for losing their sixth consecutive game and for some on the team smiling after the loss, sources said. Bryant took particular aim at Lakers rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell and second-year forward Julius Randle and even called them out by name, sources said.
"You know I don't do the gossip [expletive]," Bryant said in a friendly exchange when asked about the incident.
While Kobe was unwilling to gossip about his specific criticisms, based off of Scott's comments after the game that "our guards didn't do a great job of getting through the screen [and] our bigs did a horrible job of being up and ready to trap [Portland's guards]," it would seem that Portland guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum getting loose for a combined 64 of the Blazers' 121 points was the main point of contention.
Kobe was never going to make it through his final season on a lottery team without moments like this. Losing sucks, and I'm not going to try and imagine how badly it burns one of the most hyper-competitive men to ever lace up a pair of Nike's to have his team (and his own individual play) be the butt of so many jokes.
That being said, it must be noted that Bryant had the worst defensive rating on the team on Saturday night (140.8) and his 113.4 for the season also ranks last on the roster. A player of his age cannot be expected to defend at a high level consistently, but this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black to a degree.
Bryant wasn't wrong about a few poor defensive sequences from Russell and Randle, however. Take for instance this play, in which Russell initially attempts to deny Lillard the ball in the backcourt, but never recovers on defense. Randle then never gets in good defensive position and takes a poor angle when cutting off Lillard's drive:
Or on this sequence, when Russell assumes Lillard is running him into a pick, guesses wrong, and never gets back in good position as Hibbert is unable to stay in front of the speedy point guard:
Or this one, where Russell dies on a screen and concedes an open Lillard jumper
In the third quarter, Randle lunged out at Lillard coming off of a screen at a horrible angle, and was toast after that on this basket that pushed Portland's lead to 90-74 (right before the timeout at 93-74 in which Medina reports Bryant lit into his teammates for their defense before doing so again after the game):
Russell and Randle both have a long way to go defensively, as is the case with most rookies (Randle, although a sophomore in the eyes of the NBA, is essentially a rookie). Will they respect the legacy and body of work defensively that Kobe put in earlier in his career enough to not tune out the team's worst defensive player calling them out for their defense? Given how both of them have spoken at length all year about how much they look up to Bryant, probably.
This stuff happens in the NBA all the time, and is healthy to a degree because it means Bryant cares. Professional athletes going at each other is normal, especially when they are losing. Criticism behind closed doors is fine, and while it probably won't improve Randle and Russell's defense a whole lot this year, it could pay dividends down the road. It's certainly a more constructive way to do go about things than consistently calling out their shortcomings in the media.
However, given the Lakers dearth of good defensive options, these issues are not worthy of being benched for, especially if Russell and Randle take the criticism/coaching to heart. If that happens, then more minutes on the floor could provide valuable reps to improve their defense. Both have the physical attributes to be at the very least average defenders if they work at it, and their development on that end of the floor is worth watching as the season moves forward.
All stats per NBA.com. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.