Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Dots don’t connect in Kobe being the downfall of the Lakers

(Photo: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The idea that Kobe Bryant is a difficult player to play with and has possibly scared away some free agents is not a revelation to those that have followed the Los Angeles Lakers for at least the last 18 years of Kobe’s career.

In that time, we read reports of Bryant punching teammate Samaki Walker on a team bus back in 2002.

Anybody that has even an inkling of interest in sports knows about the Kobe-Shaq feud that existed during their 8 years together and ending with Shaq being jettisoned out of Los Angeles in favor of Kobe.

Phil Jackson once called Kobe “un-coachable” in his first tell all book.

Most recently, the debacle that was the acquisition and departure of center Dwight Howard. The Lakers gave up a number of assets to bring in Howard who they planned on being the centerpiece to their immediate future but the relationship between he and Bryant was sour and uncomfortable by all accounts which prompted, at least in part, Howard to leave for Houston in free agency, shunning the Lakers and Bryant in the process.

We all got it: Kobe is difficult, demanding, unreasonable, steadfast, aloof and a few more characteristics in the personality cocktail that might not make him the first choice to want to spend a few hours a week sitting next to on a team bus or plane ride; however, those that cared about the Lakers success didn’t care because whatever Kobe was or is as a person produced mammoth results.

The year Kobe reportedly punched Samaki Walker the Lakers won the 2002 NBA championship.

The difficulties with Kobe and Shaq playing nice with each other in their 8 years still yielded 3 NBA championships and 4 final appearances.

Phil Jackson went on to un-coach Kobe to 5 NBA championships during two different coaching stints with the Lakers.

Kobe’s personality is what makes him both revered as a player on the court and despised off of it by some. Kobe isn’t for everybody. He definitely wasn’t for Dwight Howard.  But those that were on board with who Kobe was on and off the court have been rewarded mightily.

Today the Lakers are no longer in the midst of a dynasty, nobody is picking them to contend for the NBA title, many aren’t even picking them to make an appearance in the playoffs, the roster is void of any top level young talent that would give any hope that the immediate future looks promising so naturally we start looking to point the finger at something or someone as to the cause of how this once great franchise got to this low point.

In a recent ESPN the Magazine article by Henry Abbot that finger is pointed squarely in the direction of Kobe Byrant. In the manner in which the article combined wild speculation, numerous damaging quotes from anonymous sources, blatant omission of information and only lightly sprinkled with verifiable facts in an attempt to lead readers to a concocted conclusion that finger pointed at Kobe might as well have been the one in the middle.

Dynasty always fall, but they rarely come to fruition

The Lakers franchise is not in an ideal place at the moment, but it also is not an uncommon position that any dynasty faces towards the end of their run. The Lakers built a dynasty with Kobe as the centerpiece, had its run and like all dynasties they come to an end. Blame here can be directed at age, time, inevitability or Sir Isaac Newton’s Theory of Relativity.

Let’s take a moment so that we do not gloss over the fact that a dynasty was built around Kobe in the first place which is extraordinarily difficult to assemble and no franchise other than the Lakers, Spurs, Bulls and Celtics can claim having been one in the 66 year history of the NBA. In almost 7 decades of the NBA I count 9 dynasties such as Bill Russell and the 60’s Celtics, Magic Johnson and the 80s Lakers, Michael Jordan and the 90s Bulls, and now Tim Duncan and the current Spurs, just to name a few and Kobe Bryant was part of 2 of them which is the only player that can make such claim.

One of those Kobe led dynasties won a championship just 4 years ago. That’s only a little more than half the time between the Spurs 2005 and 2014 championship, but still just a fraction of the 22 years it took for the Celtics to follow up their 1986 championship with their one in 2008. The Chicago Bulls are currently on year number 17 since their last championship in 1998.

Is a case being made that 4 years removed from a championship is far too long to the point that we need to have someone’s head stuck in a guillotine?

I know, not the Lakers, right? The Lakers don’t rebuild, they reload. Free agents always flock to don the purple and gold, the Lakers simply lay back and pick and choose their favorite. Well, not really.

Luck more than lure

Yes the Lakers have a rich history of legendary players and it seems like the  Lakers always seem to attract the elite talent in the league at the time.

But in reality, it isn’t so much that Lakers ALWAYS attract players to come to L.A. as much as it is that throughout history they’ve been beneficiaries of some amazing luck.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded by the Milwaukee Bucks to the Lakers after he demanded a trade, not to L.A., just out of Milwaukee. The Bucks narrowed down the suitors to 3 teams and decided on the Lakers over the N.Y. Knicks and Washington Bullets.

Magic Johnson was drafted with the 1st overall pick in the 1979 draft but that draft pick was not the Lakers originally. The Lakers acquired the 1979 1st round pick from the New Orleans Jazz 3 years prior to the draft, well before they had any knowledge of the prospects of a player like Magic Johnson becoming available or that they would have the 1st overall pick.

In 1982, James Worthy was also drafted 1st overall by the Lakers and by way of a pick acquired 2 years before, this time from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Kobe Bryant was an unknown prospect out of high school that entered the 1996 NBA draft which was unheard of at time for a guard. Without the advanced scouting that is available today, most knew very little of his star potential which opened the door for Jerry West to make his move to acquire a draft pick from the Charlotte Hornets and take him with the 13th pick in the draft. Bryant’s agent at the time did make a power move to make certain that his client fall to the Lakers at 13th, but had the scouting of today been available then and more teams having the knowledge of the potential that was there, power move or not,  12 teams wouldn’t have let Kobe fall to the Lakers at 13.

