Even before the Lakers could step on the court, Kobe Bryant made one thing perfectly clear.
“It’s my team,” Bryant declared at Lakers’ Media Day.
And what exactly does it mean?
Bryant smiled. “Not anything whatsoever,” he said.
Steve Nash caught an early glimpse on the manufactured soap opera surrounding the Lakers. “It doesn’t mean anything. That’s all media talk.”
Pau Gasol seemed rather stoic. “Kobe has been here for so long and has been the staple of the team for so long. He deserves that title. I’m not going to question that at all.”
Of course not. Make no mistake. Even with the Lakers acquiring Dwight Howard and Nash this off-season, a changing of the guard didn’t suddenly take place.
“It’s mine,” Bryant said. “I got five rings. What do you want me to do?”
And that’s the pressing question. Bryant insisted his immediately proclaiming the title that he never lost as “just putting you guys in order.” He recalled endless debate on whether LeBron James or Dwyane Wade ran the Heat when they teamed up two years ago and immediately wanted, in his words, "[to] put that to bed.”
What actually matters in this topic involves whether there’s any practical implications that could affect them on the floor. The Lakers insist there are not. Lost in Bryant’s proclaiming team ownership came his revelation moments later that he wants Howard eventually to take over the mantle as the team’s franchise player. The Lakers’ star-studded lineup in Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol and Metta World Peace offered a clear-cut endorsement on making sacrifices.
But in my experience covering the Lakers, very little matters regarding what the players actually say. They’re all intelligent and media-savvy. The Lakers reveal themselves more in their on-court actions.
See, the Lakers in recent seasons talked openly about not taking any game lightly. During their championship years, the Lakers often coasted during middle-of-the week regular-season games against mediocre opponents. Mike Brown touted the importance all last season in limiting Bryant’s minutes. But he rarely did that, because the team lacked a definitive backup shooting guard. The Lakers routinely touted the importance in maximizing their frontcourt talent. But Bryant’s hero ball and frontcourt passivity contributed at times to the imbalance. Bryant usually maintained that he wouldn’t change his scorer’s mentality. But his aggressive and facilitating mind-set fluctuated almost from game to game.
“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” Gasol said. “I care about results on the floor and how we finish the season.”
And there lies the rub. Of course, many agree Bryant deserves to run the team because of his experience, five championships and unmatched work ethic. Will the team’s unanimous outlook on Bryant running the team make him more inclined to defer on the court? Or will it prompt Bryant to carry the majority of the workload on his own despite the strong supporting cast around him?
Given Bryant’s stage of his career, I believe he’ll follow the former approach. He sounds honest when he touts Nash taking control of the ball and Howard and Gasol having a larger post presence. Meanwhile, Bryant’s teammates recognize the importance his scoring brings even if the responsibility doesn’t solely square on him. Nash even described Bryant as “our go-to-guy even with all the talent we have.”
Even if the Lakers appear genuine in wanting to meld all their talents together, they still could experience hiccups. Brown’s proclamation earlier this week that Bryant should take the last shot could spur the Lakers’ offense into becoming predictable. Each player could struggle with the new elements of Brown’s offense that centers on pick-and-rolls and elements of the Princeton system. Player frustration over a reduced role could emerge if the team goes through a losing streak.
In that respect, it’s good Bryant took ownership of the team. His championship mind-set will trickle down. No one will feel as inclined to take short cuts when the Lakers’ star refuses to do so. They’ll take cues on how to maximize their talent. But just because Bryant leads this year’s Lakers hardly means he doesn’t want help.
“Of course there are personalities and players [who will] emerge as leaders on the team,” Nash said. “But we don’t walk around the locker room saying, ‘Remember, it’s Kobe’s team! We all know who he is and what we’re trying to do to win.
“If it has to be somebody’s team, it’s Kobe’s team. But in reality, we all have to share the burden.”
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