Kobe’s Beautiful Madness: Understanding the Lakers’ Absurd Present and Unknowable Future

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Watching the Lakers right now is honestly unlike anything I can remember in my NBA life. They have transcended basketball and become some meta public art piece that we can all enjoy.

Watching them play, and in particular watching Kobe Bryant play offense, gives the feeling of having jumped into a time machine to 1993. Bryant gets the ball on the wing early in a possession, backs down like some hybrid of Mark Jackson and Michael Jordan, and unleashes a preposterous 20-foot turnaround ripped from an ancient league.

NBA offenses over the last half-decade evolved to avoid precisely the kinds of shots that Bryant is taking at near record levels. It’s not just the simple analytics, either — the math that says a contested midrange shot is the worst one in the game.

The death of handchecking let the game breathe, turning it into a drive-and-kick sport in which speed and passing became perhaps the two most important weapons for any offense. At the same time, scrapping the old illegal-defense rules made it harder to score directly out of isolations and post-ups. Teams are free now to shift extra help defenders toward a dangerous scorer, walling off paths to the basket, clogging the passing lanes, and blanketing any stationary attack.

You can still get points in those ways, of course. But they’re most effective now as a means to something else — a vehicle to draw extra help, swing the ball, and work a pass-pass-pass sequence into an open shot.

Bryant is a great passer. That is what makes it so frustrating to watch him hijack L.A. possessions. Bryant passes as a last resort, when the extra defensive attention has made it too difficult for him to get off a makeable shot.

Again: He’s great at those passes. He’s a savant at anticipating defensive rotations, rather than reacting to ones that have already happened, and spotting the right player. These passes help. But they’re Old NBA passes that come only after an Old NBA scoring tactic has failed. They are almost a form of surrender.

I watched the Rockets-Lakers game on Wednesday night at a bar with an executive from another team, and we couldn’t stop talking about how insane it was watching Kobe shoot and shoot and shoot. When the Lakers called timeout ahead of a crunch-time possession, the TV showed Kobe and Byron Scott talking. “What do you think Byron is even saying?” the exec laughed. “‘Hey, Kobe, what’s the plan?’”

Our waiter happened to walk by, and he chimed in too. “You guys know he’s shooting.”

This is what watching the Lakers is like now. Dominique Wilkins, calling Tuesday’s Lakers-Hawks game, was actually laughing during portions of the broadcast. “Guess who’s gonna take the shot here,” he’d say to Bob Rathbun, the Hawks’ play-by-play guy, as Kobe walked the ball up. When Bryant passed on one end-of-quarter possession, Wilkins and Rathbun screamed in comic shock.

Bryant made a pile of batshit-crazy shots against Atlanta, because he’s an incredibly skilled player capable of making batshit-crazy shots from 20 feet away with Thabo Sefolosha inside his jersey. He’s averaging more than eight foul shots per game, because even though he can’t get to the rim like he used to, Bryant is a damned artist when it comes to footwork, pump fakes, and pivot moves. He attacked the rim for a layup down the stretch of that Houston game with an explosion that was, frankly, astonishing given the two massive injuries he suffered in the last 18 months.

But how he’s doing it is ridiculous. No judgment implied, though obviously the Lakers are awful. It’s just … riveting. You can’t take your eyes off it. Watch the Lakers, and then flip to the Hawks, Celtics, Heat, even the Sixers. It’s not the same sport.

And people cheer! Even on the road! They don’t cheer for the Lakers. They cheer for Kobe. The Atlanta crowd was chanting his name — “Ko-be! Ko-be!” — after a couple of classic Bryant fadeaways. The L.A. fans in attendance were popping their Kobe jerseys and mean-mugging Atlanta fans, as if Bryant’s baskets gave them strength or validated their fandom — as if the score of the game didn’t matter. It was downright theatrical. It was like they were cheering for a gladiator, not watching two professional teams play a basketball game.

Mitch Kupchak, the team’s GM, says it’s too soon to pigeonhole the Lakers into any stylistic category — especially since they have gone 2-2 since Nick Young’s return. “It’s just too early to critique how we play,” Kupchak says.

