When I went about previewing the 2015-16 Lakers, I wrote mostly about the difficult balancing act the team was trying to accomplish with the roster which was constructed. Here is a sampling:
On a roster with a mix of young prospects who need development and capable veterans who play the same positions, how do they balance playing time? When trying to win as many games as possible, but also needing for young players to be able to play through mistakes to learn — sometimes at the expense of wins — how do they balance the different priorties? On a team with at least seven rotation players who do their best work with the ball in their hands, how do they balance touches?
As the season has transpired, however, a new variable has been thrown into the mix: Kobe Bryant announced he would retire. While it was pretty much assumed this would be Kobe’s last year, him putting it on the record in the manner he did shifted the discussion and caused a recalibration of what this year would be about.
In a talk with ESPN’s Baxter Holmes, Mitch Kupchak laid out how Kobe’s pending retirement has taken a front seat to any other agendas which might have been on the docket:
“This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history. And, God willing, he’s going to want to play every game and he’s going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that’s just the way he is.
“And as long as that continues, which it should, then that’s 30-35 minutes that you might give to a young player that you can’t. How do you get a feel for your team going forward when you know that your best player is not going to be there next year? So it’s really hard to go forward until he’s no longer here.
First things first, I credit Kupchak for saying what has been pretty clear to anyone who actually watches Lakers’ games, but no one seemed to want to say. Kobe has clearly been prioritized. From the way his minutes are handled to his role within the team structure to how he is spoken about by the coaches, front office, and ownership, he has been put front and center. His play has turned a corner, aiding in this approach, but earlier in the year when he was not playing well the role he filled was identical to what it is now. None of that is by accident.
Further, I have always said I am glad it is not my decision on how to manage Kobe or navigate his final season under these circumstances. The Lakers have no blueprint for managing how an aged, homegrown superstar exits gracefully on what is an awful team.
Kareem’s last year ended in a Finals loss. West and Baylor retired abruptly when they thought they could no longer be the players they were. Magic’s HIV announcement cut short his career at the tail end of his prime years. Maybe his comeback in 1996 most closely mirrors what the Lakers are doing for Kobe now — one more chance for the aging legend to go out on his terms — but that “LakeShow” team was a solid playoff outfit and Magic still came off the bench and played Power Forward.
None of these circumstances resemble what they are going through with Kobe now. As Kupchak also notes, Kobe is, maybe, the greatest Laker ever. Beyond that, he is a global icon who, at last count, led the league in all-star votes and packs arenas wherever the Lakers play. If you have a good idea on how to manage saying goodbye to this player, in this situation — and I have not even mentioned his personality/charisma/will to play — I’m all ears, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t a great answer.
The above quotes aren’t all Kupchak said, however. In fact, his most interesting comments came later. More from Holmes:
“That’s not a bad thing. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing at all. It’s something that I think is a good thing. In some regards, there’s a silver lining. Our younger players can make mistakes and it can kind of go under the radar because Kobe garnishes so much attention. Every game, it’s about Kobe. Even when he doesn’t play, it’s about Kobe. So in a lot of regards, there’s a silver lining that our guys can develop under the radar and maybe make a mistake or make two mistakes and it not be a big deal.”
Here, I think, is where Mitch is trying frame the discussion and shape the narrative. My issue with these comments, however, is that I don’t really buy into them much. First, while I agree the media attention is on Kobe, most on the record comments from those who provide them — aka the head coach — deflect and smooth out any rough edges about him and instead highlight what is wrong with the young players.
So, I don’t think the young players are able to “develop under the radar” when every other week the head coach is telling one of them to “grow up” (or some general variation of that message), openly discussing areas of weakness or what needs to be improved upon, and/or using their minutes and status as starters as foundation to making lineup changes while decreasing their roles. Scott has said positive things about the young players as well so I want to be clear this isn’t all one sided negativity. But I think it’s more than fair to say the most vocal negative comments which have gone viral nationally have been about Russell and/or Randle while deflecting against backlash which could be leveled against Kobe or other veteran players.
You can call this approach several things, but “under the radar development” isn’t one of them.
Ultimately, though, the bigger question isn’t whether the spotlight is too bright it is whether the stage is set up for their development appropriately. Kupchak, with his comments, tries to shift the conversation towards the former, but the real question is whether, by making the priorities what they are, the young players are getting the most out of this season.
Some might think this is a cop-out, but I will not pretend to know the answer here. But I will say I believe it is more than fair to question if this is actually the best way to handle their development. I have said before that if a prospect is good enough, some bad coaching along the way won’t derail their trajectory. But, just because it’s not thrown totally off course, it doesn’t mean it cannot be negatively impacted.
This gets us into gray areas we can never really discuss with any certainty. When talking about how well — or not — a prospect develops, how much of that is the talent of the player and how much is the coach? How many little things on a daily basis contribute positively or negatively to a player’s development arc? The Lakers — as well as other teams (like the T’Wolves under Sam Mitchell) — are interesting test cases for this. And while we have our opinions, we can not know for sure.
What we can know, however, is that by even thinking the question is relevant we have entered one of those unsafe zones that make me uneasy. And that, more than anything else, is my takeaway from Kupchak’s comments. I won’t pretend to be smart enough to tell the best way to manage Kobe’s last season or how, exactly, it all impacts the young players development.
But the fact that there are any potential negatives concerns me. And that is not helped by Kupchak’s comments, not with the realities of how the situation has played out to this point.