Pau Gasol was acquired in trade from the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2007-2008 NBA season.

Draft picks acquired in trade that turned into fortuitous 1st overall picks years later, stars wanting out of their current situation and coming available via trade and nailing a few of their picks in the crap shoot that is the NBA draft is what landed the Lakers the elite talent in the last 30 years, not this magical lure of the franchise that all of sudden has been broken by Kobe.

In fact, the only big name, superstar free agent acquisition that the Lakers have signed in the modern era was Shaquille O’ Neal in 1996 and even that took a whole lot of coaxing and payroll shedding from then general manager Jerry West.

Well the big name free agents haven’t come so there’s that

All of the big name free agents since Shaquille O’ Neal left have decided not to sign with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers; ergo, elite players do not want to play with Kobe.

Except for the minor detail that every season (except this past off-season) since 2004-2005 when Shaquille O’ Neal left the Lakers have been over the salary cap and in most years exceeding the luxury tax threshold. The only contract at the Lakers disposable has been mid-level exceptions and minimum deals to offer free agents, which is nowhere near enough to entice a star player in his prime to sign, regardless of the undesirable player that might or might not be on the roster.

The off-season of 2014 was the first opportunity the Lakers had to offer a max contract to one of the elite free agents, and by all accounts, the Lakers only considered 2 players to be in that elite class: Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, both of which were widely considered to be long shots to leave their current situations. In the case with James, reports were that his plans were always to either stay in Miami or one day return to Cleveland.

In the end, neither Anthony or James choose the Lakers. The Lakers also didn’t get any of the other notable free agents, such as Chris Bosh, Kyle Lowry, Loul Deng but it doesn’t seem based on any reports that the interest level was there from the Lakers and they had decided to put all their eggs in the Anthony or James basket.

The Lakers struck out in their pursuit and it very well could have been due in part to Kobe and his personality. Other very reasonable explanations that should be considered, at least mentioned, is that free agents found the current state of the team in flux as unattractive.

Also, the fact that the Lakers were a team without a head coach, their roster consisted of only 3 players on fully guaranteed deals, 2 of which were the most important (Kobe and Nash) had missed a combined 143 games due to injuries the previous season and were huge question marks as to how well or even if they could perform.

All of these are very good, valid and compelling reasons as to why the Lakers were unable to sign a big name free agent in the one and only year thus far that they’ve had a chance to offer a max contract to an elite talent.

Maybe these are good points to bring up in a fair and balanced discussion as to why players passed on playing for the Lakers this season? Maybe it’s a good idea to bring up that the Lakers were capped out every year and unable to offer an enticing contract to a star player in every year but last year since Shaq departed?

Can’t connect the dots

If we isolate each discussion point above we deal with very sound reasoning, keen observations and even with facts.

  • Kobe Bryant is a polarizing figure and some players have had a difficult time playing with him.
  • Kobe Bryant’s personality has scared off some free agents and will continue to do so for some.
  • The Lakers have a rich history of legendary players donning the purple and gold.
  • The Lakers were unable to land a big name free agent this past off-season.
  • In the last 10 years, many free agents have signed with other teams that are not name the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • The Lakers last championship was in 2010 which marks the end of their last dynasty.
  • The Lakers roster is currently sub-par, the prospects for success this season and for the foreseeable future is very low.

When we then combine the above bullet points and attempt to connect them in order to get to a character destructive conclusion we go from sound, reasonable and factual and take a very ugly turn to disingenuous, misleading and malicious.

Where the piece goes terribly wrong is that it is so heavily reliant on speculation, detrimental quotes and paraphrasing from unnamed sources. Considering the harmful nature of the piece it should have a larger share of facts and especially not omit vital bits of information that sheds light as to alternative reasons to the conclusion, especially when those details are apparent.

Now, its makes for an interesting read by way of painting a pretty damaging picture of a legendary figure in the history of the NBA, but it does so at the expense of integrity.

The Lakers are in a bad place at the moment and surely some blame is earmarked for Kobe; but there is quite  a bit of blame to go around: Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss, Jeanie Buss, and Father time are a few. The current collective bargaining agreement that restricts high revenue generating teams like the Lakers from simply out bidding other teams to acquire talent didn’t help matters. There are a lot of reasons why the Lakers are here but to focus on one person as the cause reeks of an agenda and personal disdain which you can  clearly gather just from the closing line of Abbot’s article:

“About the best you can do is hope it will all be over soon.”

I can proudly say he doesn’t speak for me as an NBA fan who appreciates everything that Kobe has given to the game and is not looking forward to seeing his great career come to an end. It’s actually pretty sad that it will end soon. There are millions more that feel the same way and in closing, I’ll provide a thought from one of them, a long time Lakers fan that sums it up pretty well and a pretty prominent figure in Kobe’s career that co-signed.

 

 

Writer & NBA fan who’s been hooked since the days of Magic v Bird. Love basketball debates without it ending in a knife fight. My BBall nickname: “Todo El Dia” (All Day.) Hit me up on Twitter @fullcourtfern or Instagram: @raining3sdotcom