The Nail in the Coffin: Kobe Bryant

The Nail in the Coffin: Kobe Bryant
The Nail in the Coffin: Kobe Bryant
The Nail in the Coffin: Kobe Bryant
The Nail in the Coffin: Kobe Bryant

LOS ANGELES – SPORTS – Kobe Bryant  is shut down for the season while the Lakers implosion continues

With the announcement that Kobe Bryant will not be returning to play in the 2013-14 season, his 17th in the NBA, it represented one more disaster in a series of them for the Lakers this year.

Kobe started the season on the shelf after tearing his left Achilles tendon late last season. He returned to the team in early December and took a few games to regain that all-star form that he was famous for until he was injured again after just six games. Fracturing his lateral tibial plateau on his left knee in the his best game all season against the Memphis Grizzlies.

We finally saw a flash of the old Black Mamba, only to lose him again. Now it looks like he’s gone for the season.

It’s been that kind of year for the Takers. To call it an unmitigated disaster would be kind.

Beyond losing Kobe, Steve Nash has only appeared in 10 games this season.  He’s been  battling nerve root issues stemming from a leg injury he suffered last season after a collision with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. To watch the great, two-time MVP Nash hobble through games, doubled over in pain or laying flat on the court to stretch out his lower back evokes memories of the end of Larry Bird’s career.

All signs seem to be pointing to Steve Nash not being long for the NBA and it’s very unfortunate that he doesn’t get to go out on his terms.

If losing two of their biggest stars wasn’t bad enough, Pau Gasol has continued his quiet feud with bench boss Mike D’Antoni. Their clash dates back to last season when the newly hired coach indicated that Gasol didn’t fit into his run-and-gun system. At one point, he even benched Pau in favour of Earl Clark. That’s a massive slight to the 4-time NBA All-star.  

Gasol was a key component to the two championships the team won in 2009 and 2010.  He’s also an Olympic silver medallist with the Spanish national team.  His basketball pedigree is undisputed and yet under Mike D’Antoni, his efforts are consistently questioned and he’s almost treated as an afterthought on the team despite being it’s current leading scorer and one of the only bright spots in an otherwise abysmal season.

Gasol has been an absolute professional for the Lakers. Even after he was almost traded to the Houston Rockets in a three-way deal that would have made Chris Paul a Lakers (later vetoed by the league) just before the 2011-12 season, he continued to perform for LA. Trade rumours have dogged Pau every year since yet he quietly remains one of the Lakers best offensive threats. And at times their only offensive threat this season.

The mistreatment of Pau Gasol is an indication of just how far the Lakers organization has fallen since Dr. Jerry Buss fell ill and ultimately passed away in February 2013 at age 80. Under Buss, the players and coaches of the Lakers were like family. Buss treated Lakers legends like Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kobe Bryant as if they were his own children.

Under his watch, Pau never would have been subjected to such treatment and in fact, Dr. Buss was one of the architects of bringing Gasol to LA to play with Kobe and get the Lakers over the championship hump.

Jerry Buss knew championships. He was the man who bankrolled the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s with Magic, Kareem and Worthy.  He was the man who brought Shaquille O’Neal to LA in 1996 and brought a fresh out of high school Kobe Bryant into the fold that same year. The result was three more championships. With another two added by the Kobe-Pau combo.

When Dr. Buss fell ill and had to turn over the operations of the team to one of his children. Son Jimmy got the nod over daughter Jeannie. Nevermind that Jeannie had the better people skills, greater understanding of the game and more of a passion for the Lakers. Nevermind that her partner was none other than Phil Jackson. Jimmy was getting the team because he had nothing else going on.

What followed was a series of awful decisions. The first was to pursue Dwight Howard at all costs. Once Mitch Kupchak got the deal done for Howard and also added Steve Nash expectations were sky-high for the Lakers. When they faltered out of the gate to start the 2012-13 season, coach Mike Brown was fired and the search for a new bench boss was on.

