The fine folks at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut shouldn’t be expecting flower bouquets from Kobe Bryant anytime soon. ESPN.com has had quite a week of coverage of the Lakers superstar. It started when the website ranked Bryant, who ranks No. 4 all time in points scored, just the 40th best player in the NBA this season. That got quite a reaction on blogs, talk shows, and even from Kobe himself, who described ESPN.com to the media (as reported by ESPN.com) this way when asked about the ranking: “I’ve known for a long time they’re a bunch of idiots.”
(In case you’re wondering, this is how the 21st century media cycle works, especially at ESPN: Create an opinion, frame it as news, get the star’s reaction, create an opinion about the reaction, and repeat. For more information on this process, type Colin Kaepernick and Ron Jaworski into your handy Web browser sometime.)
It’s not the first time that Bryant and ESPN haven’t seen eye-to-eye about where he falls in the league’s pecking order of elite players: A year ago, Kobe changed his Twitter avatar to the number 1225 for motivation, shortly after ESPN ranked the Lakers as the 12th-best team in the Western Conference and Kobe the NBA’s 25th-best player. (We’re still waiting for this year’s ‘1240’ version.)
Still, the public reaction to Bryant’s #NBArank didn’t begin to compare to the conversation around ESPN’s most recent Bryant story, a Henry Abbott piece that came out Monday for ESPN The Magazine. Abbott’s premise on Kobe is simple, according to the ESPN.com heading: “He is arguably the greatest player in the history of the Lakers’ franchise. He is also destroying it from within.”
According to Abbott, the reason the Lakers are in such disarray in 2014-2015 is that star free agents don’t want to play with Kobe. The L.A. superstar, long known as a difficult teammate that holds those around him to the same high standard and work ethic he demands of himself, is seen in the ESPN writer’s eyes as the reason that Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and other top stars have chosen to take their talents somewhere besides Hollywood.
Abbott suggests that the reason the Lakers gave Kobe a $48.5 million contract extension, hampering the team’s salary cap flexibility, is that it really didn’t matter if L.A. had cap space or not. “When you can’t even bribe players to play with Kobe Bryant, what’s the point in bribe money?” Abbott asks.
So is it true? Is Kobe Bryant to blame for the awful state of the Lakers? Is it the Black Mamba’s fault that the rotation includes the likes of Ronnie Price, Wesley Johnson, and Jordan Hill instead of the Wilt Chamberlains, Shaquille O’Neals, or even Pau Gasols of years gone by in Lakerland? L.A. is accustomed to superstar casts, and lately, Staples Center hasn’t had any on display (unless you count the opposition … or Clippers home games).
The answer is, simply, that it’s not really that simple. Yes, Bryant can be hard to get along with. Yes, his personality may be a factor when free agents are choosing their next destination. Yes, he’s probably “just not good as he thinks he is,” which was the assessment of a Lakers source in Abbott’s story. That person elaborated to Abbott: “If he had the other intangibles, like LeBron, or if he was any kind of different person, it would have been easy for us to attract talent, retain it, and win.”
But is that accurate? Is it Kobe’s fault Paul George decided he was happy where he was? Is it Kobe’s fault Carmelo Anthony decided to stay in the Big Apple and enjoy his $124 million? Is it Kobe’s fault LeBron wanted to go home? Is it Kobe’s fault that David Stern vetoed the trade, sending Chris Paul to play in purple and gold? Is it Kobe’s fault that Steve Nash keeps getting older and, conversely, keeps not getting healthier since he came to Los Angeles? Is it Kobe’s fault that experienced and underappreciated general manager Mitch Kupchak isn’t calling nearly enough of the shots anymore and head of basketball operations Jim Buss is instead? Is it Kobe’s fault that Buss inexplicably decided his future brother-in-law with the 11 championship rings wasn’t the best available coach to replace Mike Brown?
Just because Kobe didn’t get along with Shaq doesn’t mean he’s everything that’s wrong with the Lakers. Just because Dwight Howard wanted to be wanted (remember the ‘Stay‘ billboards?) doesn’t mean Kobe Bryant can’t get a star free agent to play Robin to his Batman … or Batman to his Robin. The problem now is that the narrative has been written, and the narrative doesn’t go away easily. Once upon a time, there was no way Kobe could win a title without O’Neal … or at least that’s what was said until 2009. Now, Kobe can’t recruit talent to the land of movie stars and palm trees — at least until he does. For a team that’s consistently loaded up on the best talent the league has to offer during the Kobe era, the premise doesn’t seem to hold water. But until the summer of 2015 or the summer of 2016. That’s what we’re going to hear — whether or not it’s true.
In the meantime, Bryant will continue to attempt to prove that Father Time hasn’t passed him by, that L.A. can still contend, that he can still dominate on any given night, and that it will even matter if the Lakers can add another star or not the next time they have the chance — whether or not it’s true.