On this day in 2008, the Los Angeles Lakers were 5-0. No one was surprised. Five months earlier, the Lakers cruised to the NBA Finals, only to lose to Boston in six games. But Kobe Bryant had silenced his naysayers. Bryant was named league MVP that season, and had proved himself capable of taking the Lakers deep into the playoffs without Shaquille O’Neal by his side. Then in June 2009, Bryant finished the deal. He averaged 32.4 points 7.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds in the Lakers’ five-game victory over the Magic in the NBA Finals. Bryant was the face of the NBA.
Today, of the 126 qualified players, Kobe Bryant ranks 125th in Field Goal Percentage. The only player with a lower percentage is Emmanuel Mudiay, who was two months old when Bryant was drafted in 1996. The Lakers are 1-6, and like in 2008, this start isn’t much of a surprise. The Lakers play appalling defense and are led by a coach whose obstinate approach to an ever-changing league has contributed to the Lakers’ multi-year lease of the Western Conference basement. But above all, at the root of the Lakers’ problems is 37-year-old Kobe Bryant.
In the NBA, the rebuilding process starts with the draft. The Lakers were afforded lottery picks the past two seasons, and both draft classes were packed with talent. In 2014, the Lakers selected Julius Randle with the sixth overall pick, and traded for Jordan Clarkson in the second round. Through seven games this season, the 20-year-old Randle has embarrassed veterans with fluid moves and quickness that is uncommon for a 6-foot-9 forward. Jordan Clarkson’s athleticism has drawn Russell Westbrook-comparisons and earned him a spot on the All-Rookie First Team last season. In June, the Lakers selected 19-year-old D’Angelo Russell with the second overall pick. Russell is a “do-it-all” point guard who dominated in his only season at Ohio State. This trio of future stars is unparalleled around the league. But all three have had to take backseat-roles to Kobe Bryant.
Despite shooting just 32 percent, Bryant is still averaging 16 shot attempts per game — three more than the next closest on the team, Jordan Clarkson, who is shooting 50 percent from the field. The shot-attempts aren’t the only issue. Bryant’s shots often come in one-on-one situations, when it’s all eyes on Kobe, and it’s clear that he will be shooting no matter what. But that has always been part of Bryant’s game. The problem is, that when he’s not shooting, he becomes a statue, just standing around while his teammates try to engineer offense. Now this can also be attributed to coach Byron Scott, who, judging by the lack of ball movement and head-scratching possessions that the Lakers constantly have, is incompetent. But is Byron Scott — the 2008 NBA Coach of the Year — really that bad? Probably not. It’s the Kobe Bryant factor. It would be difficult for Byron Scott to tell the 17-time All-Star, five-time NBA Champion and future Hall-of-Famer to take fewer shots.
Bryant isn’t the oldest player in the league. There are a handful of guys in their late-thirties, and many of them, like Bryant, are former stars whose careers peaked years ago — players like Paul Pierce and Vince Carter. The difference, though, is that those guys have embraced lesser bench roles, accepting that a decline in skill is inevitable with age. But Bryant, like in 2008, continues to take shot after shot, except now the shots are misses. He used to sink game-winning jumpers at will. Now he’s shooting bricks with the Lakers down double digits in the second half.
The Lakers wouldn’t make the playoffs this season no matter Bryant’s role on the team. The Western Conference is loaded, and the Lakers aren’t on the same level as the teams that will be competing for the 8th seed. But Bryant’s impact extends beyond wins and losses. His on-court presence is inhibiting the development of talented young players who watch Kobe force fadeaway jumpers despite minimal success. Plus-minus is a statistic that measures a player’s impact on the court. It reveals whether the team is better or worse when a specific player is on the court. Bryant has had a negative plus-minus in each of the first seven games of the season. The Lakers are worse when Bryant is on the court.
The fact is, 37-year-old Kobe Bryant is a bad player in the NBA. He has had an exceptional career and will be remembered as one of the greatest, but it’s time for Bryant to step out of the spotlight and let the future stars in.