This isn’t even about the numbers, which are ugly. You’ve read by now, via Tom Haberstroh and others, that the Lakers are actually better on both sides of the floor — by miles — when Bryant sits. That only two teams, the Pelicans and Nuggets, average fewer passes per game. That Bryant, at age 36 and coming off two career-threatening injuries, is on pace to challenge the single-season NBA record in usage rate — an objectively crazy record that he already owns. Even when the Lakers run plays — flex sets, pick-and-rolls with Kobe as both ball handler and screener — they usually end with Kobe doing his thing.

But that thing is bizarrely enthralling, regardless of the numbers and the results. The Lakers are a show — a flashback to a different time in the NBA, complete with elements of drama, comedy, and absurdism.

Bryant’s media persona has transitioned from “profanity-spewing curmudgeon” into “angry aging player who might be close to the edge.” When reporters asked Kobe, still smarting over his place in ESPN’s annual NBA Rank project, about how Julius Randle might develop, he responded: “If you fuck this up, you’re a really big idiot. You know what I mean? ESPN are idiots, but you are a really big idiot if you manage to fuck this up.” OK!

When Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com asked Bryant if he really wanted to shoot so much, Kobe whipped out some oblique reference to fighting crime. When reporters asked him on Friday what it meant that Dirk Nowitzki took a hometown discount, Bryant answered, “I think it means he’s not playing in Los Angeles.” What does that even mean? That the Lakers wouldn’t ask a star to take less money? That Nowitzki didn’t consider the Lakers? That Nowitzki lives under a friendlier tax regime?

During the same scrum, Bryant pointed out that his two-year, $48.5 million extension, with an annual salary far below his maximum-eligible number, also represented a discount: “Was it a big enough discount to help us be a contender? Yeah.”

This is true in a literal sense, and Bryant, like any player, should try to earn whatever money he can. The Lakers had enough space to sign one max-level player, and they at least made Carmelo Anthony think about it. But no non-LeBron free agent was turning this roster into a title contender, and LeBron alone probably wasn’t going to do it, either. Does Kobe realize how far the Lakers are from relevancy?

The other supporting characters are just as wacky. Nick Young is actually pretty good at creating shots, but he’s a bit of a living cartoon character, and opposing TV announcers titter like teenagers when they call Young (over and over and over) “Swaggy P.” Carlos Boozer, once a polished scorer and passer, looks more like a screaming aerobics instructor on defense. His go-to move against the pick-and-roll is splaying his limbs in an attempt to kick the ball, stop play, and get through just one more damn defensive possession:

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It’s a show, man.

We don’t need to retrace the steps of how the Lakers got here, and how close Kupchak, a killer with a sterling record, was to transitioning the Lakers into a new era of dominance. The Chris Paul veto was a fatal blow. Kupchak was tantalizingly close to turning Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, plus some draft assets, into Paul and Dwight Howard. Think about that.

Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. Maybe Paul would have chafed at sharing the ball with Bryant, as Steve Nash did in his polite Steve Nash way. I’ve no clue if Howard really left because of his distaste for Bryant, as Henry Abbott reported, but the evidence is pretty strong that the two stars aren’t chummy.

Still: On paper, both trades were home runs. The Howard trade remains a home run, even though he became the very rare superstar to turn down the longest possible max contract and skip to another team. The Lakers got Howard for a protected first-round pick and Bynum, who is out of the league. It is hard to make a better trade than that.

And then, some stuff happened. Some of it was predictable — Nash breaking down, Howard’s back and shoulder issues proving troublesome for his single season in L.A., even Bryant struggling to mesh with new superstars under new coaches who scrapped the triangle offense. New league rules constrained the Lakers, even though they have the pocketbooks to absorb some tax payments. High-payroll teams have a harder time now executing sign-and-trades, and they have fewer tools with which to lure free agents.

Kupchak won’t use the collective bargaining agreement as an excuse, but the new rules hurt teams that had built up high payrolls under the old system. “I’ve worked through lots of new CBAs, and new sets of rules,” Kupchak says. “And our approach has always been, just give us the rules, and that’s all we need. We’ll do the best we can do.”

Kupchak has already rejected the notion that the Lakers are stealth tanking, and a few of their transactions run counter to that path. They are not the Sixers. They swiped Jeremy Lin, a useful point guard, from the Rockets (along with a nice first-round pick), and getting Ed Davis at the minimum salary was a steal — even if Rob Pelinka, the agent for Bryant, Boozer, Davis, and Wesley Johnson, likely facilitated it.

