For the second straight season the Los Angles Lakers cleared the deck, secured gobs of cap space went into the offseason expecting a max-level player to decide to don the purple and gold in LA. For the second straight season the Lakers whiffed, another star took less money to play elsewhere and Kobe and co. came out empty handed and are headed back to the drawing board.
How can an organization with so much history and a tradition of winning not be a free agent destination? The Lakers haven’t made a marquee signing since Shaq in 1996, ever since then just about every major addition has been by trade. There are plenty of extenuating circumstances involved with the high cost of living in LA, the high state taxes in California and a more desirable So-Cal destination right across the hallways in the Clippers locker room. But make no mistake, there is one reason that looms larger than any other and it isn’t even close.
Kobe Bean Bryant.
His bouts with teammates are long running and much publicized, from superstars like Shaq down to scrubs like the incomparable Smush Parker. Last week, Phil Jackson added another story to the saga with his recount of the Dwight Howard free agency meeting with the Lakers last summer.
“And Kobe made a moving speech during the pitch, promising to teach Dwight the secret of winning championships that he’d learned from the best in the game.
“If the meeting had ended there, it might have worked. But after the presentation, Dwight asked Kobe what he was planning to do after he recovered from his Achilles injury. Was this going to be his last year? “No,” replied Kobe. “I’m planning to be around for three or four more years.”
“At that point, according to others in the room, Dwight’s eyes went blank and he drifted away. In his mind, the game was over. […] A few days later he announced that he was signing with the Rockets.”
The passage is an excerpt from Jackson’s reissue of his autobiography Eleven Rings, and isn’t the first time Phil has raked Kobe through the coals in one of his books. At this point Jackson is pretty much just confirming what we already assumed – Dwight wanted no parts of playing with Kobe long term. Greener pastures (and less child support and zero state taxes and lower expectations) awaited him in Houston so D12 bolted.
Another reported reason for Dwight leaving was that he wanted to be a bigger part of the offense, and Kobe relented. Of course he did, Bryant’s a ball hog. There’s no way around this. Kobe is actually a historic ball hog, fourth all time in field goals attempted, and he’ll likely pass Michael Jordan for third by Thanksgiving.
For six of his last eight full seasons Kobe has finished the season as the league leader in field goal attempts.* Not including his abbreviated 2013-2014 season Kobe has averaged at least 20 field goal attempts in every season since Shaq left LA in the summer of 2004. Only 11 other players did it at least once in that time span, and only LeBron has done it more than three times. His six seasons leading the league in field goal attempts trail only Jordan’s nine and Wilt’s seven. Speaking of Mike, when Kobe cracked 2100 FGAs in the 2005-2006 season, he joined Jordan as the only person to do so since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
Kobe’s style of play just doesn’t mesh well with the new efficiency obsessed NBA. In that sense Kobe is like an ancient relic from eras past, where it was fine to take 35 shots to get 40 points if you won. And Kobe’s mindset is exactly that. He believes that the more he scores the more likely his team is to win.
Instead, in the new era of analytics, corner threes and avoiding long two point shots at all costs represents everything that Kobe isn’t. The newly minted NBA champs the Spurs featured the lowest leading scorer for a champion since the merger with Tony Parker’s 16.7 points per game. In today’s game, teams would rather a player take 12 shots to score 20 points than 30 shots to score 30 points.
So when you join Kobe, you’re not only going to get bitched at, but you’re also going to be watching him shoot a historic amount of shots while you try to get yours as well. Who wants to do that? That’s just about the worst guy to play with at the park or gym. The guy who shoots way too much while you just end up running up and down the court watching him. Why do that when you can play with another group of guys who share the ball, have fun and win. This is the dilemma for the Lakers as they watch stars after star choose to play elsewhere despite their championship laden history.
Then there’s the money issue, and this is where things get dicey. Kobe took a slight pay cut when he signed for $48.5 million for the next two seasons, but that number still puts enormous financial burden on the Lakers, even though according to Grantland the Lakers profited over $100 million last year. Combined with Steve Nash’s $9 million salary there is very little wiggle room for the lakers to improve their roster.
While many showered LeBron with praise for forcing owners to pony up the money he is owed, many of those same people chastised Kobe for not taking a massive Tim Duncan-ish paycut to help his team. Kobe’s reasoning was pretty much the same as LeBron’s: why should I be the one to take less money when it’s their job to figure it out?
The difference is LeBron is 29 years old, smack dab in the middle of his prime while Kobe is in the twilight of his storied career and coming off one of the most catastrophic injuries an athlete can suffer. He’s has definitely earned the right to force the Lakers to fork over the cash he’s owed, and clearly they have it, but he will also suffer the consequences of that payday.
* — The two seasons where Kobe didn’t finish first, he finished second. Coincidently he also won the NBA Championship in those two seasons.