ESPN/True Hoop’s Henry Abbott has a damning account of how Kobe Bryant is sabotaging the Lakers. The portrait Abbott sketches isn’t exactly new – Kobe is selfish, difficult to play with and over-estimates his own ability. The Lakers’ decision last year to pay the aging Bryant $24 million a year in a salary capped league struck most people as ill-conceived at the time. The Lakers are bad and don’t appear poised to improve in the next couple of years.
There are a few oddities, though, in Abbott’s account:
1) contrary to a long history of attracting superstar talent, elite free agents have not been interested in recent years in taking their talents to Tinseltown. Abbott blames Kobe for this, which may or may not be true. But among the succession of free agents who have spurned the Lakers in recent years, Abbott mentions Carmelo Anthony, who re-signed this off-season with the Knicks (much to my chagrin). But had ‘Melo signed with the Lakers, this wouldn’t necessarily have helped the team much. That’s not because of “chemistry” either. It’s because ‘Melo – though he did have his best season this past year – is basically a worse version of Kobe. He’s an inefficient shooter and otherwise average or worse at most measurable aspects of performance on a basketball court, apart from rebounding. In other words, the Lakers may be prizing attributes in players that front offices tend to over value, especially those on less successful teams.
2) Abbott fails to mention the league’s decision in December 2011 to kill a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers. Paul is one of the three or five best players in the NBA. By himself, he would have added substantially to the teams win totals in recent years. It’s true that he might have left as a free agent after the 2012 season. But we don’t know that. That an old and injury-prone Steve Nash didn’t work out in LA tells us little about how Paul would have fared. CP3 was 26 years old at the time of the scuttled deal. He was in his prime and he’s good at pretty much everything on a basketball court. The recent history of the Lakers might not have included additional championship banners. But as Abbott himself says, in a league with few true superstars, possessing one is especially important. Had Paul been on the Lakers, the team’s narrative since 2011 would, I am pretty confident, have been quite different.
3) finally, Abbott says the problem with Kobe is that his skills aren’t so transferable to today’s NBA:
By the old points-per-game measure, he was not just a perennial All-Star but one of the best players ever. But the league has changed around Bryant, and swiftly. The movement of people and the ball, 3s, rim attacks, coordinated defensive effort and generating open shots for teammates are what’s winning now.
As Dave Berri has pointed out many, many times, overvaluing points per game is endemic to the NBA. And it’s not an “old” habit that front offices have outgrown. Nor is it true that shooting a lot, even if inefficiently, was at one time a recipe for success in the NBA. Great NBA teams have generally always featured prominently a superstar who both shot efficiently and could move the ball – Magic, Bird, MJ, Hakeem, LeBron to name a few NBA champions over the past three decades. Kobe’s profile as a player hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically as Abbott suggests. He’s always been overrated because shoot-first guys have always been overrated. Kobe’s just had enough great players around him to help him win a bunch of rings.
Abbott’s piece will generate lots of buzz. But there’s less here than meets the eye.
Update: The teaser line at the top of the article says “Kobe Bryant is arguably the greatest player in the history of the Lakers’ franchise.”
Sorry, this is not serious. To take just one example, Kobe doesn’t hold a candle to Magic, as I’ve previously detailed. The greatest Laker line is a clever little foil for the rest of the piece. But it’s just silly.