This has hardly resembled a basketball season for the Los Angeles Lakers; rather the year has more closely resembled a sentimental, nightmarish tribute to Kobe Bryant’s 20th and final campaign with the organization.
Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, it's clear that watching the Lakers will remain a depressing exercise for the next few months.
Instead of selling off their inconvenient stable of veterans before Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline passed, the Lakers opted for inaction. Outside of a possible buyout, the roster will not change for the rest of this season.
Standing pat was far from a worst-case scenario. The Lakers could have foolishly put a dent in this summer’s cap space by taking on a long-term contract. They could have traded future draft picks.
That's a win. Still, it wasn’t an ideal outcome.
Instead of accumulating assets to help with their rebuild, the Lakers will roll on as the NBA’s most dysfunctional team on both sides of the ball, with players like Lou Williams, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass and Nick Young in need of minutes that should belong to D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown.
It’s all so very strange, and Bryant sits at the center of it all. He’s the focus...again.
The stretch run of his career should be fascinating cinema as L.A. wraps up what very well may be the worst campaign in franchise history.
Will head coach Byron Scott continue to frustrate the Lakers fanbase by prioritizing Bryant over everyone else on the team? How low will this unprecedented charade (all due respect to Bryant’s Hall of Fame credentials, but that’s what this is) go? Only time will tell, but recent comments suggest marginal alterations for the better are in store.
Just how bad have things been?
By just about every existing metric, the Lakers and Bryant have been a nonsensical disaster. The 37-year-old is averaging 29.3 minutes per game—the fewest since he turned 19—and he’s missed 10 games with various physical issues, including an ailing shoulder and Achilles.
Bryant is launching more threes and attempting fewer free throws than ever before. He's shooting a miserable career-worst 34.9 percent from the floor (he’s the first player in NBA history to dip below 35 percent on at least 700 shots, per Basketball-Reference).
The Lakers are 11-44, and Bryant is their leading scorer with a team-high usage percentage. Nobody takes more shots. And despite all the injury-related rest and the fact that he no longer participates in practice, Bryant is still averaging more minutes per game in the nine back-to-backs he’s (for some reason) appeared in, per NBA.com. It’s all very odd.
With TV ratings down 25 percent from where they were last year, and the question of whether they’ll keep or lose their draft pick at the forefront of every meaningful team-related conversation, it's officially safe to wonder how much longer the Lakers are willing to let Kobe's retirement show go on.
Russell is so clearly the bright spot, and the most important consideration from today until Game 82 is how he progresses. Los Angeles should worry about making him comfortable on the court, putting him in spots to succeed, especially if it's through constant struggle and mistake-prone play.
Less than a week from celebrating his 20th birthday, Russell is steadily improving.
Over his last 18 games, he's averaging 13.4 points in 26.0 minutes per game, shooting 46 percent from the floor and 36.7 percent behind the three-point line. Right before the All-Star break, L.A. outscored its two opponents (the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers) by 24 points when Russell was on the court. He's doing things.
Unfortunately, it’s unclear when/if he’ll rejoin the Lakers starting lineup:
But when asked in his post-All-Star Game press conference about how he and the Lakers should approach the rest of this season, even Bryant appeared ready to step aside and let his younger teammates showcase what they can do.
"Well, you try to make the second half better than the first, and you try to forget about what happened the first half of the season in a sense of what our record is, and take this break to come in and feel like you have a clean slate, right?," Bryant said. "Mentally approach it as you're 0-0, and see if we can't get better. Because as the season progresses and season ends, you want to feel like free agents and other players around the league are looking at the Lakers roster and saying they have some talent and they have some potential. So that's what we want to try to do."
He isn't wrong. The Lakers have 27 more opportunities to recalibrate their focus before the summer begins. They can either trot Bryant out and enable him within their offense—actively stunting growth from the younger pieces.
Or they can do their best to better resemble a normal NBA basketball team.
Either way, the franchise is still a few months away from continuing their rebuild without Bryant's long shadow hanging over everything they do. That's (hopefully) when the sun comes out.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.