Our last two 10-man rotation posts have led with long pieces considering whether Kobe Bryant's to blame for the Los Angeles Lakers' unseemly predicament. The thrust came with the publication Monday of Henry Abbott's ESPN the Magazine feature, replete with anecdotes and vignettes from anonymous Lakers sources and agents supporting the premise that Bryant — through his $48.5 million contract extension, his age/minutes/injury-sparked decline and his alleged insistence on not only winning, but being "the reason we're winning" — is the reason for the Lakers' descent from championship contender to one of the league's worst teams.
The parry came Tuesday. Plenty of respondents took Abbott to task for declining to consider a slew of mitigating factors — then-Commissioner David Stern's veto of the trade that would have made Chris Paul a Laker; the death of trailblazing owner Dr. Jerry Buss; the possibility that Dwight Howard just preferred a younger, more contention-ready roster in Houston; a plague of injuries, including Bryant's own and the one that's made Steve Nash a shell of his former self; etc. — that have also contributed to the disintegration. While some bleeding-purple-and-gold fans will always find the future Hall of Famer infallible, this response suggests that yes, Kobe "is actually a reason the Lakers are so unable to bounce back quickly" from last year's failure, but as Drew Garrison wrote at Silver Screen and Roll, "there isn't a single straw man to blame."
So we've heard from the prosecution, the defense, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the New York Knicks' president of basketball operations. But what about the man himself? Well, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Jovan Buha, the Mamba seems surprisingly serene about the whole thing:
"It's not the first [negative article about me] and it won't be the last one," Bryant said following the Lakers' 114-108 preseason overtime loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday. "One thing I've come to understand over the years is that you'll have a bad story that comes out on a Monday and it seems like it's the end of the world and it seems like everybody's taking shots at you. But time goes by and then you look back on it and it was just a Monday.
"Then you have another great story that comes out maybe a month later, or something like that, and it's a fantastic story. And then there's a bad story that comes out one month after that. So you understand that it's a cycle, and things are never as good or as bad as they seem in the moment in time." [...]
"Stay focused on the bigger picture and things are never as bleak as they seem at the time," Bryant said. "I just kind of roll with it."
What, you didn't expect Kobe to give his detractors the satisfaction of addressing the content of their claims, did you?
In a certain sense, Bryant's on the money. Stories decrying his predilection toward low-percentage shots, his increasingly lackadaisical defense and his less-than-friendly bedside manner have long shared synaptic space and column inches with stories about his refreshing honesty and sense for the game, his phenomenal individual gifts, his capacity to do more than just score and his indomitable spirit. The tide rolls in and then subsides; the next edition will bring new features inspiring new headlines and new debates. Sports Illustrated goes long in praise; ESPN goes long in condemnation. The saga continues. Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang.
And yet, whatever your perspective on how we got here, the facts on the ground in Los Angeles aren't changing. The Lakers are coming off their worst season since moving from Minneapolis to L.A. They had an offseason only a mother Mamba could love. Even placing 10th (and thus two spots outside the playoff picture) in the brutally competitive Western Conference seems like too much to expect here.
Kobe, as confident and stubborn and talented and competitive as he is, knows that he's a greybeard, that the man he is can't do the same stuff as the kid he was, and that championship expectations have been replaced by the hope of being a bit better than you'd think. He must also know that, if the losses pile up as the season presses on, the stories won't wind up evening out.
“There are certain things that my body can’t do that I used to be able to do,” Bryant admitted to SI's Chris Ballard this summer. “And you have to be able to deal with those. First you have to be able to figure out what those are. Last year when I came back, I was trying to figure out what changed. And that’s a very hard conversation to have [...] So when I hear the pundits and people talk, saying, ‘Well, he won’t be what he was.’ Know what? You’re right! I won’t be. But just because something evolves, it doesn’t make it any less better than it was before.”
That can be true, if there's enough support around the evolving element to make up for what's lost in the process of change. That doesn't seem to be the case here, though. Not with Julius Randle in Year 1 of his learning experience, with Nash in what's likely the last year of a race well run but marred by a stumble to the finish, without any real defenders or healthy floor-spacing shooters of note, and with Byron Scott making us all scratch our heads and shrug our shoulders in equal measure. There just isn't enough in the cupboard to make this season much more than an opportunity for Kobe to go for his while the Lakers vie to keep their first-round draft pick.
To be fair, the chance to see Kobe do that — to take over down the stretch like he did in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, to remind us what we've missed these past 18 months, to reward those executives who'd still rather see him take a game-closing shot than anyone not named Kevin Durant — isn't nothing. For lots of fans, in fact, it's everything. It might not amount to much for the Lakers, though, and what remains to be seen is if that'll be enough for Kobe. If things really are as bleak for L.A. as they seem, there'll be more bombs-away columns coming, and you'd imagine Kobe's serenity won't last very long.
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