When Mike Brown took over as Los Angeles Lakers head coach during last year's postseason, the immediate reaction centered around Brown and Kobe Bryant's lack of a previous relationship. Unlike longtime Laker assistant (and former Bryant teammate) Brian Shaw, Mike Brown was a Laker outsider. Famously, at the time at least, Bryant and Brown did not get in touch with each other before the NBA's lockout made it league-illegal for the two to do so.
Following that was the questions about Brown's ability to stand up to Bryant. Kobe isn't in his prime anymore, but he's not far off. And he can put up nice enough numbers while dominating the ball to justify dominating that ball. Even if dominating it means what could be a top offense is relegated to middle of the pack in efficiency ratings as big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum go without touches. Early on, with Bryant firing away and Brown pretending to only care about coaching defense, it appeared as if Kobe would have his way. Now we've got a weird one, though, as the Lakers coach sat Bryant for good with the Lakers facing a comeback-able 14-point deficit with half of the fourth quarter to go against Memphis on Sunday night:
The storyboard vultures are circling, and for good reason. Pushing a superstar working with two iffy knees, one that was drafted into the NBA during Bill Clinton's first term as president, is not the smartest thing to do. But to drop Kobe like that? To stand up to him there, instead of some other time? Some other, not nationally televised, time? It made no sense. Kobe wasn't having his best game (18 points on 15 shots, three assists and three turnovers), but he wasn't having a terrible one, either. And tired legs haven't been Bryant's problem this year. Good decision-making down the stretch of contests, with Kobe firing away, has. And that's fixable in a way that doesn't involve benching.
Bryant, to his major credit, was both honest and disciplined in his reaction to Brown's benching. From the Los Angeles Times' Mark Medina:
When a reporter asked if it was correct to assume he was upset over the benching, Bryant said " of course I was. That's an astute observation." But Bryant refused to criticize Brown.
"It's his decision to make. He's the coach. If you guys are looking for a story, I'm not going to contribute to it," Bryant said. "I can't sit here and criticize his decisions. Leading this ball club, that's not something I can afford to do. I had his back the whole season. I can't start doing something crazy now. It would make no sense."
Good for Kobe. And, in Brown's defense, this isn't exactly a "benching," is it?
The Memphis Grizzlies are a fantastic, if combustible, basketball team. They actually won more playoff games than the Lakers last season, and even in Los Angeles they deserve the Lakers' respect. Pulling a starter -- a star, even -- from the lineup down 14 to the Grizzlies with about six minutes left in the game isn't the craziest move. Most statistical trends would tell you that this game was o-vuh.
Where it gets dicey is when people point out that the Lakers actually chopped seven points off of that Grizzlies lead with Bryant out and Metta World Peace in, and that the Lakers were outscored by two points when Metta left and Kobe returned for the game's final two minutes. That sort of sample size absolutely cannot be trusted, although the simplest message you can take from that four-minute turn is a profound one.
The Lakers are a very good basketball team without Kobe Bryant. If the ball is moving and the defense holds, a team featuring two former All-Stars at the center and power forward position, with role players galore and Ramon Sessions stirring the drink, can be an effective, game-winning group of players. Sunday night's small sample size may have been a quirk, but it was telling.
The problem here, as it's been for decades with Kobe, is that the Lakers can be a great basketball team with Bryant. They have had championship-level promise all season, even before the Sessions trade, and there has been no reason for this team's particular brand of storm and stress. The solution shouldn't have to come in some sort of showy, nationally televised, benching. The ball has to move. It's always had to move.
Mike Brown was principled in his work on Sunday night, and Bryant was the consummate professional in biting his lip while declining to make some bratty, passive/aggressive statement following his time spent off the court. The Lakers aren't exactly in a deep, dark place right now, but this can help. Getting this sort of thing out of the way a month before the playoffs hit could be nearly as significant a move for this team as acquiring a firebrand like Sessions.
It's up to Bryant, Brown and the Lakers to take something good from this would-be soap opera.