Bryant measures his leadership of Lakers
PHOENIX – Privately, people wonder: How many more passes does Kobe Bryant(notes) give Pau Gasol(notes) for speaking so boldly about him? How long until Bryant’s public and private reprisal comes with a ferocity that could bring a 7-footer to his knees? All season, Gasol has been a relentlessly consistent, if not passively aggressive, critic of the franchise star’s shooting habits, of an offense that doesn’t deliver him the ball with the frequency that he wants.
Whatever the reasons, Gasol has been emboldened to speak his mind. Whatever the odds, Bryant has bit his lip and let it go.
“I believe in what I believe,” Gasol said.
Hours before Friday night’s victory over the Phoenix Suns, chatting on a chair inside U.S. Airways Center, Bryant let out a laugh and insisted there will be no public rebuttals. “I’m not touching that,” Bryant said with a smile and shrug.
Bryant could come out and say that Gasol had never won a playoff game until arriving to the Lakers. He could tell Gasol that the Lakers still had the NBA’s best record without him for a month to start the season. He could tell him to make a free throw in the last minutes of tough games, tell him to toughen up.
Truth be told, Kobe Bryant could tell Pau Gasol to simply shut the bleep up.
Only, Bryant doesn’t do it. Tempted? Well, of course. Yet, the reason for such restraint is simple: The Lakers desperately need Gasol, and a public chastising of him would almost assuredly reduce his fragile psyche to rubble, costing Bryant the player he needs to catch Michael Jordan and his six championship rings.
Bryant responds with polite, processed reason: He isn’t playing differently this season, he insists.
Perhaps circumstances have changed, but not him.
“Last year during our stretch run, Andrew [Bynum] wasn’t there ‘cause of injury, so Pau got a lot more touches,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports. “And this year, we’ve got to kind of split the difference between those two. Now, any of those guys can have a big night. Andrew had one the other night. Lamar [Odom] can have a big night. And Pau can have a big night.
“Some nights you get a lot of touches, some nights you don’t.”
Such patience out of Bryant, such perspective. Years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. He would have blasted Gasol into oblivion. No more. Everyone has watched and listened to Gasol take these little shots along the way, beginning with Bryant’s pursuit of Jerry West’s Lakers scoring record and continuing several times over.
Nevertheless, Bryant has been nurturing, not narcissistic. So when there was a game on the line Friday night, Kobe had the capital to slap Gasol upside the head in the fourth quarter, a kind of nurturing, go-get-‘em moment that preceded an improbable stand by the Lakers frontline.
Moments later, Gasol would flex those skinny arms and crush Phoenix’s Louis Amundson(notes) upside the head on a drive to the rim. The foul sent Suns coach Alvin Gentry into a rage, costing him two technical fouls, an ejection and perhaps ultimately a 102-96 loss.
“Pau gave a hard foul, which is what we like to see from him,” Bryant said.
These are the small victories which assemble one on top of another: A hard foul here, clutch basket there. This is the reason the Bryant dictatorship has allowed such dissident talk out of Gasol. Maybe it emboldens Gasol. Maybe it leaves Gasol thinking that’s he standing up to Bryant, standing tough. This week started with Gasol reiterating his issues with Bryant shooting too much and ended with a savvy 21 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists from Bryant.
Four straight road losses had everyone doubting the Lakers’ resolve, and with Bryant’s mangled finger reaggravated, with that bum ankle acting up, he’s never needed so much out of his teammates. So, whatever momentary satisfaction might come out of a public obliteration from Gasol’s emboldened mouth, the harshest consequences would ultimately be meted out to Bryant. This has been the evolution of Kobe. All those years of raging against the machine, of a genius talent forever trying to control the inner rage that ruled him, Kobe discovered the proper way to harness it.
“I’ve definitely seen the growth,” Derek Fisher(notes) said. “We’ve talked about it. It’s something that he’s very conscious of. He lives, breathes, digests every aspect of his game, our team’s game and what’s necessary to win. He’s very aware of what needs to happen on and off the court for us to be successful.”
