Sans Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers Sink to Historic LowsThe L.A. Lakers went 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's cameo appearance this season and some commentators wondered aloud if the Lakers were better off without Bryant. The reality is that the Lakers were not particularly good with Bryant but that they are awful without him. I predicted that by the time Bryant returned the Lakers would have the worst record in the Western Conference; it is not clear if Bryant will play again this season but after last night's 142-94 loss to the L.A. Clippers--the biggest win in Clippers' history and the biggest loss in Lakers' history--the Lakers are 21-41, a half game behind Utah for last place in the West. Even if the Lakers were in the comically inept Eastern Conference they would be 12th in the standings, ahead of only Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Lakers have gone 9-28 since Bryant last suited up; their defense is non-existent, their effort level is deplorable and Bryant summed up the entire state of affairs by commenting, "It's like when big brother is not around, he starts doing some crazy (stuff). It's been rough."
Yes, Bryant's "little brothers" have been doing some "crazy (stuff)" now that Bryant is not around to police the locker room and the practice court. Say what you will about Bryant's demeanor--and many people have said a lot of negative things about Bryant's leadership skills--but Bryant made sure that his teammates practiced hard, played hard and did not do "crazy (stuff)." That kind of leader/teammate is only considered "difficult" by people who do not understand how much effort and sacrifice it takes to create and sustain a winning program.
The Lakers' abject collapse without Bryant this season provides some indication of his impact, reaffirming what I have been saying for years: the Lakers' overall talent level has been overrated. Bryant carried weak Lakers' teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 and he led the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 with a sidekick, Pau Gasol, who had not won a single playoff game prior to becoming a Laker and with a group of bench players who, for the most part, hardly distinguished themselves before or after getting championship rings courtesy of Bryant. It could be argued that the Lakers are even more talent-depleted now than they were in 2006 and 2007 and it is undeniable that injuries to several players have taken their toll but it is odd that more is not made of the fact that without Bryant on the court for most of the season the Lakers have devolved from a playoff team to a laughingstock. Losing Dwight Howard clearly has hurt the Lakers but he was not fully healthy last season and if Pau Gasol were as good as so many people say then he would be able to carry a team at least to within shouting distance of a .500 record sans Bryant and Howard.
After LeBron James left Cleveland, media members incorrectly ignored all of the other changes that the Cavs made and attributed all of the team's decline to James' departure, without noting that the franchise had also changed the front office staff, the coaching staff and most of the roster. The Lakers have problems that extend beyond Bryant's absence and it would not be correct to say that the Lakers are terrible only because Bryant is inactive--but in his prime Bryant carried some pretty awful teams to the playoffs without getting much credit from the MVP voters, so the Lakers' collapse this season does provide further context regarding just how well Bryant performed during the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker "era." If Bryant can return to full health next season, it will be interesting to see just what the Lakers look like, particularly if they are not able to add much talent to the roster in the offseason.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 PM