The Lakers lost their 6th straight game and second in two nights on Saturday, falling to the Blazers 121-103 in Portland. While there were couple of good individual performances on offense, the team, as a whole, played poorly on both sides of the floor. This isn’t new for a team which ranked 29th and 30th (last) in the league in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, heading into the contest.
What was new, however, was that Kobe Bryant took a break from the feel-good vibes of his retirement farewell tour to reportedly voice his displeasure about the loss and the team’s poor defense to his teammates during and after the game. Mark Medina of the LA Daily News has the report:
Bryant took particular aim at Lakers rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell and second-year forward Julius Randle and even called them out by name, sources said.
“You know I don’t do the gossip [expletive],” Bryant said in a friendly exchange when asked about the incident.
No one on the team, including Russell and Randle, were specifically asked about Bryant’s criticisms because Los Angeles News Group learned the revelations after media access to the locker room ended. But multiple sources confirmed that Bryant spoke for about two minutes after Lakers coach Byron Scott addressed the team.
Bryant also expressed his displeasure during a timeout when the Lakers trailed, 93-74, with 1:57 left in the third quarter. That happened after Randle missed two consecutive rebounds before Lillard hit a 3-pointer. The Lakers looked deflated after the play.
Byron Scott also chimed in:
“Our guards didn’t do a great job of getting through the screen,” Scott said. “Our bigs did a horrible job of being up and ready to trap them.”
But Scott expressed hope that message would become better ingrained with Bryant echoing his critiques.
“He was telling guys to get up, pressure the guys and get the ball out of their hands. The things we talked about pregame and things we talked about at halftime,” Scott said. “I think it helps because of the fact [Kobe] is who he is. At times, they’ll get tired of hearing it from coaches all the time saying the same thing. When one of your peers says it, especially someone of that magnitude, you would hope those guys would listen. You would hope they listen to that and take it to heart.”
Here is a clip of the aforementioned huddle where Kobe seemed to be upset with his teammates:
Well, then. I have a few thoughts on all this.
First, it doesn’t surprise me Kobe would be upset if anyone on the team was smiling and/or laughing during/after the loss. Kobe has a history of being someone who doesn’t take well to teammates yucking it up, even after some wins. To do so after a loss will definitely draw some ire. This is just who he is. If you want to complain about this, feel free, but I don’t really get worked up either way about this sort of thing.
Regarding the team’s defense and specifically that of Randle and Russell, criticisms are, most times, going to be valid. Both young players have multiple defensive lapses a game; both are guys who don’t always put the same effort into defending as they do on the other end of the floor. These are things they will either need to grow through or become one-way players who, if we’re being honest, still can have immense value in the league while also being liabilities. This isn’t ideal, but that’s a story for another day down the road. If this stuff is still happening when they’re heading into their second contracts, it will be a major issue.
Of course, singling out Russell and Randle for their bad defense is akin to singling out two kids out of the 15 in detention for messing up in class that day. I’m pretty sure all the kids in detention messed up in class that day. That’s why they’re in detention. Similarly, the Lakers aren’t last in defensive efficiency because Russell and Randle make defensive mistakes. Look up and down the roster and you’ll find multiple rotation players who show more than just a mild indifference to playing defense.
This isn’t just a young player problem, but one from the veterans too. This includes Kobe. It’s been several years since Kobe could be considered even a neutral defender. In the seasons after his achilles injury, his level of performance on that end has only worsened. He’s not alone, either. Lou Williams is a poor defender who often half steps through possessions. And Jordan Clarkson, while offering effort defensively, is only a 2nd year player and makes mistakes/can have poor fundamentals too.
Some of these critiques, then, become a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” Part of this is natural since Kobe is old and simply isn’t physically able to play defense at the level he once did. There was a time in his career where Kobe was one of the elite wing defenders in the league. All of those 1st Team All-Defense nods he got weren’t a product of him being “Kobe Byrant”. Him not being that guy anymore doesn’t make the things he says about playing good defense irrelevant now.
However, any type of criticism which applies to some but not to others can be problematic, especially when it comes to accountability. If Byron Scott or Kobe single out the young players for not defending, but those same critiques aren’t applied to the older players whose defensive apathy is just as harmful, how is that not viewed as a double standard? Further, there is a responsibility of the coaches to make sure the players get what they’re doing on that end, even if it means relentless drilling of the scheme and its nuances every day. I won’t pretend to know what happens behind the closed doors of practices, but the lack of execution speaks to problems which go beyond the players.
However, we cannot absolve the players here either. As the ones on the floor, they must play hard on both ends, must look to perform what’s being asked of them, must take personal pride in guarding their own man and looking out for their teammates by helping and rotating accordingly. When watching the games, these things do not happen consistently. If you think this is only a coaching problem, well, you’re wrong. Being young offers context for mental mistakes and/or errors of inexperience, but it doesn’t excuse everything we see on that end of the floor.
Ultimately, I don’t mind Kobe speaking up and saying guys need to do better. Singling out a teammate or two may seem harsh, but good leadership is about the carrot and the stick. However, it’s also important when you hold others accountable to point some of that spotlight on yourself. This is true for the players and the coaches. This season we have seen leaders doing a lot of pointing out what someone else needs to do better, but little public acknowledgement of any inward looking.
I can’t say with any certainty seeing more of the latter would help improve the team’s play, but it certainly would help the optics of a team which too often, at least from the outside, looks to have a different set of rules for different sets of players.