I’m no fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. Given my devotion to the Phoenix Suns, that’s no surprise to anyone who even remotely knows me. And in particular, I’m no fan of Kobe Bryant. So you might think I might be the proverbial pig in slop at the current state of the franchise in Kobe’s final season. But I’m not. Because the only way I can feel, watching this team as I’m forced to do because I live in Los Angeles, is sad.
Tonight, the Lakers lost to the Philadelphia 76ers, something no other team has thus far managed to accomplish this season. And they did it in ugly fashion. In his first game since announcing he’ll retire at the end of the season, and in the hometown stop of what is now his farewell tour, Kobe came out firing, and initially, he was hot, scoring 16 points in the first half. But his shot deserted him in the final two quarters, and he finished with 20 points total… on 26 shots.
That’s why I’ve never been a fan of Kobe’s game. As brilliant as he has been on the court, he’s irredeemably selfish, and he always has been. Given his equally legendary competitive drive and stubbornness, that’s perhaps to be expected. He came into the league wanting to be the best player the league has ever seen, and set out to reach that goal by making himself better at every individual aspect of the game. Already a freak athlete, he developed shots from all over the court, became adept at the spectacular pass, and could even lock down the opponent’s top scorer. His work ethic and drive are legendary. But he has never been lauded as a leader by anything but example, and he has never been accused of being a great teammate. “Aloof” and “demanding” are two words frequently used to describe him.
This season, with his scoring ability only surfacing at rare intervals, and with Coach Byron Scott apparently so filled with respect for Kobe’s overall body of work that he’s unwilling to even try and rein him in, Kobe has a chance to change those impressions of him in a meaningful way that could cement his legacy as something other than “an incredible player, and one tough son of a bitch.” Notice, the word “team” is nowhere in that description.
It’s clear the Lakers are going nowhere this season and likely for the next couple, no matter how high the draft picks they get. It’ll take time to reload on quality free agents that will make them a contender, too. The focus needs to be on developing young players with great potential like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell – none of whom appears likely to be a superstar, but all of whom are legitimate quality NBA players.
As much of a “Laker through and through” as Kobe claims to be, he could – and should – be the linchpin of that development. He should be imparting the wisdom of a long career, setting those young players up on as many possessions as he can, putting them in positions to succeed. As a kid playing on rec league teams, one thing that was always drilled into me was the idea that, if your shot’s not falling, you need to find another way to help the team. Encourage your teammates. Set screens. Box out. Make the right pass. And Kobe could do all of that, and he could even do it in a way that satisfies his thirst for individual achievement – He could set a goal to reach a personal best in assists. It would frame Kobe, in our last impression of him as a player as he rides into the sunset, as someone who has matured into a good, unselfish teammate – one title he’s never claimed.
Would Kobe do that? Not likely. He simply isn’t wired that way. Devoted as he is to his legacy, Kobe seems intent on going down swinging, critics, coaches and organization be damned. I’m sure he feels he’s earned it. But he’s in no way helping his team, and there’s no greater crime on the basketball court. He’s stunting the Lakers’ growth. And that’s going to be a large part of how he’s remembered, because selfishness has been a pattern with him for two decades. And that’s truly sad.