Was Kobe Bryant holding the Los Angeles Lakers back in recent years? We’re going to find out in 2016-2017, as the franchise moves away from the shadow of one man, trying to build something new with Luke Walton making his debut as head coach, trying to succeed with D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and others, all treading in new territory.
Last season was all about Bryant. Even general manager Mitch Kupchak admitted it. The moment the Lakers signed him to a two-year max deal instead of moving away from someone they knew was bad for the organization, the Lakers put Bryant above the franchise and everything else. Above rebuilding, above developing young players. They decided that giving him a retirement season that’s all about him and no one else was a nice way to camouflage their tanking, and keep selling seats and jerseys.
Byron Scott didn’t mind. He played the tank commander role to perfection. It also helps that he was a bad NBA coach to begin with, helping him sell the role. He stopped young players from improving, he kept criticizing everything and everyone except for Bryant. The same Bryant he drove into the ground the year before, thinking he can play him 35 minutes a night and nothing will happen to what in basketball terms is a fragile old body.
So who is the go-to-guy now? Clarkson probably feels like it. He felt like it during his rookie season, and had to see Bryant step back in last year. Russell has never been shy or lacking confidence, and this year we’ll probably be able to see how he functions as a point guard who controls his team. Ingram has the potential to become a great scorer on the wing and an All-Star in the not too far away future, but obviously, it’s hard to say with rookies. Julius Randle is another second year player who seems productive, but limited, and certainly not the “next Zach Randolph” we kept hearing when he made it into the NBA.
The Lakers aren’t leaving it all up to young players. Luol Deng arrived, and so did Timofey Mozgov. But the Lakers are putting their eyes on guys like Russell, Ingram, Clarkson and even Larry Nance Jr., hoping they help turn the program around. It’s been a very long time since there a new feeling in Los Angeles; not since the 1990’s. Not just a new, retooled squad. But a young one, which is difficult to know what to expect from it. That 90’s team was fun to watch, but not until Bryant developed into a superstar, and Shaquille O’Neal reach his most dominant phase, did the Lakers begin winning championships. The 09 and ’10 championship seasons weren’t about rebuilding, but simply making a little (Pau Gasol little) fix.
For those who idolized Bryant through every brick he threw, this might be a season of sobering up, or having a chance to tell everyone “I told you so”. For those who couldn’t wait to see him retire, they’re getting what they feel is their Lakers back. A team that’s an unknown quantity, and an approach that might fail which might lead to more rebuilding and years wasting away, but at least there won’t be the lingering doubt that a team legend is purposely holding them back just to take care of his own legacy.