It’s hard to think of as bad a team that’s been as compelling to follow as the current Los Angeles Lakers.
Or to be more precise, Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.
For sure, we’ve seen the once-so-mighty teams stumble rapidly before, Manchester United last season being an obvious and recent case in point. But they were very much David Moyes’s Manchester United, the side’s big-name players largely escaping the brickbats directed at their manager.
There have been struggling sides with a singular champion superstar: Alan Shearer was what Americans would term a ‘franchise player’, sometimes as much by default as his own brilliance, playing on some poor Newcastle teams and a mediocre Blackburn one in 1995-96. George Best’s decline was accelerated by United’s post-Busby while Gaelic Games has regularly witnessed the phenomenon of a standout player being only able to do so much; think Brian Corcoran in the Barry’s Tea years, Peter Canavan for stretches of his Tyrone career, and for his entire time with Tipperary, Declan Browne.
The plight of Bryant and the Lakers though belongs in a whole other category.
United merely slumped to seventh in the Premier League last year. The Lakers this season are one of the worst two teams in the 30-team NBA. They’ve won only one of their opening 10 games.
They’re on pace to go down as the worst defensive team in league history with one of the 10 worst losing records in league history.
Considering that only four years ago they were back-to-back NBA champions and even now boast in five-time champion Bryant one of the greatest 10 players to ever lace up a pair of boots, you would think they hardly deserve such ignominy.
What makes their case particularly fascinating though is a sense that their current misery is self-inflicted.
At the moment Bryant is averaging 27.3 points a game. For a 36-year-old, that is remarkable.
More than that, Bryant is a 36-year-old just coming off missing virtually a whole season after sustaining serious leg injuries.
But there’s a catch in all that. While only LeBron James is scoring more in the NBA right now, no one else is shooting or missing as much as Bryant.
Take last Sunday night. Bryant scored 44 points in a 136-115 home loss to Golden State Warriors. On the surface that’s astonishing scoring, all the more so when you factor in he sat out the entire fourth quarter. But by the end of the third quarter, the Warriors were 36 points ahead.
By then Bryant had put up 34 shots, making 15. There hasn’t been a game this season yet where he’s made more than 45% of his shots, a mark which used to be his career average. Only two other players in the league’s top 40 scorers are shooting less than 40%.
Bryant continues to justify jacking up so many shots. “Obviously I’d rather get guys involved early, but when you’re 10, 12 points in the hole I’ve got to try to keep us in the ball game,” he’d say after taking nearly as much shots in the first quarter as the rest of his teammates combined.
“If a purse gets stolen in front of you, how many blocks are you going to let the guy run? You going to chase him down and keep him in sight... or decide to... wait for the authorities? It’s a tough thing.”
It didn’t need to be this tough. He could have more help if he’d allowed the team to recruit it. Bryant is on a two-year, $48 million (€38m) contract, the highest paid player in the league. While you could soundly argue — he does — that he’s worth it for all he’s done for the Lakers and how much of a draw he is for a franchise still bringing the fourth highest TV revenue in the NBA, the league’s ingenious quasi-socialist salary cap system means he can’t have it every way.
Tim Duncan, the other standout player of the post-Jordan/pre-LeBron championship era, understands. In recent years he’s been making on average ‘just’ $10m a season to accommodate other fine players on the San Antonio roster. Last summer, they won another NBA championship and are now pursuing a sixth ring, a figure and object Kobe used to tell us was what he himself was all about.
Bryant was always a divisive figure. Never has one player in any sport so brilliantly recreated — aped — the game of another player as Bryant has that of Michael Jordan and while that makes him this writer’s favourite player to watch since Jordan, his detractors would beat him up for being a wannabe. No other player since Jordan has worked so assiduously on his game, which is partly why he became so frustrated with Shaquille O’Neal’s fine-as-I-am attitude, but that disgruntlement resulted in O’Neal leaving LA, leaving Bryant open to being considered the more ego-oriented of the pair. His two subsequent titles with Pau Gasol temporarily quietened haters, but now Gasol and Dwight Howard are no longer in Lakerland, his critics have more stick to beat him with.
It comes down to this: you can’t have it every way — all that money, all those shots, and the winning too. Judging by their comments, his coach and teammates are losing patience. “We’ve got to do it together,” said Jeremy Lin last Sunday after putting up only two shots himself in that defeat to the Warriors. “There’s so many things wrong right now.... communication, trust and effort.”
Bryant may be at breaking point. Last Sunday he told reporters, “It’s tough, man.” Maybe this season Bryant will take his money, put up his shots, overtake Jordan as the league’s third-highest scorer ever and take comfort in the fact that while the Lakers may be a car crash, they remain box office; 10 years from now his final few seasons will be a mere footnote, forgotten in all his brilliance and records. Or maybe the killer and winner in Kobe can only tolerate so much and ask for a trade. That prospect, or the prospect of more losing with all that scoring, is why remains one of the great fascinations in sport.
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