How Much Blame Does Kobe Bryant Deserve for Los Angeles Lakers' Pathetic Start?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 8, 2014

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It's easy to pin this on Kobe Bryant.

Watching this Los Angeles Lakers team—its league-worst defense, its players standing around dejectedly on offense watching a 36-year-old hijack possessions with comically low-percentage shots—it's tempting to single out Kobe, to blame the star going supernova and black hole all at once.

The part of you that viscerally understands what good basketball is supposed to look like, the part that catches a case of the warm fuzzies watching the San Antonio Spurs hum around in harmony, wants to look away. But it's easier to point an accusing finger at Bryant and shout, "You're the problem!"

There's a good reason for that: To a large extent, he is the problem.

Nov 23, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA;   Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) reacts after missing a basket as heads down court  in the second half of the game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. Nuggets won 101-94. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kam
USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles plays better without him on the court—demonstrably so.

According to NBA.com, the Lakers post a net rating of minus-13.2 with Kobe in the lineup and a plus-7.1 with him on the bench. Granted, anyone logging huge minutes for a team this bad is bound to have some ugly plus/minus figures. But the fact remains that the Lakers play their absolute best without Bryant slacking on defense and slinging on offense.

Kobe Bryant's On- and Off-Court Splits
MinutesLakers ORtgLakers DRtgLakers Net Rtg
Kobe On744102.4115.5—13.2
Kobe Off274108.6101.5+7.1
NBA.com

Bryant's off-court net rating is the highest of any Lakers player.

It's not hard to understand why. With Kobe gunning at a sub-40 percent clip, the Lakers are easy to guard. There's a ceiling on how effective their offense can be, and it's low.

Quantitatively, Kobe is bad for the Lakers, but he might be even worse when we factor in his harder-to-measure impact.

It's difficult to gauge how much his individualistic, "I got this; get out of the way" approach (note: language in video may be NSFW) to a team sport hurts. We can't know how damaging his poor defensive example is to the rest of his teammates, all of whom look up to him even as they may grow frustrated with the way he marginalizes them.

And it's tough to say how detrimental Kobe's obvious lack of trust is to his teammates' confidence.

"I'll go out there and leave it on the floor, everything, and compete and be relentless and not be fearful of criticism or fearful of not playing well or missing shots," Bryant said, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "That's the same way I want the guys I'm playing with to be, Jeremy in particular. He's a really good player."

The problem: Bryant's domineering approach doesn't foster confidence in most teammates, regardless of how often he compliments them in the press.

All we can do is guess at the extent of the psychological harm by watching. And when we watch, we see a group of professional athletes that look like prisoners resigned to their sentences.

Dec 5, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) and center Jordan Hill (right) react during the second half of a game against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The short-term damage is done. Playing like this, Kobe can't lead the Lakers to the playoffs. Nobody reasonably expected the postseason in the first place, which makes that reality somewhat easier to bear. Looking ahead, the effects of Kobe's final chapter (assuming this is the coda to his career, of course) might be worse still.

Los Angeles will have a devil of a time attracting free agents this summer, which could make it harder to haul anybody in during a pivotal 2016 free-agent period when Kevin Durant and other big names are available.

The Lakers will likely have to double down on their franchise mystique and reputation when they seek out help in two years boasting only a blank slate and past glory as selling points.

As Paul Flannery of SB Nation writes:

What the Lakers have is cap space and sunny Los Angeles, which is a lot more enticing than a dreary Boston winter. And they have Kobe, which begs the ultimate question of whether free agents will be attracted or repulsed by the idea of playing next to a living legend with the highest usage rate in the league.

So, take all that—the short- and long-term ugliness—and it's tempting to just say it's Kobe's fault. That brings us right back to where we started...with the easy "blame Kobe" answer.

But remember: The Buss family offered Bryant the massive two-year extension that locked the franchise into two years of limbo. It was the front office that decided it was OK to continue letting Bryant be the most powerful figure in the organization.

Perhaps that's what fans wanted. Many a business has been brought low by bowing to emotional public sentiment, though, and it's hard to look at the decision to keep Bryant at an exorbitant salary as the right one for the team's future.

It was no doubt a complicated choice, fraught with concerns about TV money, staying relevant and paying back a player who was part of five championship wins.

"The Lakers also wanted Bryant to know they equated 17 years of built equity in enhancing the Lakers brand, ranging from five NBA championships, ticket sales, jersey sales and the organization’s deal with Time Warner Cable SportsNet and weren’t solely fixated on how he’d play following his Achilles injury," Medina wrote in November of 2013.

We can acknowledge those factors and still conclude the Lakers made the wrong move.

Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak should have foreseen the future when they pushed that massive contract across the table to Kobe.

They signed up for this. All he did was sign on the dotted line.

You can't blame a guy for taking $48.5 million when no other team was going to come close to that figure—especially when the money came with the added bonus of continuing a one-team legacy that has practically gone extinct in today's NBA.

We can impugn the Lakers' front office right along with Kobe, but there's yet another layer to this mess. Go back a bit further and plain old bad fortune emerges as the real culprit.

Getting Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in 2012 was a double coup. At the time, championships seemed assured. What else could we possibly have asked of L.A.'s front office beyond those two phenomenal acquisitions?

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

We can't blame Kobe for Nash getting hurt right away, or for Howard's difficult recovery from back surgery. Knock Bryant for clashing with D12 (and perhaps driving him away) if you want, but try to keep in mind what might have been in Los Angeles if not for rotten luck.

And what about the trade for Chris Paul that then-Commissioner David Stern vetoed before the 2011-12 season? Bryant's fault?

Hardly.

Somewhere in all this, of course, we also have to consider the possibility that Mike D'Antoni might not have been all that bad, and that Byron Scott may not be a significant upgrade. I guess that's another black mark on the ledger for Kupchak and the Buss family.

The point is: The Lakers' problems are immensely complicated, and there's no easy solution. What's particularly unsatisfying is there's not a clear smoking gun here—a scapegoat deserving most or all of the criticism for how things have gone down.

Kobe's culpable, but he's hardly a lone actor.

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