The Los Angeles Lakers closed out their 2015-16 season Wednesday night with perhaps the defining performance of Kobe Bryant’s career. The most celebrated, imposing and driven player in franchise history dumped a bucket of cherries on his 20-year career with a 60-point, 50-shot fireworks display to take down the Utah Jazz.
Hours before that unforgettable performance, Bryant’s head coach, Byron Scott, stood on the sideline at the Lakers practice facility, fully enveloped by a super-sized swarm of recorders, microphones, lights and cameras.
A question was posed about this season’s theme: What would Scott take away from the worst year in franchise history, an embarrassing rash of 65 losses, a potentially crippling social media scandal involving the team’s most valuable asset and some of the most consistently bad basketball in the entire league?
A sheepish smirk scrambled across Scott’s face. The season from hell was finally in the rearview mirror. A year filled with hardship was about to end, and Bryant, the symbol of those tough times (in recent years) was about to walk off the court for the very last time.
Player development, growth and progress were cast aside to accommodate the 37-year-old's final run. There are no basketball reasons for this choice; only business reasons—and it will likely cost the Lakers dearly in the years ahead.
“I think at the end of the day, once he decided to retire, I think all our focus started to change toward making sure that this could be as enjoyable as possible for him,” Scott said.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak repeated the sentiment back in January, per the Los Angeles Times:
This is a year that's dedicated to Kobe and his farewell. From my point of view, it gives me complete clarity. ... We know what our [salary] cap situation is going to be like.
The words are as damning as they are predictable. From the moment Bryant signed a two-year, $48.5 million contract back in 2014, the Lakers were destined to be a bad basketball team. Any franchise that dedicates roughly a third of its salary cap to one player—especially a stubborn, declining designated hitter—will suffer when he doesn’t perform at a superstar level.
The Lakers knew they’d be bad, and they prioritized Bryant’s comfort over total and complete development of their young core: D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown.
This doesn’t mean Bryant’s very existence was detrimental, because it wasn’t. Inexperienced players need veterans to guide them through the rigors of NBA life. They need mentors and teachers and sounding boards.
Behind the scenes, Bryant was just that.
“He’s like a godfather to me in terms of the game and stuff,” Jordan Clarkson said. “I’m coming into the NBA not really knowing much. He’s just taught me so much in terms of the game, stuff off the court, just really everything.”
But there aren’t SportVU cameras in hotel rooms or chartered flights, in weight rooms or empty practice facilities. We can’t quantity off-the-court contributions like we can all that happens on the floor.
And what happened on the floor was, at times, destructive. Throughout the season, Bryant’s desire to satisfy his millions of fans came at the cost of L.A.’s next generation getting their reps. It was a backward philosophy that very few organizations in the league could ever buy into.
“I think there’s a lot of guys on this team that can do more,” Brown said. “That have the ability to showcase a little more of their playmaking, scoring, whatever it may be. And that will allow not only people on this team, but whoever comes in this offseason, to pick up some of [Bryant’s] load.”
For his career, Bryant’s 31.8 usage percentage is third highest in league history. For the 2015-16 season, that number rose to 32.2—only James Harden, DeMarcus Cousins and Steph Curry accounted for more of their respective teams' offense. This is crazy!
Bryant shot 35.8 percent from the floor while jacking up 16.9 shots per game. The last player who was less accurate (with a minimum of 1,000 shots throughout an entire season) was Jim Pollard in 1952, per Basketball-Reference. Bryant also shot 28.5 percent behind the three-point line while averaging 7.1 attempts per game. The only other player who comes close to that is Michael Adams in the 1990-91 season.
Ball hogs aren’t great when they can’t shoot, and for most of the season Bryant struggled to efficiently produce points. This says nothing of his inability to defend anyone for a meaningful stretch. The team allowed 114.1 points per 100 possessions with Bryant on the court and a relatively respectable 105.0 when he sat, per NBA.com. He also ranked 452 out of 462 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
They were atrocious from the start, and it somehow only got worse. Bryant announced his retirement (with a poem) on November 29, right before the Lakers squared off against the Indiana Pacers. Los Angeles was 2-14 at the time, with the 28th-ranked offensive and defensive ratings in the league, and the 29th-ranked point differential.
Russell, Randle and Clarkson had their individual moments and flashed signs of varying growth throughout the year, but the opportunities to observe how they play together weren’t as plentiful as they could’ve been.
Once Bryant’s farewell tour officially got under way, the trio averaged 13.7 minutes per game, down from a little over 15 in the first month. There’s no direct connection between Bryant’s announcement and the dip in playing time for L.A’s three presumable cornerstones, but the franchise’s primary investment should’ve been playing these three together as much as possible, and that's not what they did.
Bryant admitted as much after his final game.
“The most important thing in this offseason is for them to really work together. It’s easy in the summertime for them to break apart, but I think it’s really important for younger guys—D’Angelo, Jordan, Randle—to continue to stay in touch and to work together and continue to figure out together where you like the ball...watch film together, because you have to build this thing as a unit,” Bryant said. “That was my message to them.”
Short of expecting him to accept less money and take fewer shots, it’s unfair to lay much blame at Bryant’s feet. He’s a basketball player whose responsibilities don’t extend to minute allocations or offensive strategy.
He doesn’t build the roster, make draft picks or scout the D-League. It’s not his job. But in the aggregate, Bryant's shadow forced the front office to concentrate on all the wrong things. Instead of being proactive, they played out the string and waited for their highest-paid player to come off the books.
What do they have to show for it? A whole bunch of cap space heading into a summer when half the league has max room? A young core with concerning on-court weaknesses and off-court baggage? Even if the team makes good offseason signings, it will be worse off for impairing that core's development. The Lakers tied themselves to one man and let his going-away party grow bigger than the franchise.
What happens now that he's gone?
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.