By: Dan Grant
By any measure, Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game. Whether you’re a fan or not, the numbers are there. Twenty, as in seasons with the same franchise. Five, as in titles. Third, as in on the all-time scoring list. Zero, as in effs given about anything. Your opinion of him, his teammates, his coaches, the fans, even the Lakers.
Except that last part might not be strictly true.
Every great basketball player has a go-to descriptor. Michael Jordan was ruthless. Bill Russell was a winner. Tim Duncan is selfless. Larry Bird was cerebral. Magic Johnson was a star.
Kobe Bryant? Kobe Bryant is relentless.
Over the past twenty seasons, he’s worn down any and all critics, earning a begrudging respect from even his most sworn haters, myself included. Despite all the drama, all the controversy, all the bullshit, Kobe Bryant has done absolutely everything to earn the opening sentence you just read. He’s one of the best ever.
So why in the world is he choosing to go out like this?
As of the writing of this article, Kobe is shooting a career worst 32% from the field and 24% from three. He’s posting an 11.33 PER, which ranks him 226th in the NBA, despite the fact that he’s still playing nearly 31 minutes per game, and ranks 13th in the league in usage rate. That puts him behind such basketball savants as Andrea Bargnani, DeWayne Dedmon and Charlie Villenueva. He’s finished with a positive +/- in just three of his 21 games so far, and has been a double digit negative player 11 times. It’s a truly extraordinary fall from grace for one of the leagues finest players. He’s been kamikaze-like in his lack of consideration for literally everything and everyone around him.
It doesn’t make sense. This is the guy who is legendary for his work ethic, storied in his drive to perfect his craft. A player that was so relentless for so long, so narrow-minded and driven in his pursuit of perfection. How can he go out like this? Can he really be OK with playing this poorly? Is he really becoming the embodiment of every criticism ever levied at him?
That could all be true, but I don’t think it’s because he’s oblivious. I think that in a twisted way, he’s doing this for the Lakers and their fans. It might scratch a vain itch that he still feels as well, but that’s superfluous, secondary. The real reason is because Kobe is setting this Lakers team up to be successful after he leaves. No, really.
Lakers head coach Byron Scott has been subject to intense ridicule this season, for his insistence on starting Kobe, for his ham-handed rotations and mostly, for his poor handling of Lakers prized rookies Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell. Jokes have flown hither and yon about how Scott’s decisions are a poorly masked attempt to guarantee that the Lakers keep their draft pick, as if it’s lower than third overall, it goes to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Despite the jokes, it’s completely possible that this plan is really happening. But if it is, rather than Scott, Kobe Bryant and Mitch Kupchak are the architects. Scott is probably in on it, but it wouldn’t work without the star player and the Lakers GM.
Think about it.
Two years ago, Kobe was already finished. At age 35, he played only 6 games after blowing his Achilles tendon to end the previous season. He’d spent 18 seasons in the league, played over 45,000 regular season minutes and his skills were eroding noticeably. So why then, did the Lakers reward him with a 2 year, 48.5 million dollar contract? Was it really because, as they said publicly, they thought they could still build around him? Was it for all the bonuses that Kobe brings, the marketing opportunities and jersey sales? One last nostalgic ride?
Well maybe. Or maybe it was something more.
After the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash experiment failed in the most spectacular way possible, the Lakers needed to rebuild. They needed to bridge the gap between generations, while still placating a fan base that is known to be fair-weather at the best of times. Keep your shirts on, Laker lifers, I know there are good fans among you. But when you’re the most popular NBA team on the planet, you’re destined to have truckloads of bandwagon fans. And in Tinseltown, where appearances mean everything, the Lakers needed to rebuild in the most covert way possible.
Enter the Son of the Jelly Bean.
I think the conversation went something like this:
Kupchak: Kobe, thanks for coming. I’ll get right to it. We both know you’re not what you were on the floor. We still love you though. We’re going to get you paid. You’re still the franchise.
Kobe: What’s the catch?
Kupchack: We don’t want to ask you to do anything you’re not comfortable with, so we won’t. But we would like to ask you to do something for us.
Kobe: Alright, let’s hear it.
Kupchak: We want you to shoot. We want you to shoot and shoot and shoot. We want you to play like you have blinders on. Like your teammates forgot your birthday. Every horrible urge that Phil helped you suppress over the past 20 years? Just embrace them. Go nuts.
Kobe: OK. So you’re saying this will help me win?
Kupchack: No, just the opposite. We’re going to lose and lose spectacularly. But we need you out there, kind of like a smoke screen.
Kobe: But I have to win!
Kobe is a lot of things, but stupid isn’t one of them. He knows he can’t be the force he used to be. He realized that Kupchack was right. He understands that he can still connect with the Lakers fans in a way that the future–Randle and Russell–can’t yet approach. But he’s also as pathologically competitive as Ben Mendelhson in Mississippi Grind.
He had to make a transformation. At one point in his career, Kobe was Homer Simpson on the Pin Pals. Dominant and disdainful of his competition. Supremely confident, to the point that it may have been detrimental. He was the man below:
You can’t be that guy when you’re trying to lose. Kupchak had to convince him of that. Below is a re-enactment of the rest of their conversation. Matthew Perry plays Kupchak, while Courtney Cox is Kobe. Oh, and massages are basketball.
And it’s totally true! Nobody plays bad basketball like Kobe. No other player, at age 37, would begin hoisting up a career high 7.2 three pointers per game, even as they were making a career low from three. In a vacuum, it seems insane.
Still doubt the motivation? Well back in 2007 and 2008, when Kobe was openly asking for a trade, there were rumblings that to keep him, he was promised a small ownership stake in the team upon his retirement. It couldn’t be made public because it’s technically illegal under the CBA. Some scoffed at the notion.
But then you begin to see articles like this one. The headline reads:
KOBE BRYANT WOULD BE HONOURED TO BE PART OF THE LAKERS ORGANIZATION AFTER RETIREMENT.
They’re laying the groundwork. Because, see, it’s still all about Kobe. He’s just bestowing a final gift, not just to the Lakers, or to the fans, but to himself. If he’s an owner, he’s going to want to win. He can see how talented Randle and Russell are. Hell, they’re already playing fourth quarters over him and we’re not even halfway through the season. He’s getting them reps. But he’s also got an eye to the future. If this team is bad enough to keep it’s draft pick, it’s got a shot at this guy:
If the Lakers land Ben Simmons, that would fast forward their rebuild exponentially. They’d be the envy of the league, sporting a trio of young stars that could grow together and revitalize the dormant Lakers brand. All with Kobe watching from the owners box, cackling to himself, like Homer Simpson on the phone. You see, Kobe is still being relentless in his pursuit of victory.
And if that means going full Monica Geller for a season? Well, that’s Kobe’s final gift.