Considering I run a Lakers’ site, it’s probably a bit strange I write so little about Kobe Bryant. Sure, he gets mentioned in game previews and recaps (like Thursday night’s) or an occasional analysis piece, but singling him out for a long form post on whatever relevant topic isn’t something I do very often.
Maybe it’s because after 20 years there’s little new to say. Or maybe it’s just because, after 20 years of Kobe being Kobe — and all that comes with that — I have tired of the hot takes, brush back, manic praise, and furious head nodding that comes from anything written about the man.
Kobe is an interesting subject to discuss, however. When done thoughtfully — or even when it’s not — it drives conversation and allows zealots, haters, and everyone in between a chance to speak their mind on the man who, more so than any great player I can recall, is so polarizing.
I bring all this up because this week was when Kobe’s #NBARank was disclosed on ESPN. He came in at 93 and…well, who cares. I don’t. My take can be summarized here in three simple tweets and that’s basically all I have to say on that.
The more interesting thing that came out of this Kobe discussion, for me at least, was a companion piece to the ranking, written by ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. Holmes revealed the “first in a series on how league insiders view the Lakers’ rebuild” which was focused on Kobe and how he’s viewed*.
The picture was not pretty and, via anonymous quotes and their implications, Kobe was shredded. A sampling of the quotes range from the Lakers needing to “get rid of Kobe by whatever means necessary” when his contract expires this summer to one executive saying the team had “created a monster” with Kobe via how they have managed to be so intertwined with him and how he’s become vital to the team’s brand.
The more interesting excerpts, however, go back to the familiar theme of what kind of teammate Kobe is. Considering those being quoted had already levied some pretty harsh critiques of Kobe, you can only imagine how this part went as well. An offering from the piece:
Many insiders doubt Bryant will take a backseat to anyone, let alone young players. “That’s why I wouldn’t want him on the team,” one executive said, “because I don’t think he’d accept that role.” “When has he ever embraced anything even close to that over the last two-to-three years?” one scout asked. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to change him to be in a role that he’s never been in.”
First, it’s important to note these are only opinions. They’re also not new ones or even that radical. If someone is going to be critical of Kobe, there’s really two (general) paths to take. The first is that he’s a selfish player (and all which comes along with that label). The second, and somewhat connected, is he’s a bad teammate who wants things done his way and will proceed to act on those wants even if there might be a different (and better) way.
This isn’t really news and, for the most part, probably doesn’t require comment. Folks are fine to agree or disagree based on whatever criteria they want; with whatever amount of context they want. Welcome to the internet. No big deal. Honestly.
For me, though, these quotes also symbolize somewhat of a misnomer regarding Kobe. And I think it comes from, at least partially, not following his career or all of his on the record comments over his 19+ seasons as closely as some others might.
Basically, Kobe isn’t looking to adjust. He’s looking for someone to force him to adjust. Kobe came up in an era, and on a team, where nothing was really handed to him. He was a rookie on a team which just signed Shaq and had won 53 games the season before he was drafted. That team was going to be good with or without Kobe. They had Eddie Jones at his spot and Nick Van Exel as the other guard. They had Ced Ceballos and other good role players. And, again, they just signed Shaq.
Early in his career, what Kobe seemed to learn, then, was if he was going to become the player he wanted to be, he was going to have to impose himself on a situation which didn’t necessarily need him to be great for them to achieve great things. This led to him taking shots in playoff series which he probably had no business taking. It led to him dropping quotes about what he thought he could achieve in his career. And it led to a sh*tload of work being put in to reach those goals.
For better or for worse, Kobe has since led a career defined by this same approach. As much as he’s provided soundbites about “letting the game come” to him, that’s really a bunch of coach-speak BS. Kobe wants to impose his will on the game. On his opponents. And, yes, even on his teammates. It’s not as sinister as it sounds. If he can put his imprint on the thing he’s trying to affect, he seems to think it’s going to work out in a positive way. History, for the most part, has proven him right.
This brings us back to the quotes above. While I think Kobe is more willing to bend towards the young players on the roster — especially as he recognizes his game is diminishing — I also think he’d like nothing more than for one (or all three of the Clarkson, Randle, Russell trio) to take the reins from him and force him to be slotted accordingly. This is, after all, what he did early in his career and is, seemingly, what he would respond to now. In fact, he said so himself:
“You have to be able to assert yourself, especially on a team that I’m playing on — especially on a team I’m playing on. Because I don’t want chumps, I don’t want pushovers, and if you’re a chump and a pushover, I will run over you. It’s important for him to have that toughness and to say, ‘I believe in myself. I can step up, I can make these plays, I can perform.’ I think that is very, very important.”
Those quotes are from last year when Kobe was talking about Jeremy Lin. Kobe was praising his teammate noting that Lin had done exactly what he needed to do by taking control of a late game possession in a contest against the Clippers.
I’ve no clue how the final year (or years) of Kobe’s career will play out. Like the previous 19 seasons, I’m sure there will be ups and downs, wins and losses, praise and criticism. But, if I had my guess, he’d love for one last run into the post season so he could make his mark. And, while some might find it fantastic for him to have one last game winner or triumphant moment, I think he might find it poetic if it ended with him watching one of his young teammates waive him off to take the final shot instead.
*I know some Lakers fans are taking shots at Holmes for penning his piece, but I don’t see any issues with it. While I know the angle of harsh critique is tiring to Lakers’ fans, the idea of how Kobe is viewed by other league officials really is interesting to me. Holmes did throw in some opinion of his own, but, guess what we all do that. The fact some might disagree with him is, well, par for the course when you write about sports or, specifically, the Lakers.