Kobe Bryant holds no punches when making his displeasure public. Current and former teammates are all fair game for the venomous words of the Black Mamba.
Bryant's not the first great player to hold locker room meetings through the media. In fact, Bryant's predecessor, Michael Jordan, made a habit of it.
But Jordan never used his criticisms for anything other than motivation for his teammates (or building his own legacy). Lately, it seems that Bryant's string of negative comments are meant more to deflect blame away from himself.
His recent barrage included some particularly choice words for teammate Pau Gasol (according to Joe McDonnell of FoxSportsWest.com). While Gasol's play has warranted criticism (12.6 points on 11.8 field-goal attempts per game), these comments (which followed the team's disheartening 113-103 home loss to the Orlando Magic) appeared brought on by yet another defensive collapse from Bryant.
His offensive production (27.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists) will warrant his inclusion in the MVP discussion. But the superior two-way play of players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant will keep Bryant a one-time award winner.
On November 13, Bryant's Lakers appeared on the brink of shocking the 7-1 San Antonio Spurs at the Staples Center. Los Angeles (then just 3-5) held an 82-81 advantage with less than 20 seconds left in the game.
Bryant cheated toward the paint, assuming San Antonio would opt for proven offensive performers Tony Parker or Tim Duncan.
But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich opted for the sweet-shooting Danny Green, Bryant's man. With Kobe caught napping, Green slipped around a Duncan screen and the trailing Bryant couldn't disrupt his shot. Green's three-pointer gave the Spurs an 84-82 win.
Fast forward to December 2. The Lakers welcomed the Orlando Magic to the Staples Center in Dwight Howard's first game against his former team.
The story quickly became about Arron Afflalo. The Lakers defender assigned to harass Afflalo? None other than Kobe Bryant.
Afflalo torched the Lakers for 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting, and his seven fourth quarter points helped Orlando turn a four-point fourth quarter deficit into a 10-point Magic victory.
The 34-year-old Bryant has the defensive chops to find occasional stops when his team needs them. But he doesn't have the legs to continually focus on defense, particularly when considering his offensive usage (a team-high 31.2 usage rate).
He may well find his way onto another All-Defensive team (he managed a third-team selection in 2011-12), but his inclusion would be based largely on reputation, not on-court production. Like the voting for Pro Bowl offensive linemen in the NFL, the easiest path to an All-Defensive team is having a prior selection (or selections) on your resume.
Bryant has adopted the role of roamer on the Lakers' defense of late, often drawing the weakest wing opponent so he can save his energy for the offensive end. His defensive impact has largely been relegated to chasing down loose balls or clogging the passing lanes.
So there are reasons behind his defensive regression. For a player so used to finding and sustaining success in the NBA, perhaps these struggles have begun to wear on Bryant.
And if they have, his teammates should prepare to bear the effects of these struggles.
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