Lakers' Infusion of Young Talent to Test Kobe's Ability to Take Needed Step Back

Chris PalmerSenior WriterJuly 22, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

Kobe Bryant split a pair of hapless defenders like he was slipping through a closing door at the last second. Then, after breaching the lane, he looked off a third misguided soul, opening up a chasm for him to do the kind of things he does. He elevated and floated a beautiful ball over a desperate outstretched arm, which sank through the hoop just as he had planned. They were the prettiest of his 50 points. He turned and ran back down the court with a confident scowl, all the while nodding his head.

The feeling in the gym on that cold February night in 1996 was palpable—this guy is something special.

The gaggle of big-name coaches slouched out of the gym that day crestfallen by the ever-increasing rumor pulsating through the crowd like the tide incessantly breaking on a lonely beach. Even Coach K had given up hope of landing Bryant.

The prodigy was taking his talents far away from any college campus. The decision would ultimately spark the beginning of a new era for the Lakers. But two days later, something else happened that would end up shaping the fortunes of the Lakers 19 years later.

Some 675 miles away, in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, unbeknownst to any basketball prognosticator or dejected college coach, D'Angelo Russell Jr. was born.

The prodigy and the unknown kid would travel roads they could not know to one day arrive at the same place and time. That place just so happens to be the crossroads at which the Lakers organization currently sits.

The kid arrives in SoCal with a boyish face, a sprinkle of magic and an array of tantalizing skills—the sweet touch from beyond, that crafty spin cycle-inducing handle, those probing eyes that see passing angles others don't. And perhaps most important, the same swagger-laced DNA of his predecessor.

Jun 29, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) is introduced to the media by general manager Mitch Kupchak during a press conference at the Toyota Sports Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

"I'm the top basketball player in the draft," said Russell to kick off his introductory press conference. And despite something of a rocky summer league, the refrain remains.

This kid, they all say, is something special.

Now, 19 years later, the two will attempt to complete the most delicate transfer of power in the history of the NBA's most storied franchise.

But first something has to change.

Eras crash into one another, often quite uncomfortably, sometimes violently, with unpredictable results. Others are separated by lengthy periods of numbing futility spawning angst and desperation.

Change can be messy. And then there are these Lakers. They'll hit the floor next year with one of the most promising young trios in franchise history, led by their aging icon eager to prove he is still equal to any task.

As Bryant preps for what could be his final season, he's facing an unusual array of challenges as he deals with his own basketball mortality, a failing body and reduced relevance on basketball's landscape.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - DECEMBER 3:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots during practice on December 3, 2013 at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using th
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

But his biggest challenge is simply letting go. To go against his instincts. To be an agent of change instead of an impediment. The fortunes of the Lakers no longer revolve around Bryant. The tug-of-war between Kobe's Way and a new era itching to explode out of the starting blocks can no longer exist.

It's time for Kobe to embrace a new role both on and off the floor.

There is nothing that pushes Bryant quite like a personal challenge. The single-mindedness of his will, its sheer force, is the essence of who he is. That will never change.

Bryant wants to prove he's still elite. That's why he puts his body through one hellish rehab after another. It's why he submerges it in a tub full of ice every day. It's why his trainer's phone never stops ringing. It's why he barely sleeps at night. It's why his mind has no off switch.

The Lakers whiffed left and right on big-name free agents, then salvaged the offseason by signing a capable, but ultimately temporary, group of veterans.

Fans might automatically assume that just means a heavier dose of Kobe next season.

But that's the wrong strategy.

Hoisting 20-something shots a game and dominating the ball takes away untold learning opportunities from Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. If they're going to be the future, they need to be the present. Throw them into the fire. Let them learn by doing. Let them make mistakes. Let them develop chemistry.

While Bryant is still capable of playing at a high level, the Lakers would benefit in the long run to reduce his workload. That way Bryant could pick and choose his spots more carefully, increasing his effectiveness and reducing the wear and tear to his body. Lakers great James Worthy estimates Kobe's minutes restriction will have him playing about 23 minutes per game. That would be a career low as a starter. That would also be good for about sixth or seventh on the team in minutes played, which means he would be playing off the promising young trio, not the other way around.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 15, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Bryant has never been a catch-and-shoot guy or someone to run off a ton of screens to get his looks, but that's the whole point of evolution—tailoring your game to fit in as you age and the roster changes around you.

Besides, an all-time great should not suffer the indignity of going down in flames on a 25-win team while firing up shot after shot. Another woefully bad shooting year won't do anything to tarnish his spectacular legacy, but it won't help the Lakers either.

"He'll do what's best for the team," said Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. "He knows his body and what he's capable of. He understands the situation."

"I really don't see him changing," said another Western Conference exec. "He's done it his way for 19 years; why would he change now?"

Last season, Bryant was still leading the Lakers in total field-goal attempts on March 29 despite the fact that he had been sidelined with a season-ending injury on January 21.

Bryant was often forced into low-percentage, easily defendable shots with a high degree of difficulty that came late in the shot clock. While his 34.9 usage percentage was the fourth-highest of his career, his .373 field-goal percentage was the lowest.

He also shot just 29.3 percent from three-point range, the second-lowest percentage of any player shooting more than five threes per game.

Bryant would do well to fashion a role similar to the one Paul Pierce had with the Wizards—and will no doubt continue with the Clippers—where he played off the ball while others created shots for him.

Less Kobe is more Kobe.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers controls the ball against Luol Deng #9 of the Miami Heat at Staples Center on January 13, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The NBA has become, if nothing else, a league that depends heavily on dynamic scoring point guards who command the high pick-and-roll while offering liberal numbers of deep threes.

Everything Kobe is not. Everything Russell was drafted to be.

It's time to hand over the reins. But sometimes letting go is the hardest part.

