Kobe Bryant Must Take Some Blame in Los Angeles Lakers' Giant Mess

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

USA Today

Facing a bleak end to his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant is lashing out when he should probably be looking in.

You can't blame the yawning sinkhole that swallowed up the Lakers' 2013-14 season on Bryant alone; it's much too big for that. Jim and Jeanie Buss, Mitch Kupchak and Mike D'Antoni also deserve their own portions of fault, and Bryant is doling them out.

Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Kobe reacted to the New York Knicks' agreement with Phil Jackson by not so subtly attacking his organization's brain trust:

I think we have to start at the top in terms of the culture of our team. What type of culture do you want to have? What type of system do you want to have? How do you want to play? It starts there. You've got to start with Jim. You've got to start with Jim and Jeanie and how that relationship plays out. It starts there and having a clear direction and clear authority. 

Bryant continued: "Then it goes down to the coaching staff. What's Mike going to do? What do you want to do with Mike? It goes from there. It's got to start from the top.”

This is an immensely ironic stance as Bryant, the man Magic Johnson—Laker legend and persistent opinion-offerer—claims is the face of the team, is adopting a leadership stance based on...well, questioning leadership.

And Magic's not wrong, by the way. Kobe is the Lakers' face. Right now, that face is locked in a perpetual scowl.

Bryant has always been impatient, defiant and possessed of an inflated sense of his own greatness. There's nothing unique about that in professional sports, but Bryant sits near the extreme Michael Jordan end of the maniacal confidence spectrum. Those traits have served him well during a phenomenal NBA career that has featured five championship rings, the No. 4 spot on the league's all-time scoring list and a surefire, no-questions-asked first-ballot trip to the Hall of Fame.

But the landscape in L.A. has changed over the past couple of years, and Bryant hasn't evolved to fit it.

Now, those qualities—the impatience, defiance and anger—are killing the Lakers.

The Contract

Most looking to heap blame on Bryant start with the two-year, $48.5 million contract extension he signed after tearing his Achilles tendon and before he proved he was fit enough to get back on the floor.

In a vacuum, the deal was insane. Age, injury and ridiculous mileage on a 35-year-old body all but assured the Lakers would never get their money's worth. But the extension didn't happen in a vacuum. This was Kobe Bryant, a man more valuable to the Lakers' prized image and mystique than anyone else. 

That $48.5 million was, to some, a reward for years of service. To others, it was a premium paid to ensure Bryant would never wear another team's jersey. A few even viewed it as a symbol of faith in his superhuman ability to return from a catastrophic injury at an age where comebacks were basically unprecedented.

In the end, Kobe's extension has turned out to be an epic mistake.

It's worth mentioning here that, as far as we know, Bryant didn't take a hard stance in negotiations. The Lakers slid a piece of paper with a pair of annual salaries totaling $23.5 and $25 million across the table and he signed it.

In some ways, that might look like a way for Kobe to escape the blame game. After all, it was the front office that dictated the franchise-crippling terms of the deal.

Really, though, that's a silly way to look at things.

Kobe's hands were hardly tied. He knew about the free-agency situation coming this summer and in 2015 when he picked up the pen. He could have proactively taken less money in order to give his team a chance to surround him with better talent.

We've seen that happen with contemporaries like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. The practice is not without precedent.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

But Bryant didn't take less. He didn't look down the road and see reality coming. As a result, now he's sitting out the rest of the season while the Lakers take up residence in the Western Conference cellar. Even worse, his contract prohibits L.A. from engineering a quick turnaround.

Per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:

Bryant’s $25-million salary for the 2015-16 season, when he will be 37, ensures that the Lakers will be able to add only one top-tier free agent, preventing the formation of their next Big Three and decreasing the likelihood of Bryant winning a sixth championship ring.

The deal looked bad before Bryant broke his kneecap after just six games this year. Now that he'll head into an age-36 season with uncertain health, little help on the way and a mountain of impatience, it looks disastrous.

Shades of Gray

As is often the case when we get into the discussion of Athlete X failing to take less money for the good of the team, city, universe, etc., the issue of Bryant signing a super-sized extension doesn't automatically make him a bad guy.

The issue isn't so black and white.

The truth is, Bryant is entitled to whatever the Lakers are willing to pay him. There's no other walk of life where we'd fault somebody for maximizing his earning potential—especially in a line of work like NBA basketball where players' careers end in their 30s.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

What we can fault Bryant for, though, is signing a huge extension and then complaining about what his acceptance of those terms has done to the franchise.

In other words, he can't take all that money and then grouse about what will likely be another lost year in 2014-15. Kobe told Mike Bresnahan:

Oh, yeah, let's just play next year and let's just suck again. No. Absolutely not. It's my job to go out there on the court and perform, no excuses for it. Right? You've got to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, it's the same expectations I have for them up there.

Bryant wants it both ways. He wants his money and he wants to win. Maybe those things weren't mutually exclusive in the past, but they are now.

The Blind Mamba

Jan 24, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) against the Orlando Magic during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sportsw
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Signing that big extension made Bryant part of the problem, but, as I said, it's overly simplistic to blame him for taking money that was offered to him. It's actually more reasonable to blame him for being part of the problem without realizing it.

By putting the onus back on the front office, he's missing the point, passing the buck and lying to himself.

Kobe is right to question his team's decision-makers. After all, they're the ones who foolishly offered a 35-year-old veteran a massive deal despite a recently torn Achilles tendon and a worrisome track record of alienating accompanying stars.

Bryant has never had to face facts in his NBA career, so it's no great wonder he can't grasp the truth of his predicament now. Up to this point, his otherworldly talent and drive have allowed him to bend reality to his will. 

He can't do that anymore. So now he's bending it in a different, more delusional way: by blaming everyone responsible for the Lakers' downfall. Well, everyone but himself.


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