Los Angeles Lakers v Atlanta HawksKevin C. Cox/Getty images

But the Lakers in the big picture are not that different from the Sixers. Both teams are in superstar-or-bust mode; they are just going about it differently. The Sixers are in the middle of an unprecedented multiyear teardown, a plan that included sitting out free agency in back-to-back summers.

The Lakers didn’t sit out free agency, but they didn’t participate in it completely, either. They decided that if they couldn’t get Anthony, LeBron, or some other superstar, they’d just run back the same sub-mediocre roster for another season and take a shot with the next class of free-agent superstars in July.

The Lakers could have pursued any number of B-plus-level guys: Lance Stephenson, Eric Bledsoe, Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, and many others. They just didn’t, and that’s their choice. The frenzied timetable of free agency almost forces teams into choosing one set of players over another.

The Lakers, for instance, showed initial interest in Lowry, but told him and his agent, Andy Miller, that they simply could not offer Lowry a contract until they heard a final answer from Anthony and James, Miller says. They contacted the agents for some of those other B-level players with similar tepid overtures, per several league sources. Stephenson told me the Lakers contacted him early in free agency but never followed up. Thomas says he badly wanted to be a Laker, but that the team showed no interest.

Kupchak has a general stance against participating in restricted free agency, per sources across the league, since he does not want L.A.’s cap room tied up for three-plus days on an offer sheet another team can match. (Kupchak declined comment on this topic.)

The Lakers had to know that Lowry types weren’t going to wait around for the superstars. The Lakers, at least at this point, just aren’t interested in signing perfectly nice players who aren’t franchise-level superstars. Given their history of getting just about every superstar they’ve targeted, the strategy makes sense.

You just wonder when it will finally work again. The Lakers will probably only have something like $25 million in cap room this summer1 — not enough to snag two max-level free agents. LeBron and Kevin Love can both enter free agency this summer, but LeBron isn’t leaving Cleveland, and the market beyond those two isn’t teeming with franchise-changing stars. Is Marc Gasol leaving a beast of a team in Memphis to chill at the elbows while Kobe posts up?

LaMarcus Aldridge is a great player, but he’s one notch below the superstars that L.A. typically chases. Ditto for the other potential big names, including Rajon Rondo, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, Goran Dragic, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe, and others.

The recent record suggests that superstar free agents change teams primarily to play with better teammates. It’s hard to conceive of any top-10 player looking at the Lakers’ current roster and believing it is one piece away from getting through the Western Conference. Any star considering the Lakers would feel much better if L.A. could somehow obtain two such players at once.

Things change after the 2015-16 season, when Bryant’s contract expires and the cap is expected to make a huge leap — perhaps from $66.5 million, the current projection for the 2015-16 season, all the way to the $90 million range.2 The Lakers could offer two or even three max-level contracts during a summer in which Kevin Durant and a bunch of other stars could hit the market.

There will be intense competition for all of those stars. Almost everyone will have major cap room that summer. The Lakers may need to build an appealing base for their target players, and they don’t appear to have done that yet. Kupchak remains confident in L.A.’s market appeal. “We have always believed that Los Angeles, and this franchise, is a destination for any player,” he says.

The Lakers could accelerate the rebuild in the meantime. They could sign an impact guy this summer. They will keep the pick they owe Phoenix if it falls within the top five, and if that happens, lots of rival executives wonder if the Lakers will combine that pick with Randle in trade talks for a star.

But what if the Lakers just have to be normal? Kupchak could manage that. He has generally drafted well when the Lakers have had picks, though they were too cavalier during their salad days about tossing them away.

Part of being normal, at least for some teams, is chasing the B-level free agents — the Al Jeffersons and Lance Stephensons — while the glamour boys fight for the best guys. The Lakers get meetings with everyone, and they always will. That doesn’t mean they are the front-runner for any superstar, and to get there, they might have to beef up the roster first.

“I’m not going to tell you the only kind of free agent we’ll pursue is the superstar,” Kupchak says. “It depends on a lot of things — who you draft, who you trade for.”

The Lakers are far from the championship level to which they’ve become accustomed. They are in the wilderness, really, for the first time in the history of the franchise. There is no obvious way out — yet. In the meantime, they are still one of the best shows in the league — in their own way.

Filed Under: NBA, Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant, Mitch Kupchak, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis, Wesley johnson, Lance Stephenson, Al Jefferson, julius randle

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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