For those who believe that Kobe Bryant doesn't know best, the Black Mamba has five championship rings proving otherwise.
Suddenly, though, those five rings seem almost meaningless. With the state of the Los Angeles Lakers being what it is—horrifying—all that matters is Bryant's team is on pace to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Far from lost in the Lakers' turbulent performance is Kobe himself, how he feels and how he is coping amidst these troubling times.
Not unlike the rest of the Lakers, Bryant is hardly exempt from being implicated in his team's struggles. His once-career-best field-goal percentage has plummeted to 46.4 percent, his defense has been spotty, and the ball doesn't always move as crisply (or at all) when it goes through him.
Unlike his teammates (and coach), however, Kobe hasn't attempted to avert said blame. He's embraced it and has openly acknowledged he'll shoulder everyone else's as well. He doesn't care; he just wants to win.
But win the Lakers haven't. They're seven games under .500 (17-24) and are now four games outside of the Western Conference playoff picture.
As we could imagine, Kobe is frustrated. This is not how this season was supposed to go. Los Angeles was preordained a championship favorite, yet instead, it's toiling in infamy.
And as the rest of his teammates continue to point fingers and his coach remains flabbergasted by any and all open-ended questions, Bryant makes no excuses.
"Obviously, this isn't working," Kobe told Adrian Wojnarowski in an interview with Yahoo! Sports.
The Mamba's right: it isn't working. If it were, Dwight Howard wouldn't be moaning about his offensive touches and Pau Gasol wouldn't be indirectly threatening to demand a trade from a team that would probably love to do just that.
To that end, Kobe doesn't accept excuses either.
He scoffed at the Gasol-invoked dilemma, and when pressed about Howard's disposition, he refused to completely validate it (from Wojnarowski):
I've tried to go out of my way to get him the ball. Sometimes I end up looking like an idiot, because I get up in the air, I've got a shot, but I try to find him. But he thinks I'm going to shoot, so his back is turned. I'm trying to think about getting him the ball a lot—take care of him as much as I possibly can. It takes me out of rhythm a little bit, but I'm fine with that. If that's going to help our team, I'm more than willing to do that.
More than understandably, Howard was infuriated after receiving just five shots in the Lakers' loss to the Chicago Bulls. Over the past two games, he's taken just eight total, and he's attempted more than 10 in a game just three times in 2013. Who wouldn't be resentful?
Yet while Bryant continues to offer his unconditional support to Howard, he refuses to admit he's neglected him on or off the court (from Wojnarowski):
I've constantly tried to help him out, tried to talk to him. Two o'clock in the morning, three o'clock in the morning. Texting him. Sharing reading materials. Anything to try and help him.
He's coming off a major surgery in a market where it's just merciless; where there's demands and responsibilities of athletes. It's been tough on him.
Truth be told, Howard's struggles have been tough on everyone.
Without him scoring his usual 20 points per game, the offensive burden on Bryant's shoulders becomes even more weighty. After all, he's attempting to combat the off-putting production of Gasol already, and now he's being tasked with doing enough to overshadow the offensive shortcomings of a big man who can't hit his free throws.
And it's tough on Steve Nash, whose pick-and-roll sets are impeded now by two big men who are no longer formidable scoring threats.
Howard should consider himself lucky that Kobe has his surgically repaired back. At a time when the notoriously surly Bryant could be pointing a finger of his own, not only is he shouldering the bulk of the blame, but he remains openly supportive.
As he addressed Howard and the rest of the team's struggles, Kobe advocated (borderline pleaded for) systematic change for the sake of his no-longer-smirking friend and rest of his brethren (via Yahoo!):
We need to go back to basics. We need to put guys in positions to do what they do best. We need to strip it down. Steve is best in pick-and-roll. Pau is best in the post. I'm best from the free-throw line extended down. Let's go back to basics.
We've got to evaluate what's going on. Management is looking at it. The players are looking at it. I'm looking at myself. I'm shooting a low percentage right now, and I've got to look at that. It's on me to make shots, but I'm having to make tough shots, getting the ball 30 feet from the basket and [expletive] like that.
To some, that may read like an attempt to vindicate Los Angeles, to pardon Bryant himself from being held accountable for their collective failures. But that's not what this is.
"Listen, no one is more critical of their game, of how they're playing, than I am," Bryant said. "And right now, I've got to shoot at a higher percentage, have to play better. "
Kobe understands that the Lakers need to play with more heart, that he needs to "play better." He accepts that the decay of this prominent franchise is on his teammates, on him.
But he also understands that an ineffective blueprint isn't suddenly going to become cogent. Ignoring the strengths of this group's core isn't going win anything, let alone a championship.
Is that on Mike D'Antoni? Nash? Howard? Gasol? Bryant himself?
It's on everyone.
D'Antoni has to put his players—Gasol and Howard included—in a position to succeed. Nash needs to keep the ball out of Bryant's hands when he sees fit. Howard and Gasol have to become the aggressors on offense.
And Kobe needs to shoot less, to shoot better, to be the one that not only demands perfection from his comrades, but perpetuates it.
What he doesn't need is a reality check. There are no illusions to be found behind behind the Lakers' demise, and Bryant offers none.
Instead, he offers a neck to hang, hands to cuff and two shoulders on which the aggregate dissolution of this faction can be placed.
"On me," Bryant said on who is at fault in Hollywood. "I've got to find a way to make shots."
And the Lakers need to find a way to win—which they won't.
Not unless everyone involved is willing to help bear the onus Kobe is attempting to schlep on his own.
*Stats in this article are accurate as of January 21, 2013.
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