The Los Angeles Lakers have been busy this offseason. They may have gotten Julius Randle in the draft or added Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer through free agency and trades. They even hired a new coach, something of a Laker legend, in Byron Scott. And yet one name remains – Kobe Bryant. Even if he doesn’t want to, his presence will be standing in the way of this franchise getting healthy and better.
It all comes down to the contract Kobe Bryant got. Maybe the Los Angeles Lakers were right by rewarding him for his services. Not everything is about the now, but also about sentimentality, glorifying the past and taking care of their own. Franchises sometimes need to show that they’re willing to keep players at an extra price in order to show other stars that they’d do the same for them. Not to mention Bryant is still worth quite a lot in terms of merchandising, especially outside the United States.
But Bryant is a presence that doesn’t appeal to other big name players. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony never put the Lakers in their top 3. They sat down or talked to Mitch Kupchak face to face. They got some alone time, on the phone or privately, with Kobe Bryant. On paper, the Lakers, the best franchise in the history of the NBA, with the draw of Los Angeles as a city of great weather and night life, and with money to give stars a chance to play together, had everything going for them.
But names don’t matter. Players, with their agents, do their own math and calculations. It was always going to be between the Heat and the Cavs for James. It was always going to be Chicago or New York for Anthony. Kobe Bryant might not be the reason the two of them or just one of them didn’t choose the Lakers for the next two to four years, but he’s part of it. There’s nothing the Lakers front office can do about it right now.
Bryant wants the front office to do everything in their power to build a team around him in order to win a sixth ring. The problem is that his presence at this stage of his career denies that dream from coming true. He chased Dwight Howard away. His passive-aggressive relationship with Pau Gasol didn’t help keep someone who won two championships with him in Los Angeles as well, although that separation was something that should have happened before Gasol turned into a free agent and walked away for nothing.
Jeremy Lin, if given a choice, wouldn’t have picked to play for the Lakers. Bryant is part of that reason. Byron Scott obviously wanted the Lakers, but it’s not like teams were fighting over him and his services since he was fired from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe this team, barring injuries, won’t be as bad as the one from last season, but this isn’t what Bryant envisioned.
Make no mistake – this is still Kobe’s team, even if he has played only six times last season and hasn’t tasted playoff basketball since 2012. Scott might make decisions over some players, but when the ball will be in Bryant’s hands (and it’s going to be there a lot), it won’t matter what offensive systems the Lakers run or who is the point guard on the floor. Everything else disappears.
Maybe we’re not giving Bryant enough credit. Maybe he can change. And maybe he’ll be back like a fighting, hungry lion from his injury. A 25-points per game offensive monster who can’t be slowed down by age or torn tendons. Yet something tells us it won’t be the case. This is his team, until the day he retires. He’s also what’s keeping this franchise from moving in the right direction.