For all of his gifts, Kobe Bryant can certainly complicate relationships with people in his workplace. As a result, Bryant’s less-than-accommodating personality likely makes replacing former head coach Mike D’Antoni a difficult task.
The Los Angeles Lakers have seen the at-times destructive nature of his attitude throughout his career, be it with coaches or players.
For instance, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson wrote a book titled The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul in which he recapped the 2003-04 campaign and offered stinging remarks about Bryant to management (via The Associated Press): “I won’t coach this team next year if he is still here. He won’t listen to anyone. I’ve had it with this kid.”
He and L.A. parted ways in the 2004 offseason , but Jackson reunited with Bryant after spending a season away from the sport. The pair developed a healthy working relationship, which allowed Bryant to reach impressive statistical milestones.
However, those years took a toll on him. After three years without coming close to title contention, Bryant publicly demanded a trade from the Lakers. Luckily for L.A., the team brought him back into the fold and then began competing again for championships by acquiring Pau Gasol via trade.
The Lakers won two titles after Jackson and Bryant got reacquainted.
Interestingly enough, whenever Bryant has been unsuccessful in getting what he wants, he’s had some form of tantrum.
That behavior is what prompted him to challenge Lakers management to upgrade the roster despite the fact he only appeared in six games this season due to a torn Achilles and fractured knee.
Any prospective head coach would be joining the Lakers knowing full well that this is the reality he must accept. Placating Bryant is a must, otherwise he might act out and get his coach fired.
One could argue that because the events occurred over the span of roughly a decade, perhaps Bryant has changed. Don’t believe it. D’Antoni’s decision to walk away from the Lakers confirmed such is not the case.
Mike D’Antoni: The Rule, Not the Exception
D’Antoni resigned from the Lakers in late April and highlighted a painful truth: There’s Phil Jackson, and then there’s everybody else in the Kobe era.
Since Bryant first took the floor in 1996-97, no head coach other than Jackson has remained employed for three full consecutive seasons. Fair or not, this leaves the impression that Jackson is the only man equipped to lead Bryant.
Given that Bryant reportedly had no interest in playing for D’Antoni next season, per the Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, it only reinforces that notion.
Interestingly enough, when pressed on the fact Jackson was passed over for D’Antoni by the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan in mid-March, Bryant wasn’t quite supportive of D’Antoni: “I didn’t really understand it much either. What we can do as players is just trust the organization.”
Way to help out there, big guy.
Success with Bryant for non-Jackson coaches is like trying to hold water in one’s hands; there might be a few small successes, but it will ultimately be a losing proposition.
One leader, other than Jackson, has escaped Bryant’s wrath, and that’s mostly a product of his reputation and accomplishments alongside Kobe. Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski helped Bryant secure two gold medals in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics with Team USA.
It’s fair to wonder how Bryant would have reacted had the gold eluded him on Krzyzewski’s watch. Perhaps Bryant would have acted out and demanded that USA basketball reform its program by finding a new coach.
Bryant possesses an intense competitive spirit that forces him to seek the sharpest minds in the sport. He had a great relationship with former Jackson assistant coach Tex Winter precisely because Winter challenged him and helped the Lakers win titles.
A stroke forced him to abandon some duties in 2009, and it’s possible that Bryant is longing for that type of wisdom after watching two coaches fail since Jackson and Winter left in the summer of 2011.
That help might not be on its way, though. General manager Mitch Kupchak has repeatedly preached patience and has made it clear that championship contention is possibly still a few years away.
More importantly, he made it clear to USA Today’s Sam Amick in April that Bryant should learn to live with this reality: “He’ll be fine. He’s got no choice. He’ll be fine. When we lose, he’ll rant and rave and be upset and be hot and won’t talk to anybody, but that’s the way it is. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
That last statement indicates that Kupchak is all too familiar with Bryant’s tantrums and that he foresees them becoming fairly more frequent during the Purple and Gold’s rebuild.
That might make it more difficult to retain a coach going forward. Bryant is probably cognizant of this, and as a result, he wants his fingerprints all over a possible coach signing.
On ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live in early May, Bryant talked about the fact that he wasn’t consulted in the hiring of former Lakers coaches D'Antoni or predecessor Mike Brown and how he’d like for things to unfold going forward (via ESPN Los Angeles): “On the last two they didn’t. On the third one, I’m hoping they do.”
Bryant’s personality, coupled with his willingness to participate in the hiring process, poses a challenge for the Lakers. Should they look for a long-term solution or merely someone to pacify Bryant?
What It All Means
The Lakers revolve around Bryant, but it would appear they understand that the days of chasing titles with him are over.
Bryant’s contract is set to expire at the conclusion of the 2016-17 campaign, at which point it’s entirely possible Bryant will retire. It’s not by accident that Kupchak is looking to potentially retool in two years; that’s when Kobe will likely ride into the sunset and give L.A. a completely clean cap sheet, per Sham Sports.
The Lakers will draft players and even sign a few athletes to short deals between now and then, but it looks like they will try to reload when Bryant’s contract expires.
Fun fact: Bryant seems quite aware of it.
In late March, Bryant hinted at it all with ESPN’s Darren Rovell:
This organization is just not going to go [down]. It’s not going to take a nose dive. But I think we need to accelerate it a little bit for selfish reasons, because I want to win and I want to win next season. So, it’s kind of getting them going now as opposed to two years from now.
If the Lakers are interested in satisfying Bryant, they should allow him to voice his list of candidates and see whether any of them intersect with the franchise’s needs. On the other hand, L.A. doesn’t seem interested in quenching whatever thirst Bryant has.
According to ESPN.com, the Lakers are interested in signing Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari and Connecticut Huskies headman Kevin Ollie. Both were adversaries in the NCAA championship game, where UConn was victorious.
Considering that college coaches struggle in the professional ranks, one could portray a Lakers signing of Ollie or Calipari as an act of defiance toward Bryant. Then again, it might be the smart move.
An experienced and high-priced coach might not be interested in taking a Lakers job that requires daily dealings with Bryant and the cast of subpar Lakers characters under contract.
Instead, a college coach might welcome the challenge regardless of the fact that there is very little job security with the Lakers. Granted, Calipari coached in the NBA for three seasons with the New Jersey Nets from 1996-97 to 1998-99.
That might mean that jumping to the big leagues isn’t an attractive proposal for him considering the Bryant equation.
Thibodeau-led teams have consistently overachieved despite the repeated absences of Derrick Rose due to knee injuries. That will surely interest Kupchak given that Bryant basically missed the 2013-14 campaign and could be sidelined with a few minor injuries next season due to an aging and perhaps broken-down body.
Bryant will be 36 years old by the time next season tips off, and that’s not quite a selling point. Add the fact that he might run the coach out of town, and it seems clear that Bryant cramps the Lakers’ style.
Bryant will make the coaching search this offseason difficult. His stubbornness and lack of patience will get in L.A.’s way as it pertains to picking its next headman.
Consequently, the Purple and Gold are better off signing their next coach to a short-term deal at a modest salary (three years, $3 million per season with a team option for the third year).
That will make it easy for the Lakers to jettison him in the event the coach’s relationship goes sour with Bryant. From there, they could promote an assistant if need be and then retool in the summer of 2017, presumably when Bryant retires.
It won’t be easy, but it might just be the best plan in place because of Bryant.