The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant Conundrum

Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, one of the greatest scorers in the history of basketball. The Lakers are one of the most successful franchises ever. However, success for Kobe Bryant and success for the Lakers seem to be at an impasse. Should this be Kobe’s last season, it would probably be a case of no harm, no foul. If he continues on, however, one must wonder when it becomes part of a larger discussion regarding Los Angeles winning despite Kobe’s presence, instead of winning because of Kobe. The Lakers’ Kobe Conundrum revolves around their ability to balance the short-term goals with the long-term; goals that may be mutually exclusive.

The Lakers’ Kobe Bryant Conundrum

Most teams these days fit into one of two categories: “win now” or “building for the future” (aka “tanking”). Due to Bryant’s situation, the Lakers are sort of in a third, harder to identify category. Los Angeles largely has struck out in free agency the past couple offseasons. Their biggest acquisition was making a deal that brought them Roy Hibbert. They did add D’Angelo Russell in the draft, who could turn into a superstar, but with draft picks, you never really know until you see it on the court for real. They missed on known commodities like Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Hibbert addition is a perfect example of the awkward position the Lakers are in. If it weren’t for Kobe, they’d undeniably have both eyes fixated on building a winner in a few years. Instead, they must keep one eye on the short-term to satiate Kobe, while the other eye is cast forward, into their murky future. The rest of the league is getting smaller and quicker, with an emphasis on picking up elite athletes, Hibbert – whose certain to be one of the Lakers’ four or five best players – makes the Lakers bigger, slower, and less athletic in the frontcourt. If number 24 wasn’t in Los Angeles, neither would Hibbert. If both were elsewhere (or retired), the Lakers could focus on being a fun, young, energetic team led by Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle. Those guys could run up and down the court, learn by doing, and take the lumps that go along with being a developing NBA player without worrying about making their super-demanding, Hall of Fame teammate happy. Instead, Bryant is still around, and he gets his before anybody else, because the franchise is so set on keeping him as the “face of the franchise” … whatever that means. Los Angeles also stands to benefit from being able to market Kobe’s career milestones still to come.

“The Black Mamba” still has a chance to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as basketball’s all-time leader in scoring. Kobe is currently in third, 4,446 points behind second-place (Karl Malone), and needs 5,905 points to equal Kareem’s mark. The only way he gets there though is to continue jacking up shots; shots and possessions that aren’t going to his younger teammates. Thus, indirectly setting their development back ever so slightly. While the Lakers can capitalize on the now, and use Kobe as their marketing ploy, it might be coming at a future cost, one that might cost them actual wins in the future if Russell, Randle, and Clarkson don’t develop as planned. The reality of being in this no-man’s land between contending and rebuilding must be a hard pill for Lakers’ fans to swallow.

All of this is only made more complicated by the fact that Kobe is set to make $25 million next season, an amount that his 37-year old body can’t justify. With all due respect to Kobe, he has earned every penny of that by his past performance, and what he’s done for the Lakers organization, but the chances of his on-court performance during this upcoming season being good enough to justify a cap number that big are as slim as the Lakers’ chances of getting to the NBA Finals. Plus, Kobe’s shown no signs that he’d ever be interested in taking less money to help the Lakers cap situation. With shots and money: Kobe gets his.

Supporters of Kobe Bryant are great. They defend him at all costs. But they can also be irrational. Some of his staunchest backers still see him as a top-10 talent in the league. His detractors see him as a borderline starter at this point. The Kobe argument is so fascinating because there’s evidence supporting both sides. The Kobe crowd will point out that until he got hurt last season, he was leading the league in scoring. Those on the other side will point out that he did so by shooting 37%, the lowest field goal percentage of his career, by far. That percentage ranked outside the top 400 league-wide. According to the Basketball-Reference search engine, there have been 87 players in NBA history that have attempted over 700 fields goals and made less than 270 (last season Kobe took 713 shots and made 266). Kobe, however, played in at least ten less games than anybody else on the list. Kobe also had a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 10.7 and 17.6 the last two seasons. As a rookie his PER was 14.4, together they represent the three lowest PER numbers of Bryant’s career.

One thing even the biggest Kobe fan must admit is that age and injury has taken away from his athleticism. He can’t get to the rim like he once did. Consider this: During the 2002-03 season, 31.9% of Kobe’s field goal attempts came at the rim. Last season, that number fell all the way to 13.6%.

Additionally, over Kobe’s entire career, he’s only shot under 30% from 3-point territory in four seasons. Two of those seasons were the last two. So he’s not getting to rim with regularity, and his shot from deep is in decline as well. That only leaves the mid-range game. To be fair, Kobe’s mid-range game is great, perhaps the best since Michael Jordan. However, any new-school NBA stathead will tell you the league now sees mid-range jumpers as the least efficient shot in basketball, because the percentages drop off sharply the further away from the hoop one gets, the chances of being fouled drop as well, and the risk/reward isn’t worth it because at a certain point if a player is going to take a low-percentage shot, they might as well back it out a few more feet behind the 3-point line and try to get the additional point at the cost of some percentage points. Which means Kobe, and thus, the Lakers in general (especially now with Hibbert), are kind of playing a game from a bygone era.

Furthermore, the leadership style of Kobe Bryant is fascinating. It seems that he thinks he needs to rule by fear. Which is to say: Kobe thinks he needs to be a jerk to “lead,” and that might not be that great for the Lakers now. It was fine when Kobe was playing with peers, guys in their prime. The Derek Fishers, Lamar Odoms, and Pau Gasols of the world could handle playing with Kobe. It didn’t hurt that they were winning then, either. Now, the young players the Lakers are relying on to develop in order to be competitive again play as if they just turned sixteen, were given the keys to the brand new Benz and their dad is riding shotgun constantly reminding them how much trouble they’d be in if they got in a wreck.
NBA fans will often wince at the thought of the Jordan-on-the-Wizards years. It’s never fun watching a historically great player appear ordinary while in the twilight of their career. Whether Kobe fans will admit it or not, we’re deep into Kobe-on-the-Wizards territory, so to speak. He’s a shell of his old self. Statistically, he resembles less the Kobe of old as much as he resembles (ironically) teammate Nick Young – a high volume, low-efficiency scorer. At some point, the Lakers must move on from Kobe in order to move forward as a franchise, because they’re not good enough to win now, and they have to find out if their current group of young players are the core of a future winner. The Lakers management, however, are set on keeping Kobe around for as long as he wants to stay around. It’s a great situation for a basketball lifer like Kobe, but less for for a franchise stuck in basketball purgatory.