Since announcing his plans to retire at the end of the season, Kobe Bryant has enjoyed warm receptions from every crowd as his legendary career winds down.
And while the Lakers are clearly a lottery-bound team with little to play for, Bryant’s retirement tour is turning this season into a mess.
The most recent mishandling of what should be a low-stakes affair has been the Lakers’ inability to manage Kobe’s health.
Kobe has had to sit several games out because of fatigue and wear-and-tear on his legs — that’s understandable. But when he had to leave Tuesday’s game against the Pelicans because of a strained right Achilles, Lakers trainer Gary Vitti suggested Bryant should take some time off to recover. That probably won’t happen.
“[Vitti] would love to shut [Bryant] down,” Lakers coach Byron Scott told reporters. “But that probably isn’t going to happen. [Bryant] doesn’t want to shut it down.”
“He feels a certain responsibility to play in these arenas, which is admirable of him, but my responsibility is to make sure that he can play this season.”
Scott added, “My biggest concern is I want that man to finish the season standing up on the court and getting the respect he deserves.”
This is another example of Kobe’s desire handcuffing the Lakers. While his retirement tour has generally been fun, as both Lakers fans and opposing fans go wild for his best games, it shouldn’t come at the risk of further injuring Bryant, who’s sat games with other ailments this season. The strained Achilles is particularly worrisome, given that Bryant tore his left Achilles in 2013 and hasn’t been the same since.
And while Bryant’s farewell tour is a low-stakes affair and it behooves the Lakers to lose games, anyway (they lose their draft pick if it falls later than No. 3), Bryant shouldn’t feel a “responsibility” to play for away crowds. Similarly, he’s played once in Golden State already and further risks being unable to play for other crowds if he pushes through an injury.
Catering to Bryant has increasingly become a problem for the Lakers. Even GM Mitch Kupchak admitted the team is essentially just waiting out the season until Kobe is gone (via L.A. Times’ Eric Pincus):
“We cannot move on as a team until Kobe leaves. Part of that to me is painful because I’ve been here 20 years with Kobe. This is a year that’s dedicated to Kobe and his farewell.”
The bigger problem with that is while the Lakers cater to Kobe, they’re squandering the opportunity to develop their younger players, to a degree. Scott has often been criticised for his handling of young lottery picks in Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, tinkering with their roles, playing time, and occasionally failing to give reasons for their benchings.
Occasionally, Scott has loosened the reins on his young players, benched Kobe, and the results have been positive as the young players get valuable experience, even if it doesn’t always lead to a win. Other times, however, Scott gets caught up playing his veteran players to no benefit.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe made a good point on his podcast about how the Lakers are flubbing the balance between respecting Kobe’s final year and letting young players develop.
“It’s not difficult to play Kobe a reasonable number of minutes… you can play Kobe 25 minutes and find plenty of time for [Jordan] Clarkson and Russell and [Larry] Nance and Randle who don’t even play the same positions. The problem is, you’re also playing Lou Williams for some reason and Nick Young, for some reason, and Brandon Bass, for some reason. And part of the reason is, Kupchak said in that same interview, he thought it was possible they could win 40 or 45 games this year, which is, like, laugh-out-loud funny; they were obviously going to be really bad….
“Just excise those minutes, play Kobe 25 minutes a game, sit him out during crunch time… let the young kids get the fire minutes late in the game. It’s not hard to do… This doesn’t have to be that hard.”
Despite all of this, the Lakers are still in pretty good position in the future. Clarkson, Russell, and Randle all look like intriguing young players, they’re cruising toward a top-three pick, they will have cap space this summer, and they will remain a contender to lure big-name free agents.
Yet their inability to balance Kobe’s farewell with bigger priorities is getting messy. The Lakers certainly can make this season more than just a goodbye to Bryant, particularly with a crucial summer ahead. If they’re concerned with giving Kobe his exposure to adoring crowds, they should rest him when he needs it, give him his honorary minutes when healthy, and then let the future players of the team get the more important minutes.
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