Where did Bryant change in that way? Well, it had to be Shaquille O’Neal’s(notes) derisive rap and Bryant’s ultimate reaction: silence. At the Beijing Olympics, on the eve of his 30th birthday, Bryant told me that his big mistake earlier in his career was always coming up with a rebuttal for Shaq. “My philosophy had always been to keep quiet and not to say anything,” he said. “And by me responding, that drew me into it. If I had to do it over again, I would’ve just let people talk and say what they had to say, and as time goes, they would’ve seen what was what.
“When you’re young, [you think], ‘Enough is enough. I’m going to say something.’ And all of a sudden …”
All of a sudden you’ve created a distraction, a needless opponent. Bryant had endless energy in his 20s, but everything comes harder now. Everything comes with emerging doubts, with a suggestion that LeBron James(notes) has passed him, that the game’s greatest player is, well, no longer the game’s greatest player. Bryant isn’t chasing Jay-Z as his model, but rather M.J. He wants fists full of rings. He’s trying to get between Jordan’s six titles and Bill Russell’s 11. He’s trying to create a championship legacy that no player of his generation can call his own.
Even so, this has been a season of doubting Bryant. Before the All-Star break, with Kobe finally resting an ankle injury, you couldn’t listen to Southern California sports-talk radio without the most preposterous premise being peddled on the airwaves: Look at the way these Lakers play without Bryant, look at the ball movement, look at how they’re better without him. The Lakers won a few games without Kobe, and somehow that became an indictment of his greatness. Pure folly.
“A lot of times they run out of things to talk about,” Bryant said. “They talk about things that have no relevance, that make no sense. They forgot that last year, playing exactly the same way, we won a championship. But they get excited about a four-game winning streak.
“…We have to focus on the big picture. That’s what I try to do.”
Someone close to Bryant suggested that his angry disposition after beating Toronto on Wednesday with a fabulous fade-away was born of this message: Don’t expect me to always bail everyone out. In some ways, the Lakers take Bryant for granted, believing that he’ll always save them in the final minutes.
“Yeah, sure,” Bryant agreed. “I’ve been in L.A. for 14 years now, and I think people have gotten used to seeing me do things like that.”
The thirtysomething Bryant has discovered something the twentysomething had a harder time with: Restraint can be his salvation. This started with Shaq’s rap assault two years ago, where Bryant’s non-response went against every fiber of his DNA. Yet it changed the public dynamic of how people perceived the Shaq-Kobe feud, turned Kobe into the grown-up and Shaq into the pesty, immature kid.
It did something else, too: It’s colored the way Bryant’s treated his sidekick, Gasol. Make no mistake: Kobe has engendered Gasol with much more public respect than Shaq ever did him. He hasn’t been condescending to or belittling of him. Yes, he’ll go after Gasol and Bynum for failing to play hard and tough and sustained. Basketball’s greatest coaches are always the superstars who hold teammates accountable.
So, yes, when Gasol has been so publicly disparaging of Bryant’s mode of attack, it naturally has to rankle him. Gasol did it on several occasions this season, including after Sunday’s loss in Orlando. His theme’s been wanting the ball, wanting Bryant to come inside with the pass. “It’s nothing against Kobe or any individual here,” Gasol insisted. “It’s all about our team success. I think he understands that’s why I think that way, why I might say those things. There’s no harm intended.”
No one is buying it, but whatever. Bryant is practicing a diplomacy in his 30s which didn’t exist in his thermonuclear 20s. As Fisher suggested, Bryant’s forever diagnosing his team and the climate in which it exists.
These Lakers are 48-18 and have fallen three games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the best record in basketball. Looking back at previous Lakers teams which tried to repeat as champions, Bryant said, “This is kind of the typical malaise you go through this time of the year waiting for the playoffs. The teams we had in the past went through the same kind of lull. But ultimately we had a sense of urgency to get out of it. But the jury is still out about whether we’re able to do that.”
Between now and then, the increasingly benevolent dictatorship of Kobe Bryant will allow its people freedom of speech. He thinks these things through for hours upon hours, and Pau Gasol can have his say for now. For his own sake, Gasol had better get it all out of his system and deliver come May and June. Hell to pay then.