Former ESPN True Hoop head honcho and one of the most respected writers in the game, Henry Abbott, published a sprawling, multifaceted feature on Kobe Bryant today. It’s not the usual puff piece, though, with tales of Mamba’s preparatory diligence scattered among clichéd paeans to his greatness. Instead, it’s a roundup from agents, league insiders, front office executives and others around the NBA (many of whom are unnamed) dismaying at all the carnage wrought on the Lakers’ franchise by Bryant. Based on Abbott’s rather extensive array of quotes and anecdotes from sources, it’s Bryant who inherits the majority of blame for LA’s current status as an NBA also-ran.
You should really read Abbott’s whole piece, but we’ll give you the highlights. First, here’s one of the first instances of an agent blaming Bryant for LA’s inability to attract a sure-fire star in free agency over the last couple of summers:
“I’ve had a lot of clients in the last five years, good players, who didn’t want to play with Kobe,” says an agent who has had numerous NBA stars. “They see that his teammates become the chronic public whipping boys. Anyone who could possibly challenge Kobe for the spotlight ends up becoming a pincushion for the media. Even Shaq.”
The first Laker mentioned is former all-star Andrew Bynum — yup, as hard as it is to believe, Bynum was an all-star starter for the West in 2012 with Bryant before a series of knee ailments derailed his career before it had even really begun:
One Lakers insider remembers a time in 2012 when Bynum — about a year after declaring that the Lakers had on-court “trust issues” — was due for a contract extension: “Andrew’s question in contract talks was: ‘How are you going to rein in Kobe?’ We couldn’t give direct answers. My immediate thought was, Well, he doesn’t want to play with Kobe if we can’t answer that question.”
“I just never felt like the Lakers put as much effort into the building-the-team part of it,” says an agent who once had a free agent decline a Lakers offer. “I saw some things in the players’ parking lot. Conversations between Bynum and his people and some people with the Lakers. It got pretty rough and heated.”
“It’s horrendous. It’s evil. It’s a hard drug to quit when you’re winning,” says a front office executive from a rival team who knows everyone involved well. “Kobe has cost the Lakers dearly in human capital. Kobe has hurt a lot of people. In some cases jeopardized careers.”
More recently was the case of Dwight Howard, who was traded to the Lakers before the 2012-13 NBA season. Howard struggled that season following back surgery over the summer of 2012, and many Lakers fans (somewhat unfairly) blamed the seven-foot center for LA’s first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Spurs and a season that didn’t meet the preseason hype. Kobe, if you don’t remember, tore his Achilles’ tendon right before the postseason that year. But it was Kobe’s attitude in Dwight’s free agency pitch meeting that ultimately led the former Magic all-star to sign with the Rockets for $30 million less, rather than give it a go with Kobe and the Lakers. Here’s Abbott on the meeting in question, which Steve Nash — the yin to Kobe’s yang — also attended:
As the Lakers’ contingent settled into the conference room’s ergonomic chairs, it was clear that two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash, in a nice crisp shirt, listening attentively, was running Kupchak’s game plan. But Bryant showed up, according to a person in the room, in “hoops shorts, a T-shirt and a gold chain.” He had also packed an attitude.
When Howard asked why his teammates let the injured center take all the flak when the Lakers’ season went south, Nash said he didn’t know that Howard had felt that way and that had he known, he would have acted differently. Bryant, on the other hand, offered a crash course in developing thick skin and a mini lecture on learning how to win. Sources told ESPN Insider Chris Broussard that Bryant’s lecture was “a complete turnoff” for Howard.
Howard signed with Houston that summer at a $30 million discount and the Lakers struggled through a 2013-14 campaign that saw Kobe only appear in six games after fracturing his left knee.
It’s not just Bryant’s cantankerous attitude with potential free agents that’s done the team in, either:
“The problem is, he’s just not as good as he thinks he is,” says one source in the Lakers’ inner circle. “He’s just not as efficient as he thinks he is. 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 it allegedly comes down to Kobe’s behavior that’s turned other stars off. They’re just not as likely to sign with the Lakers when Bryant’s still around. Some even believe the Lakers agreed to Kobe’s gargantuan two-year extension last year knowing they couldn’t really go about a real roster re-load until Bryant had retired:
As one rival front office executive says: “I’m sure Mitch [Kupchak] already investigated and found out he didn’t need two max slots because the destination isn’t all that attractive until Kobe has completely left the premises.”
“Mitch did his homework,” says another NBA exec. “He can’t get a marquee player to play alongside Kobe, cap space be damned.” As several agents around the league said, it’s tough, after so many failed attempts, to convince any player that they’ll love playing with Bryant.
“He wants to win,” says a source close to Lakers decision makers. “But only as long as he’s the reason we’re winning, as long as the performance is not affecting his numbers. No one works harder than Kobe. And no one sabotages his own efforts more. He’s scaring off the free agents we’re trying to get. We’re trying to surround you with talent and your ego is getting in the way.”
The heralded group of players available in the 2014 free agency period all chose to avoid the Lakers, and it lends credence to the belief Bryant just couldn’t’ co-exist with another big-name star.
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and even Paul George (who was a restricted free agent in the fall of 2013) all passed on teaming with Mamba. Even the acquisition of Steve Nash — in the same 2012 offseason the Lakers dealt for Howard — almost fell apart because of Kobe’s stubborn refusal to call the two-time NBA MVP:
It’s no wonder, then, that the Lakers’ summer of 2014 free agency fizzled. Just a few years ago, the NBA whisper network was thick with the notion that LeBron was destined to be the next hero of purple and gold. But when James hit the free agent market, the Lakers’ talks with James’ agent, Rich Paul, failed to even materialize in a sit-down meeting with the star
After James, Carmelo Anthony was high on the Lakers’ list. And the particular way that recruitment was botched — Bryant made news by flying home from Europe, but somehow wires got crossed and he missed the meeting anyway — reminded Lakers insiders of the manner in which he nearly alienated Steve Nash in 2012. In the days before LA acquired Nash, sources say, the point guard wanted to hear from Bryant that the Lakers’ star was amenable to having Nash control the ball much of the time — a key tenet of the D’Antoni offense from the Suns days. When Lakers brass asked Bryant to call Nash, Bryant failed to do so, saying he preferred that Nash call him. The pettiness took days to resolve and nearly scuttled the deal.
While the Lakers were going after Anthony in vain, they quietly pursued Chris Bosh as well, but he preferred the carcass of the Heat. Paul George, Angelino through and through, had once been the team’s safest choice. But sources say one reason the two-way star had re-signed with the Pacers in the fall of 2013 instead was that he was turned off by the thought that Bryant would police his efforts.
Listen, a lot of this stuff is getting blown out of proportion a little bit. Kobe isn’t the sole reason the Lakers stink right now and figure to play a prominent role in the race for the No. 1 2015 NBA Draft pick. Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak and other Lakers brass must take some of the blame here. Surrounding Bryant with enough talent to compete for a title shouldn’t be that hard for the purple and gold. The Lakers were considered one of the best franchises in sports less than half a decade ago, and while Bryant’s cold personality and difficult-to-handle egomania might have contributed to missing out on some free agents, he’s not the only one who should have to shoulder the blame.
Then again, Abbott obviously worked hard on this, and talked to a lot of NBA insiders, all of whom seem to concur Bryant’s attitude is the leading cause for LA’s inability to sign a star of note over the last two summers. Whether that track record continues until Bryant likely retires when his current contract expires at the end of the 2015-16 season, is anybody’s guess. Still, go read the whole article and decide for yourself.
Is Kobe to blame for the Lakers’ current predicament?
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