“The Last Dance” has revisited the idea that even the great ones take some time to figure out how to win. Michael Jordan didn’t win a title until his seventh season in the league. It only took Kobe Bryant four years, but even then, he was eager to soak up everything could from Jordan in the interim.
Bryant also had the opportunity during the three-peat to learn from veterans on the Lakers who had won titles at previous stops, including Ron Harper, Horace Grant, and Robert Horry. Institutional knowledge was available in spades for the young star.
The baby Lakers of the 2010s didn’t exactly have the same opportunity. The franchise perennially drafted in the top five, but other than Bryant, there weren’t any decorated veterans on the team. Even Bryant was limited in his capacity to impart lessons because injuries had him in and out of the lineup and he could barely practice.
It was also difficult for Bryant to help the Lakers youth learn how to win because those teams were never competitive. The stretch from 2014 to 2016 was uniquely terrible in franchise history, and the only time Bryant ever managed to summon a semblance of his pre-Achilles form was in his final game. In a story in The Athletic about Bryant’s final season, Mitch Kupchak spoke about how happy it makes him that players like Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and D’Angelo Russell got to play with Kobe the winner, at least once.
“I’ve actually had conversations with a couple of (those young players) in the last month or so, talking about that year,” Kupchak said. “Sober conversations, because they played with him but they didn’t win with him. … So they got a taste of his celebrity, but they really didn’t get the chance to compete with him.”
That, in part, is why Kupchak thinks Bryant’s last game was so meaningful.
“The year may not have been playing with the Kobe that we all knew about,” Kupchak said, “but that last game showed those kids who he really was. So I’m glad that that happened and those kids had that experience.”
Another Laker on that team, the not-so-young Lou Williams, has said he wishes he could have played with Bryant at another point in their careers because the real Mamba would have brought out something different in him. Like Kupchak says, even though everyone on the 2015-16 team technically got the opportunity to share the floor with Bryant, it wasn’t in a meaningful way.
Thankfully, we all have that last game to look back on, one more reminder of how great Bryant could be, and one final lesson for the youngins. At least they got that one.