The definition of insanity is doing something the same way, over and over again, and expecting a different result. The Los Angeles Lakers franchise is under a state of insanity at this period, unable to move forward because of its heralded star and the delusion of grandeur that follows him. Kobe Bryant is arguably one of the greatest basketball players ever and makes a claim to be the greatest player in the rich history of the Lakers franchise.
While his greatness has been glowing over this organization, it’s also been casting a shadow over it. Bryant’s will and refusal to lose to anyone, let alone Father Time, has isolated not only himself, but the franchise as well. Nearing age 37, Bryant has rightfully believed (and sometimes proven) that he is still a big dog in this yard of superstar basketball. And we all know how big dogs like to run their own yards; other big dogs only create tension and competition for what ultimately matters to them most: dominance. That’s how Bryant presented himself to free-agent targets like Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and, more recently, LaMarcus Aldridge.
Bryant’s message is sent loud and clear to stars that this once-attractive franchise used to sway with ease: Play for the Lakers, compete for championships, but battle behind me. These words may not be Bryant’s, but the intentions are becoming quite evident. Bryant, facing the swan song of his 19-year career, can’t and won’t concede his era to anyone, even at the expense of a deteriorating Lakers franchise that needs a new direction, a new identity, a new leader. Until the Lakers as a whole accept this, they won’t move forward. The historic age of Kobe Bryant as the man in purple and gold has to become history for any star to believe that his era can come of age in a Lakers uniform.
The allure of 16 championships, along with an extremely attractive market for endorsements and other business opportunities, has no clout with the common free agent anymore. As Bryant has begun to wear down over the past few years, so have the Laker lineups that have uncharacteristically been non-competitive. There are various reasons behind the last two seasons being the worst in franchise history (27-55 in 2013-14, franchise-low 21-61 last season), with many fingers being pointed at the son of the late and great Jerry Buss. Jim Buss’ decision-making has been porous at best during his current tenure, but how much can he be faulted when hopes and aspirations of keeping Dwight Howard, luring Anthony and/or James, and enticing Aldridge and Greg Monroe are stifled by Bryant’s continuous desire for someone to compromise his star power for a secondary role?
Bryant, who engaged in a tug of war for supremacy in Los Angeles with Shaquille O’Neal throughout their tumultuous, yet momentous three-title journey in the early 2000s, found that sidekick in Pau Gasol, which led to two more championships to boot. One could say that Gasol needed Bryant as much as vice versa, but Bryant in his prime brought more intrigue, more infatuation from recruits who craved a bigger stage to perform on. This isn’t the case today, as an aging Bryant couldn’t command a Pau Gasol out of Howard two summers ago. Howard, who was traded to the Lakers in the 2012 offseason, already had issues with Bryant leading up to the two becoming teammates. Believing that he was acquired by the Lakers to be the next franchise star, Howard gave management an ultimatum: either Bryant goes, or I leave. Still clinging to the mystique that Bryant can single-handedly lead this franchise to one more championship, the Lakers turned their proverbial cheeks away from a center who commanded double teams, is a defense and rebounding machine and has already led a squad to the NBA Finals (Orlando Magic in 2009). Howard, despite having a slight goofy demeanor on the court, could have been a cornerstone for this franchise, a captivating draw for future prospects that would help propel the Lakers back to prominence. All it took was for Bryant to concede power that’s already leaving him, injury by injury, season by season.
While Anthony and Bryant are dear friends, the complication was not lost in yet another stumble of a Lakers offseason last year, as Anthony sat with Lakers brass, watched as team president Jeanie Buss and company appealed to his and his wife La La’s Hollywood business tastes, not to mention the recruiting power that Los Angeles brings to each free agent’s table. However, Anthony knows Bryant’s nature, that he too is an alpha male. Two of those types of personalities can only spell tension in a team culture. O’Neal and Bryant had the luxury of Phil Jackson’s “Zen Master” influence to keep them together — and winning — for as long as possible. It’s comedic to believe that Lakers head coach Byron Scott can do the same for these two massive egos. Anthony has been used to having a city behind him throughout his NBA career. Denver and his native New York have done that for him. He has never taken a step back to allow someone else to fill the spotlight. Allen Iverson didn’t even have the star power to usurp Anthony in Denver.
On the court, Anthony and Bryant would’ve been a tremendously frustrating tandem for opponents to deal with. Unfortunately, that would’ve been the case for Lakers management to deal with as well. Power struggles do nothing but weaken powerful structures in the end. Somebody has to be the No. 1; both Bryant and Anthony stake claim for that position. So, for a fellow leading scorer like Anthony, why mess up a good thing? Jackson, as team president of the New York Knicks, had a franchise for Anthony to lead as the on-court general, coupled with millions of dollars in tow, and a hometown that adores him. A five-year, $120-plus million contract is signed for Anthony to remain in New York, and the Lakers have lost yet another battle, courtesy of Bryant’s tight grip on the Lakers franchise…as it began to hang upside down.
Trust me, I’m a staunch supporter and fan of Bryant, being one of very few people in Los Angeles to support his demand to be traded from the Lakers back in 2007. He wasn’t in a position where drastic measures weren’t taken to give him help on the court, prompting a drastic decision on his behalf. However, the NBA landscape is now about speed and versatility, essentially a young man’s game. The younger the star usually means the brighter the future. We can all tip our caps to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and management’s recent efforts to find pieces through the NBA draft that are capable of being standouts in the coming years: Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and this year’s No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell.
Despite the promising future, these latest moves forward have been suppressed by the back step that is Bryant’s pride. As harsh as that reads, even the casual Lakers fan can sense that the latest star recruits — Aldridge and Monroe — can see the writing on the wall. Bryant wants another Gasol, which is something that was communicated to Aldridge in the Lakers’ first meeting with the All-Star power forward. We must all remember that Gasol was a trade acquisition, not a free-agent signing, and lived on the trading block for his final three years on the team before eventually walking on his own terms. Can we all agree that the “Pau Gasol Lakers role” isn’t the best proposal to make to any standout big man in the NBA? Besides, the last free agent that the Lakers signed to become their franchise star was O’Neal. Free agents like Aldridge and Monroe are thinking in that regard, not to be complimentary pieces.
Bryant’s selling point to free agents is the championship culture the Lakers used to have, but two consecutive seasons of failure cheapens that presentation. As much as the Lakers have depended on him every regular season, he hasn’t been able to be much of a factor during the offseason, scaring away potential stars with ego and keeping the Lakers stagnant with a superiority complex. There’s no doubt that superstars would love to play with Kobe Bryant. They just don’t want to play behind him.