Pleasing Kobe Bryant isn't easy.
Somehow, the Los Angeles Lakers have managed to keep him happy—or relatively happy—for nearly two decades. That could change now.
Like, right now.
Lady Luck wasn't on Los Angeles' side at the 2014 NBA draft lottery. Instead of catapulting into the top three, like many hoped they would, the Lakers dropped down a rung on the ladder, nabbing the seventh slot overall. That's just how the ping pong balls bounce sometimes.
Moving up the draft board was always unlikely. The numbers were against the Lakers. Jumping ahead three or more spots would have been nothing short of a lottery miracle.
Yet it wasn't so much the math as it was the hope itself. Pining for that top-three pick, that first overall selection, bought them time, keeping Bryant at bay (for the most part).
Though he undoubtedly wanted to hear their plan, they were under no obligation to offer one. They couldn't map out their course without a starting point. The lottery was that starting point. Their draft position is that starting point.
Where the Lakers go from here is the product of this pick, and they can only hope Bryant is prepared to make the most of the cards they're holding.
There was pressure on the Lakers to move up in this draft. Ignoring that would be absurd.
Bryant has come to expect nothing but the best from this team, and you can't really blame him. He has five championship rings that suggest the Lakers will find ways to win. He has numerous memories of them doing everything and anything in their power to cajole his ego. That two-year, $48.5 million extension he was handed will forever be evidence of their unwavering loyalty.
Put another way, what Bryant wants, the Lakers typically get.
And he wants another ring.
"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," he told ESPN's Darren Rovell during a "Sunday Conversation" segment for SportsCenter (via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin.) "So, it's kind of getting them going now as opposed to two years from now."
Of course Bryant doesn't want to wait around. Pushing 36, the end is in sight.
If at any point he actually thought he could play well into his 40s, Bryant was gifted a reminder that no one escapes time this past season. He appeared in just six games, and there is no evidence that decidedly proves he'll return to form by 2014-15.
The time for Bryant to win is now. These next two years are likely all he has, and he wants to make the most of them at all costs. The Lakers ran the risk of angering him even if they won the lottery, even if they drafted Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Said risk is only greater now that their draft position doesn't reflect the best-case scenario, which is all Bryant ever wants.
All hope is not lost. Bryant won't necessarily be sporting an unremitting scowl, snarling any time he's asked about the Lakers' playoff chances and their future next season.
Without a doubt, the monster in him will want the Lakers to flip their draft pick for a star. That would hold true if they had fallen inside the top three. He would prefer Kevin Love to Wiggins, Parker or Joel Embiid. Love could help him get what he wants quicker than some rookie, any rookie.
But the reasonable side of him understands Love is not on the way. Not this summer. Landing a legitimate luminary for a first-round pick—no matter where it was placed—and nothing else was never a real possibility.
On some level, Bryant has known the Lakers would keep their pick. Fortunately for them, he has also shown a willingness to play mentor:
@DonPEscobar both have great potential. Id mentor either one— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) March 27, 2014
Neither Wiggins nor Parker is en route to Los Angeles. But Marcus Smart could be. So could Julius Randle. Or Aaron Gordon.
Possibilities extend well beyond the top-three slots. This is a deep draft with plenty of talent. Picking seventh still gives the Lakers an opportunity to add someone that is worth Bryant's patience and—more importantly—his instruction.
Writing for Forum Blue & Gold, Darius Soriano described the Lakers' draft situation thusly:
With Kobe and Nash the Lakers have name recognition and with Robert Sacre (and, if his contract option is picked up, Kendall Marshall) they have a young player who will work hard and fight for a rotation spot. But beyond those players, they are a blank slate. They need talent and especially young, athletic talent. The players likely to be available when the Lakers pick should be both young and talented. If they are also smart, hard working, and willing to take in some of what Kobe and Nash (and other veterans the team is likely to sign) have to offer in terms of experience and how to be a professional in this league, they can grow into the type of player we will all be proud to root for.
Time will tell what happens with this pick, but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t excited. The Lakers need good players and whoever they draft has an opportunity to be one.
Throughout his career, Bryant has been at odds with players set in their ways, who weren't up to his ridiculous standards. Think of what a formidable blank slate could mean for him. This is his opportunity to impart his ferocious wisdom on a young, impressionable mind.
Whomever the Lakers draft can be his project.
As much as Bryant likes to win, he also enjoys having his ego stroked. This is his chance to teach someone how to win, without it coming off as insulting, ludicrous or naive.
It's All in the Delivery
Quite obviously, Bryant isn't stupid.
The Black Mamba's satisfaction is predicated on more than the Lakers' draft position. They have cap space. Lots of cap space. More than $20 million of spending power. He'll want them to bring in established sidekicks. He'll want them to bring back Pau Gasol. This is all going to factor in.
But the Lakers are also at the mercy of fate this offseason.
On numerous occasions, general manager Mitch Kupchak has suggested the team will wait until 2015 to attack free agency, like it's the Lakers' choice. To an extent, it is. They can head into July, flaunting blank checks and a history of winning. They can be aggressive.
Chasing free agents doesn't mean they're going to land a star, though. More likely than not, no matter how hard they try, there won't be a star to sign.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade aren't going anywhere. If any one of them decides to leave the Miami Heat, then the Lakers can feel free to get involved. Yet they won't. James isn't going to spurn Miami because the Cleveland Cavaliers were awarded their third No. 1 pick in four years. The Big Three aren't going to disband when they have a chance to contend for their fourth straight NBA title, or their third in five years.
After them, there's Carmelo Anthony. Bryant can recruit him if he wants, but it won't work. Anthony wants to win. One of the last things he'll consider is attaching his fragile legacy to a soon-to-be 36-year-old Bryant.
Same goes for Gasol. Sort of. He wants to play for a contender. The Lakers won't have to slight him. In all likelihood, he'll slight them.
And after Gasol, there's....well...um....you see, there's...
Not even Bryant will want the Lakers to overpay the likes of Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Lowry or some other mid-tier free agent. He's not daft. He knows they won't bring him a title.
The Lakers can play to that. In more ways than one, they've been buttering him up for this.
"The short answer is that yes, I'm hoping to be very competitive in a year or two," Kupchak told USA Today's Sam Amick in April, "but the key really is over time."
Taken the wrong way, Kupchak has been anti-Bryant. Talking about the future? About waiting? Bryant doesn't want to hear such nonsense.
Although he should.
If it's one thing we know about Bryant, it's that he rejects reality as it pertains to him. He is above the rule, the standard. He is his own exception. He'll think he can win no matter what.
Should the Lakers cater to his ego enough, he won't see inaction or moderate movement as signs of weakness. Looping him in on certain decisions—like modest free-agent signings—gives the impression that they simply believe he can still win, that he can still lead the Lakers to prominence no matter what.
Will the Lakers have a Kobe Bryant problem this season?
First pick, seventh pick, 57th pick—it wouldn't matter. The Lakers' draft selection will have no ill-bearing on his psyche. This is Bryant for crying out loud.
"I meet with him," Kupchak divulged to Amick. "(It's) not on a regular basis, but in the last two or three months we have met several times, and he gets it."
More importantly, the Lakers get him.
Pleasing him isn't easy. Never has been, never will be. But the Lakers still have enough to sell him, to promise him. Beyond the No. 7 pick, there's 2015 free agency and the pursuit of Love, Rajon Rondo and even James.
Most notably, there's Bryant himself, the warring superstar with a soft spot for doing what the Lakers will be asking him to now: flatten odds, topple expectations and prove everybody wrong.
*Salary information via ShamSports.