There is arguably no one more revered by young players than Bryant. He has their ear in a way no coach or current player ever could. What he says matters. His credibility is unparalleled, and his methods are proven. Five rings and innumerable accomplishments mean everything.

Russell was the highest Lakers draft pick in 33 years. Went before sure-shot big Jahlil Okafor. A savior whether he wanted to be or not. Plus he's the next Magic, right?

No pressure.

But there were flashes. That cool many raved about showed itself in the desert. There were moments where it seemed he was inventing passing angles.

Sure, Russell forced the action, had trouble splitting double-teams and misjudged passing windows at times. A heralded rook struggling in summer league is hardly breaking news. Still, he was tough on himself. Byron Scott said Russell has work to do. The kid got down. He needed help.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 11: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on July 11, 2015 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
David Dow/Getty Images

But no savior has ever been blessed with a handbook. He has to get there despite not knowing the way. Luckily there’s a Hall of Famer for that.

"I'm excited to work with Kobe," said Russell. "I might be star-struck at first, but I'm just going to be a sponge and soak up everything he tells me."

Russell was giddy when describing the first time he spoke to Bryant on the phone. His eyes were bright and his slow, disbelieving head shake conveyed all that the pinch-me moment meant to him.

This isn't Smush Parker. This is Kobe's call of duty.

But Bryant is in new territory. In the care and feeding of Russell, he would essentially be training his own replacement—a next-level franchise superstar with transcendent capability.

The danger is that Bryant could see that as a threat—or more likely a challenge—and want to prove his own worth against him (and Clarkson) rather than properly invest in the future of the Lakers' next torch-bearer.

Last season, Bryant blew up after a December practice, spewing expletives in front of general manager Mitch Kupchak about the sorry state of the team and its lack of competitiveness, sparked by a heated practice battle with Nick Young. Whether it was a moment of true passion or a calculated stunt, that type of display simply won't work anymore and is altogether unnecessary.

It does nothing to foster team unity and sends the message that it's all about him.

But Bryant will test the young guys. As he should. To a man, each of the youngsters says he welcomes Bryant's hyper-competitiveness in practice.

"When he goes at you he's just trying to bring out your best," says recently departed forward Ed Davis. "You don't want him to see that you can't handle the challenge."

Bryant finds a certain measure of joy and satisfaction in dispensing wisdom to the younger set, even if he can't always connect with them on a personal level.

"We pretty much just only talked about basketball," Wesley Johnson remembered from when he worked out with Bryant last summer.

Despite a career built on an assassin's mentality, where his lone wolf mindset protected him from the specter of not fitting in, he's recently shown a keen interest in the fortunes of Purple and Gold pups.

"I asked him to take me under his wing and be my mentor," said Russell. "I want him to show me the ins and outs of this league."

With players eagerly seeking out Kobe for guidance, the tough love thing feels increasingly obsolete.

"Kobe has been a late bloomer when it comes to learning how to be a leader," said Worthy. "He used to just want to kick your butt, but he's softened up because he sees himself in a lot of these young guys."

This is the evolution of Kobe Bryant. His final contributions won't be measured in box scores or further ascension up the all-time lists. They will be felt in practice, in film study and in the quiet moments shielded from public view. These are the places where a basketball education happens. They include late-night text messages about footwork or 2 a.m. talks on flights home from Utah about whether to go over or under a pick.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 8: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers is worked on in the training room before a game against the Toronto Raptors on December 8, 2013 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

He'll have the remedy for what to do when you can't sleep the night before a game in Milwaukee. He can show a young player what to look for on film despite the fact he's replayed it on his iPad three times on the bus ride back to the hotel.

He can explain the therapeutic benefits of icing at home on off days. School them in the nuances of psychological warfare like lulling your opponent into a false sense of security.

These are things that Bryant knows.

Lessons from a lifetime of figuring it out on his own. Then bending it to his will.

This is what Russell, Clarkson and Randle need to hear. The transformative effect on young basketball minds would be explosive. This is how Bryant will leave his mark on the Next Era of Lakers basketball. His Achilles, his knee, his rotator cuff cannot stop the transfer of knowledge.

In that way, Bryant has never been more powerful.

It seems an age has passed since a Lakers staffer picked up a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant from the airport and drove him to the Great Western Forum. Jerry Buss was out of town on business, so he had lunch with Jeanie Buss at the Forum Club before his official introduction. Kobe announced to the table that he was going to learn Spanish. There were more people working in the kitchen than media at the press conference. There were just two TV cameras.

There was nothing to crash into. But there is now. Kobe created this. And now he must finish it.

That kid from Louisville ain't a baby no more. That early purveyor of reckless swagger knows the Lakers universe no longer revolves around him anymore.

But what a pair they could make. The student and the teacher. The would-be king and the sage eager to share his wisdom.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 29:  D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for photos behind the scenes of the Lakes practice facility before he attends a press conference at Toyota Sports Center on June 29, 2015 in El Segundo California.  NOTE TO USE
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

No less than the future of the NBA's most storied franchise depends on it.

On that promising June afternoon, Russell got up from his first press conference and tugged on his smart blue sport jacket. He carefully folded his brand-new Lakers jersey and tucked it under his arm. He looked excited. Or nervous. Depending on your angle. Probably both.

Outside, the dependable South Los Angeles sun shone beautifully, as it tends to do. There, in the impossibly tight players parking lot of the Lakers' El Segundo practice facility on lonely Nash Street, Russell jumped into a waiting car and it rolled through the gate.

Traffic cleared and the car pulled off. Nervous anticipation hung in the warm air.

The Lakers are racked with uncertainty. Yet the persistent hum of promise remains their constant companion.

Eras crash into one another. But never so sweetly as this.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.