Phil Jackson agreed to come back for a third stint with the team that he’d already won five championships coaching. Instead he was passed over in favour of Mike D’Antoni. The call was made by Jimmy Buss because he didn’t want “Jeannie’s boyfriend” running the team.  It was a puzzling call in particular because the Lakers starting line-up seemed tailor made for Jackson’s triangle offence over D’Antoni’s run and gun. Jackson seemed like he could be the man to help end Dwight Howard’s struggles as he’d been successful with another LA big man in the past.

Instead the Lakers limped through the rest of the 2012-13 season under D’Antoni in a year plagued by injuries and in-fighting. Kobe and Dwight did not like each other and made no secret about. Kobe dragged the Lakers to a playoff spot before tearing his Achilles near the end of the season. The Lakers were then swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

That off-season Dwight departed the Lakers after issuing an ultimatum that he’d leave if Kobe Bryant wasn’t amnestied.

Instead of the big name crew that had started the 2012-13 season, the Lakers were now headlined by Nick “Swaggy P” Young, Xavier Henry, Robert Sacre, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill. Later additions Kendall Marshall and Kent Bazemore were also pleasant surprises.  They were at times a fun group to watch, but at others downright painful. Pau Gasol provided scoring and veteran leadership but he can’t play every minute of the game.

The on-court results have been downright embarrassing at times. A recent 48 point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was particularly painful in that the two have coexisted in the same city with the Lakers being the perennial title contender and the Clippers being the bottom feeder. Now those roles were reversed. And how. That game occurred during a three game stretch where the Lakers allowed a whopping 408 points.

Mike D’Antoni was never known as a defensive specialist, but even the most novice of basketball coaches would have such a young group of players focus their attention on both sides of the ball.  But D’Antoni no longer appears to be the masterful coach that he was in Phoenix when he was guiding the NBA’s most lethal pick-and-roll combo of Steve Nash and Amar’e Staudemire.  Instead he appears as times to be at a loss for how to set rotations, how to get the most out of his players and how to effectively use a potent weapon like Pau Gasol.

If D’Antoni hadn’t been able to at time lean so heavily on unexpected performances from Kendall Marshall, Xavier Henry, Swaggy P and Kent Bazemore, things would probably be much worse for the Lakers. It’s hard to imagine they could be as the team currently sits at 22 and 42, but they have won some close games off some unexpected performances.

It’s a foregone conclusion that the Lakers won’t make the playoffs and will likely be a lottery team. This will be one of the most talent loaded drafts in years. Probably since the 2003 draft that brought Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmello Anthony and Chris Bosh to the NBA. This class includes such talent as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embid, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle and so on. The Lakers will end up with a talented young player who could develop into a superstar.

The question then is do you want Mike D’Antoni coaching that young player? I’d say no.

Furthermore, in spite of a seemingly bright future, there is an internal fight between Jimmy Buss and general  manager Mitch Kupchak over what direction the team should take. Buss wants to court free agents like Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James while Kupchak, a great basketball mind, wants to wait for the 2015 free agent class that includes Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Lamarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and many other talented players.

Buss wants to make a splash while Kupchak wants to build a team.

Next season is also the first year of Kobe Bryant’s 2 year $48 million deal with LA. Likely his last NBA contract. Going out an blowing the salary cap on Carmelo Anthony seems foolish when there’s no guarantee that he and Kobe will gel and when there’s far better positional players available just one season in the future.

Kupchak knows that and Buss doesn’t.

Just who prevails will set the stage as to whether or not the Lakers will be able to pull out of this tailspin.

Kobe Bryant will be back for the 2014-15 season. What kind of team will he be returning to?

Josh Kolic

The Sports Uni-informinationator

The Sports

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Josh Kolic is a sportswriter who lives in Toronto. When he's not at the Air Canada Centre catching the Raptors or at the Rogers Centre watching the Toronto Blue Jays, you can usually find him at home following his beloved Habs or Lakers.