5 Reasons Why Kobe Bryant Is to Blame for the Lakers' Postseason Failure
With the Los Angeles Lakers (probably) on the verge of their second consecutive second-round ouster, another offseason of uncertainty looms.
It stands to reason that Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol (or both) will be shipped out the door to bring new life to a squad that's spent much of this postseason seemingly on cruise control. It has also been theorized (by Magic Johnson of all people) that coach Mike Brown could be a one-and-done candidate. (Hey, I hear a certain 11-time NBA champion coach "has the itch" again.)
And then there's Dwight.
But before we get to the offseason, there needs to be a fresh round of blame to be passed out for this season's failure. For me, the blame always starts at the top and works its way down to the bottom. So let's get this blamefest started with the reasons Bryant is to blame for the Lakers' impending ouster.
Because He's the Face of the Franchise
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When the economy falters, we blame the president. When the girl you've had a crush on all semester ignores your advances for the 6'4" shooting guard with Bradley Cooper's jawline and Michael Fassbender's boy parts, we blame our parents for giving us our incredibly average genes.
And when the Lakers fail, we blame Kobe Bryant. We just do. It's the way life works.
In this case (and in the other cases as well), Bryant is a victim of his own greatness. You don't get to take on all of the blame without first giving us a reason to have hope.
Kobe Bryant's game-tying/winning shots go in. Kobe Bryant's teams don't get eliminated in the second round of the playoffs two years in a row. Kobe Bryant's demanding nature brings out the best in his teammates.
Is it totally fair to blame Bryant for his team's impending ouster? No. Oklahoma City is the better team and deserves to move on. But it's the burden Bryant took on when he decided to, you know, be one of the six best players in the history of basketball.
Because He Doesn't Care If We Criticize Him, Even Though He Does
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“I don’t give a [expletive] what you say,” Bryant told Yahoo! Sports late Friday. “If I go out there and miss game winners, and people say, 'Kobe choked, or Kobe is seven for whatever in pressure situations.' Well, [expletive] you.
“Because I don’t play for your [expletive] approval. I play for my own love and enjoyment of the game. And to win. That’s what I play for. Most of the time, when guys feel the pressure, they’re worried about what people might say about them. I don’t have that fear, and it enables me to forget bad plays and to take shots and play my game."--Kobe Bryant to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski after Friday's Game 3 victory
As Wojnarowski noted in his column, it's been obvious since Lower Marion that Bryant cares about and hears all of the criticism fired his way. But I'll be damned if Bryant's defiance and refusal to show weakness doesn't make him all the more compelling.
Side note: Am I the only one who thinks "I don't play for your [expletive] approval" could be the next "You wasn't with me shootin' in the gym"?
His Relationship with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum
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“I talked with Pau a little bit after the game and I’ll speak with Andrew as well. It’s one of those things where psychologically you have to put yourself in a predicament, in a position, where you have no other option but to perform. You have to emotionally put your back to the wall and kind of trick yourself, so to speak, to feel that there’s no other option but to perform and to battle, when you have that, when you have that mindset, your performance shines through, your talent shines through. It doesn’t matter what the defense does. It doesn’t matter because you’re emotionally at a level that is above that. That is the mindset that they have to put themselves in.” -- Kobe Bryant on May 10 after the Lakers 113-96 loss to the Denver Nuggets.
“Pau has got to be more assertive,” Bryant said of the seven-foot [2.13 metres] tall Spaniard who finished with only 10 points and five rebounds while committing three turnovers. “He’s the guy they’re leaving [open]. When he’s catching the ball, he’s looking to pass. He’s got to be aggressive. He’s got to shoot the ball or drive the ball to the basket. He will next game.” -- Kobe Bryant on Saturday night after the Lakers 103-100 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This isn't a question of whether or not Bryant is wrong in his criticism of Bynum and Gasol (he's not). This is a question of how many times you can publicly criticize a grown man before he comes to resent you. Granted, Bryant doesn't outright rip Gasol or Bynum. 2006 Kobe would have pulled out a 9mm and pistol-whipped his big men. 2012 Bryant has moved to a gentler approach, but the sting still has to feel the same.
As I noted last week, Gasol's playoff regression has become a disturbing trend. Having to answer the "Did you hear what Kobe said about you?" question while dealing with your second consecutive year of coming up small in the playoffs cannot do anything good for Gasol's reported unhappiness in Los Angeles.
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The problem isn't that Bryant went 2-for-10 in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's loss. Bad games happen. The problem is that by my count seven of Bryant's 10 shots were heavily contested or rushed shots.
This isn't a new phenomenon. As Bryant's once-legendary explosiveness has eroded over time, his game has evolved into a series of deception-based jump shots. And this season, perhaps feeling pressure over the lack of supporting cast, Bryant took plenty of those jump shots we all love.
Just for fun, let's compare Kobe's 2012 season to the oft-derided Allen Iverson's career numbers:
Is it just me, or is Kobe wrapping up the most Iversonian year of his career?
And the numbers haven't improved in the playoffs, either. Through the first four games against the Thunder, Bryant has shot 38.5 percent from the field while hoisting 24 shots per game.
If you want to give Bryant a bit of a break and say the condensed schedule this season invariably affected his numbers, go ahead. Personally, I don't think it matters to Kobe Bryant whether there was 82, 66, or 26 games on the schedule.
You could even simply say it's an appropriate regression for a player of Bryant's age and mileage. Valid point. But shouldn't a player of Bryant's stature recognize his slight decline and rely heavily on a blossoming Andrew Bynum and a still-in-the-tail-end-of-his-prime Pau Gasol? Or did Bryant's pursuit of gaudy numbers override his desire to win?
Hmm...sounds a bit Iversonian to me.
For me, this is the biggest "blame" you can put on Bryant, though even this isn't his fault. This season Bryant is the NBA's highest paid player, making $25.24 million. The NBA's salary cap for the 2011-12 season was $58 million, making Kobe accountable for 43.5 percent of the Lakers salary cap. If you add Gasol (the NBA's seventh highest paid player) and Bynum (21st highest), the Lakers are already a little more than $1 million over the "soft" salary cap.
The Lakers' Big Three essentially forbid the team from adding any assets outside of using their mid-level exception. That would be fine if the Big Three outperform their contracts, which happens way more often than you would expect in the NBA.
Unfortunately it hasn't been that type of season for Bryant.
Using Forbes' data that says NBA teams $1.7 million per win on average and John Hollinger's estimated wins added statistic, Bryant (12.7 EWA) was overpaid by $3.65 million this season.
In contrast, NBA MVP LeBron James was underpaid by $23.93 million.
But forget whether Bryant is overpaid, underpaid or properly paid. His salary—along with the NBA's impending harsh luxury tax penalties—definitely influenced Mitch Kupchak's decision to allow guard Shannon Brown walk away and sign with the Phoenix Suns and to trade 2011's Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks for a bag of peanuts.
Would anyone with a reasonable bone in their body expect Bryant to give away his money or sign a lesser contract so that the Lakers could retain role players? No. Get that paper, boo boo. But to say Bryant's exorbitant salary isn't detrimental to the team's retention of good players is wrong.