Would Los Angeles Lakers Be Better Off Without Kobe Bryant?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2014

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Kobe Bryant is the Los Angeles Lakers.

That's the problem.

Or, at least that's the problem for whatever percentage of Purple and Gold loyalists want a sustainable, functional operation—one with the impersonal approach necessary to keep up in an increasingly analytical NBA.

There's a whole other faction of Lakers fans for whom Bryant is most definitely not a problem. They're the ones who just want to see No. 24 keep playing and keep wowing them with his willpower and shot-making. They want the familiar ride to continue because they're afraid of the dark, uncertain future ahead.

They're drinking in Bryant's play, his practice rants and his alpha personality thirstily, even if it might be poison. They just want as much Kobe as they can get, while they can get it.

Are the Lakers better off without their icon?

That all depends on what you'd like the team to be.

Stats Don't Lie

The Lakers are worse—substantially and irrefutably—when Kobe Bryant is on the court.

Kobe Bryant's 2014-15 Splits
MinutesLakers ORtgLakers DRtgLakers Net Rtg
Bryant On957101.5114.8—13.3
Bryant Off354109.498.3+11.1
NBA.com

It's true that Bryant's bench minutes often come when the game is already decided, which allows his replacements to face reserves who are merely going through the motions. Maybe that partially helps explain the massive discrepancy in his on/off splits.

He plays alongside Carlos Boozer for more than 21 minutes per game, per NBA.com, and C-Booze's on- and off-court splits are nearly as bad as Kobe's. Maybe this is all Boozer's fault.

It's not, of course. There are just a few logically flimsy ways for Bryant apologists to explain away the statistical ugliness.

Just watching the Lakers, it's obvious why Bryant has hurt the team's production: He eats up possessions with low-percentage shots, stops the ball on offense and doesn't set the tone on defense. He gets away with all of this because neither his coach nor his teammates can stop him.

Bryant has willed just about everyone around him into submission, as Grantland's Zach Lowe noted on Twitter:

Nick Young would seem to be the exception, but that's hardly surprising because he has successfully commodified self-confidence. The Swaggy P brand is built on unflinching self-assurance.

Jeremy Lin is more emblematic of how Bryant makes his teammates feel. Though neither Lin nor anyone else has spoken out directly against Kobe, it's getting easier to read between the lines:

Unfortunately for the Lakers, Kobe's support system isn't doing much for him.

But he might be why there's no decent help on the roster.

What Could Have Been

The Lakers lack talent for a number of reasons.

The NBA intervened three years ago and vetoed a trade that would have brought Chris Paul into the fold. Steve Nash's body betrayed him the second he got off the plane at LAX in 2012. Dwight Howard wasn't healthy and couldn't get comfortable with the Lakers (partly because of Bryant, but you get the idea).

If we ignore those twists of fate, which is admittedly tough when analyzing the state of the Lakers, we see that Bryant is still partially responsible for the weakness of this roster. He makes too much money. And in a league where teams have to operate with finite finances, there's no way to ignore the fact that he's soaking up cash that could have been used to strengthen the roster.

Bryant is entitled to as much compensation as he can get, and it's not his fault ownership shoveled $48.5 million into his lap over the next two years. But we've seen plenty of other stars take less. And if we're trying to logically determine whether the Lakers would be better off without Kobe, the cash he's collecting is absolutely a factor.

Maybe the Lakers would have signed players of consequence this past offseason if Bryant's contract had been smaller. After all, at least one big name still thinks Kobe is an attractive teammate.

Kevin Durant, the prize free agent of the 2016 class, disputed the notion that stars don't want to play with Bryant, per Sam Amick of USA Today

Excuse my language, but that's (expletive). I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day. … (His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff. I think (the accusation) is BS.

Whether it was Bryant's contract size or personality that prevented the Lakers from bolstering the roster, the fact remains: One way or another, his presence made it harder to add talent. It's no great leap to say the Lakers would be better off with more talent.

Bryant's Immeasurable Value?

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

It's possible that Bryant is still actually good for the Lakers in some ways.

Without him, the thinking goes, there'd be no reason to watch. No reason to care. No reason to buy tickets. No reason for massive cable outlets to pay top dollar to broadcast games. Perhaps, most critically, no reason for future free agents to trust in the loyalty of the Lakers.

We have to factor those things in when discussing Bryant and his worth because that's exactly what the Lakers did, as Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote when Kobe signed his massive deal in 2013:

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.

The Lakers might have been just as profitable, just as attractive to those future free agents and just as relevant to fans if they'd never extended Kobe's contract. For one thing, we know attendance figures have barely changed from last year, when Bryant played just six games, per ESPN.com.

Lakers Attendance
Average HomeAverage Road
2013-1418,82817,845
2014-1518,94017,564
ESPN.com

That's a small piece of evidence suggesting the "no Kobe" financial picture might not have been all that bad.

Here's another: A portion of the Lakers' annual income hinges on local television ratings, according to Henry Abbott of ESPN, and that was a key reason behind Kobe's contract. However, Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times reports that the Lakers' television ratings are actually down from where they were this time last year.

The Lakers averaged a 2.25 rating for [the first 20 games] on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, down 28% from the 3.14 at the start of last season. …

The Lakers' ratings are near the historic low of 2.11 they averaged all of last season, the worst on record for local Lakers telecasts and a 54% drop from the 2012-13 season, when they averaged a 4.63.

Bryant's absence might not have sunk the Lakers financially, and the numbers indicate viewers like winning more than they like Kobe. But it seems the front office wasn't comfortable taking that risk.

Like so many fans, those running the Lakers opted for a few more years of life as they knew it—life with Bryant—instead of moving into the hazy future. Probable losing and certain relevance, they decided, were better than the alternative.

Lakers president Jeanie Buss told ESPN The Magazine's Ramona Shelburne: "So while I get attached, I know what the realities are in this business. It's never going to change what we've accomplished together. But I don't look forward to the day that Kobe Bryant's not in purple and gold."

The Lakers are a business, and Bryant is generally assumed to be good for business—despite what some of the facts suggest.

For A Limited Time Only

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

After L.A.'s two-year limbo period with Bryant ends in 2016, the Lakers will have no choice but to move forward. Even if Bryant wants to keep playing beyond his current contract, Lakers brass won't pay him big bucks to stick around. They've satisfied their loyalty obligations, and it's hard to imagine fanseven Bryant's staunchest onesaccepting more of the same.

The future is coming, and it will not include Kobe.

As polarizing as he is, even the most ardent Bryant detractors must find that a little sad. Despite the fact that the Lakers are probably better off without him, it's hard to fault the team or its fans for wanting to hold on to Kobe a little longer.

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