This Los Angeles Lakers season was always going to be a trying one full of challenges, but the reality has been something akin to a worst-case scenario. L.A.'s most popular squad enters Wednesday night's season finale at the San Antonio Spurs with a 26-55 record, second-worst in the Western Conference and sixth-worst in the entire NBA. The franchise will have to consider many options this summer as they attempt to reload and return to relevance.
The most bizarre aspect of this terrible season, though, has been the relative absence of Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. In his 18th season, Kobe managed to participate in only six games as he struggled to recover from a torn Achilles tendon and subsequent injuries. He has been a presence around the Lakers, but he hasn't been the sort of ever-present force that has made him the NBA's most popular active player around the world.
It now appears that Bryant has ended his 2013-14 responsibilities with the Lakers a little earlier than originally intended. As reported by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kobe has left the country ahead of both the team's home finale at Staples Center and Wednesday's season finale:
Bryant went to France with family members either Tuesday or Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times has learned. The Lakers conclude their season Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs.
A team spokesman said he was unaware of the situation and referred a reporter to Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, who did not immediately return a phone call. Bryant has been in a surly mood since the team's fortunes started sagging, muttering under his breath at last month's team photo that he doesn't like associating with a team so many games under .500. [...]
Bryant was supposed to address Lakers fans before the team's home finale Sunday but showed up at Staples Center near halftime because of a migraine headache, a Lakers spokesman said. Instead of Bryant, Nick Young grabbed a microphone before tip-off against Memphis and called Lakers fans "the best in the world."
Shortly after this report surfaced, Bryant tweeted about what he plans on doing to this terrible season:
These sort of actions might be controversial for any other player in the league, but Bryant's position with the Lakers is virtually without comparison. As the team's longtime star, Kobe has taken on near-mythic qualities for Lakers fans. If he chose to leave town a bit early, then it must have been the right call. It's not even as if he's acting out against the team — the tweet's references to the Buss family and improved fortunes next season speaks to his commitment to the Lakers. (Getting paid $48.5 million over the next two seasons probably doesn't hurt either.)
That's not to say that the Lakers figure to be particularly happy about Kobe's actions. Teams expect players to honor their responsibilities, even when injured, and a player heading off to Europe before the season's close isn't a great look. Yet Kobe is not any other player, and the Lakers have often considered the team's needs to be synonymous with his own. That might seem like a misplacement of priorities, but it actually makes some sense. Given Bryant's standing with the franchise, his public image reflects upon that of the team. It behooves them to not make too big a deal out of his trip.
And, really, it's probably in the Lakers' best interest to call as little attention to this season as possible. As Kobe says, it was a season best compared to excrement. Flush it — plunge if necessary — and let 2014-15 serve as the air freshener.
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