Current Lakers Don't Have Any Kobe in Them, for Better or Worse

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IDecember 18, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 24:  Kobe Bryant and Luke Walton shake hands during the Los Angeles Lakers unveiling of the Shaquille O'Neal statue on March 24, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

NEW YORK — It's been 613 days since Kobe Bryant tucked his No. 24 Lakers jersey into his waistband and went out in an unfathomable blaze of glory with 60 points in the 1,566th and final game of his Hall of Fame career (playoffs included).

He hasn't attended a Lakers game since, though he will do so Monday night. And once again, as it was for two decades, he will be the center of attention at Staples Center.

Not one, but two jerseys will be raised to the rafters that nightBryant's iconic No. 24 and his original No. 8. It's fitting, somehow, that Bryant becomes the first player in NBA history to have two numbers retired by the same team.

"It's appropriate, because it was kind of a tale of two different guys," Lakers assistant Brian Shaw told Bleacher Report.

Just as Bryant had the equivalent of two different careers in those jerseys, the Lakers are undergoing a metamorphosis of their own. The book on the Kobe years has been written: five championships and plenty of pomp, circumstance and drama. One full season and 27 games into the post-Kobe era, there's at once a connection to the past but also a necessity to move on.

"You always have to honor the past and respect the past," Lakers coach Luke Walton told B/R. "But we try not to focus on it too much. We try not to talk about it too much, because it's important for guys to realize that it's their time now. The success that we have as the Lakers is going to be about how this group performs now."

Walton played with Bryant and was part of the back-to-back title teams in 2009-10. Shaw won three championships in the early 2000s during the Kobe-Shaquille O'Neal era. Assistant Mark Madsen was a member of the 2001 and '02 championship teams and also served as an assistant under Byron Scott during Bryant's final two loss-filled seasons.

But the Kobe connections are sparse after that. Only three current LakersJulius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.were with the team for Bryant's final season in 2015-16.

"The last year, I'm sure was kind of a nightmare for them because it was all about his farewell tour," Shaw told B/R. "That had to be tough on them. But I hope they were soaking up everything during that time that they got to play with him and carry his work ethic and determination and preparation with them."

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers addresses the crowd after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game at Staples Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 101-96. NOTE TO USER
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As the Lakers wrapped up practice at Baruch College in Manhattan last Monday before taking on the Knicks the following night, there was a relaxed, almost lighthearted mood surrounding the proceedings. Incongruously, "The Imperial March" from Star Wars blared from Bluetooth speakers while Shaw, rookie Lonzo Ball and a couple of other coaches and players engaged in a three-point shooting contest.

Darth Vader's theme song would've seemed far more appropriate if the Black Mamba himself had still been in the room.

"It's looser now," Clarkson told B/R. "This is a young team. With KB, it was real serious. We're still serious about everything, but it's definitely a lot more free flowing.

"I wouldn't say guys were walking on eggshells [around Bryant], but we knew that every day you had an opportunity to compete against Bean, he was going to come in here and talk his s--t and call you out if you were doing some [BS]. I feel like that was the best part about him, though."

For Walton, in his second season as Lakers coach, the challenge is how to bottle the intensity and obsession that Bryant brought into the gym every day and instill at least some of it in a younger generation of players who aren't programmed that way. Ball and Brandon Ingram, two presumed pillars of the Lakers' future, weren't yet alive when Bryant was a rookie. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was five years old when Bryant appeared in his first All-Star Game.

"Kobe realized that practice should be as hard as games, if not harder," Walton said. "Whatever drill there was, whatever scrimmage it was, he was talking trash to make everyone else step their level of play up—almost picking fights, because that brings out the edge in people. And you need that edge to win in this league."

And now?

"As a staff, we try to pick fights sometimes to try to get them going, and some days we get that edge and some days we don't," Walton said. "Right now, there's still a lot of almost being too nice; you don't want to challenge your teammate because you're friends. But the reality is, you should challenge him because you care and because you know by challenging him, he's going to make you better and you're going to make him better. That's the kind of the environment we're building toward, but I think it's important that you let them figure that out on their own."

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 3:  Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Luke Walton, talks to Lonzo Ball #2 on November 3, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using th
Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

Nonetheless, the new Lakers regime, led by president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, seems to be building the post-Kobe Lakers with a distinctly anti-Kobe vision. In their first draftwhich produced Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant—they went for shooters and ball-movers over ball-stoppers. The most dominant personality around the team doesn't even play; that being Ball's father, LaVar Ball, of course.

"We see guys kind of falling into their roles and their places on this team," Clarkson told B/R. "We've got a lot of pieces and I feel like we just need to find a way to mesh it all together over these next two or three years."

Not all vestiges of the Bryant era have faded. Clarkson said he tries to approach his video study and workouts the way Bryant did, often spending an hour or two perfecting a single move or studying an opponent's tendencies. Bryant also was famously a stickler for demanding that the Lakers' training staff not include any wasted reps or exercises in his workouts, a minimalist approach that Clarkson has tried to adopt in his routine.

"My workouts are not filled with a whole bunch of nonsense," Clarkson told B/R. "It's all focused on a few things. If I'm working on one move for the whole day, that's all I do for an hour or two hours and work the s--t out of it. … For me, with KB, that's been a lasting impression with meespecially all the hard work he put in."

Nance said Bryant was "everything I could've hoped for" in a veteran leader and franchise player. "You always look up to these guys and hope they're what you envisioned, and he truly was."

Bryant didn't tiptoe around locker room issues or bruised egos, Nance added. It's a trait that players who are 20 years Bryant's junior find foreign to them. But with Bryant's booming voice and imposing presence gone, "It's a little bit easier to find your voice here," Nance said.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers signs a jersey for Larry Nance Jr. #7 before the game against the Utah Jazz at STAPLES Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

"It probably is a little bit more lax, and I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing," Nance told B/R. "Because having his level of seriousness around definitely helped sometimes, and sometimes it was tough for the young guys. I think a certain level of that is needed and appreciated."

Since Bryant's career encompassed multiple erasfrom Michael Jordan to LeBron Jamesthere's more perceived distance between him and the 20-somethings currently wearing purple and gold, Shaw said.

"I retired in 2003 and most of these guys don't even remember me playing," Shaw told B/R. "And they've grown up under the LeBron era. Obviously, the guys who grew up in L.A. and the guys who played with Kobe remember him, but if you think about it, my kids never really got to see Michael Jordan play live. There's an era of kids that are coming up now who didn't really get to see Kobe at his best."

There are still a few Lakers left who saw Bryant at his uncompromising best, on his very last night in the league. Bryant's 60-point finale against Utah on April 13, 2016, is not something they will soon forgetif ever.

"It was a like a dream," Clarkson said. "I felt like I was sleep-walking the whole time."

Indeed, so much has changed since the night Bryant exited stage left at Staples that the mark he madeon the Lakers and on the leaguealmost feels fictional.

"He's a legend and deserves to be, and the crowd is going to respond to him in that manner on the 18th," Walton said. "I'm very excited. That's something that even if I wasn't coaching, wherever I was, I'd fly back to be a part of that."

           

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA. 

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