Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers weren't just supposed to contend for championships—they were supposed to win them.
But you can't win titles if you don't want to win them. And the Lakers don't look like they want to win anything.
Following a disastrous loss to the Toronto Raptors, it has become clear that Hollywood's finest are less than fine. They've lost eight of their last 10, five straight on the road and are now six games under .500.
A failure of this magnitude is baffling for any championship caliber team, let alone one that boasts four perennial All-Stars and is costing ownership $130 million in payroll.
Most incomprehensible of all, though, is the fact that a majority of Los Angeles' struggles don't appear in the box score or even the advanced stat lines.
Yes, the Lakers 20th ranked defense is a problem, as is their league-worst allowance of 15.7 fast break points per game. They commit the seventh-most turnovers a night (15.3) as well, which is also cause for concern.
By no means, though, is this collective inadequacy purely systematic—it's much more than that. Allowing a surplus of points in transition and committing an excessive number of turnovers is a clear representation of this.
Turnovers come down to carelessness, a lack of ball-protection. And those points relinquished in transition are a direct result of Los Angeles' inability, or rather, refusal to exert the energy necessary to get back on defense.
Don't believe me?
I wouldn't expect you to. After looking at the Oklahoma City Thunder, though, you will.
The Thunder aren't what you would call a reserved bunch. They take risks, especially on offense, and it costs them. They're averaging 15.8 turnovers per game, second-most in the NBA. Yet they only allow 12 fast break points a game, the fourth-best mark in the league.
So let's not pretend that a bulk of the Lakers' struggles are cosmetic, or even tangible—they're intrinsic defects.
If Oklahoma City can cough up the ball more than Los Angeles, yet try and get back on defense, why can't the Lakers do the same?
They can, but they're not.
The geriatric argument only goes so far here. Los Angeles is old, I get it. But so are the New York Knicks—historically old, in fact. Still, they protect the ball; they allow just 12.1 points in transition (fifth in the league). So, I'm sorry, but age is no excuse. And neither is depth. Not when it comes down to effort.
Los Angeles can question its blueprint or its roster all it wants, but it should never have to question its commitment to win.
And Bryant (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com) should never have to question the intentions of his teammates:
"If (guarding the opposing team's offensive threat) is going to be something that I'm going to have to do for a while, I'm going to need my teammates' help to free up offensively," Bryant said. "Like we did in the fourth quarter -- create some picks for me, create some easy shots. That's going to be tough for me to guard the top guy and come down the other end and have to go one-on-one every play. So, I'm going to need some help."
Kobe shouldn't need help, because his teammates should already be helping (or at least trying to help) him. But that help, that championship resolve is nowhere to be found. Collective motivation is nonexistent.
Thus, I pose the question: Why?
Why are the Lakers, at times, listless? Why are they sagging their shoulders halfway through the game? Why aren't they motivated?
I, personally, simply cannot understand why these are even questions that must be asked. That competing for a title while your back is up against a wall isn't enough to motivate this team is disturbing.
We often accuse the Miami Heat of being disinterested during the regular season, yet at least they're butting heads and responding to inexplicable losses. The Lakers, though? They're despondent at best.
“Everybody wants to know what’s the reason, or whose fault it is , this that and the other,” Bryant said.
Bryant requested the blame fall on him.
Bryant said: “Just point the finger at me. Let me take all that, and this way we don’t have to worry about that as a team. It’s a part of my responsibility. I’ll take the arrows; we can just focus on doing what we do best, which is playing together and trying to figure out how we can get out of this ditch.”
Bryant added: “I’ve been through the most, man. I’ve been through worse times than that, so let me take all that.”
This one is on meCouldn't throw the ball in the ocean if I was sitting on a boat. Had plenty of easy looks#noexcuses gotta get my legs back— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) January 20, 2013
Bryant's willingness to exonerate his teammates of any castigation is admirable. Quite frankly, it's also unacceptable.
Perhaps he shoots too much, but at least he's trying. Maybe he needs to play better defense, but he's still trying. As a leader, perhaps he should start to point fingers, but at least he's trying to lead. As an aggregation that's more than we can say for the Lakers.
Kobe is not without flaws, and plenty of the blame should be attributed to him. That said, we see the fire in his play and hear it in his voice, especially after losses. He's committed to winning, and I'd like to believe his teammates are as well.
I'd also like to believe his teammates are willing to back up said devotion with drive, effort and a fervent ardor—but they haven't.
Do the Lakers lack the killer instinct that is synonymous with champions?
This team isn't going to start winning, it isn't going to become better defensively and more efficient offensively without believing it can. Nothing is going to change unless they will it to change. That we even need to acknowledge this is is absurd.
These are the Lakers we're talking about. They're allergic to losing, impervious to implosion. Or rather, they're supposed to be.
I recall Miami's Dwyane Wade suggesting (via Joseph A. Goodman of The Miami Herald) some who become Lakers don't understand the importance of winning:
I know [Kobe Bryant] understands it. That’s the nature of the beast out in L.A. I don’t know if every player that comes through there understands what you’re getting yourself into when you walk through those Lakers doors.
Less than halfway through their seasons, it's transparently clear Wade's sentiments hold true. These Lakers don't "understand" how to win or even what's expected of them.
And now we're left to wonder if they even care.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 20, 2013.