Playing With Kobe Bryant Is No Picnic, But Playing After Him Will...

Playing With Kobe Bryant Is No Picnic, But Playing After Him Will Be Tougher

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Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers

Ever since he clashed with Shaquille O’Neal en route to three titles and a napalm divorce, the question of whether or not stars want to play with Kobe Bryant has been basketball’s equivalent of the proverbial riddle plaguing man throughout time. And no matter what side of the fence you land, the topic guarantees passionate opinion and debate. Thus, it’s no surprise that Milwaukee Bucks forward Jared Dudley raised eyebrows with these comments on a recent appearance on ESPN’s “The Herd with Collin Cowherd:

“If you saw Jordan when he played with the Wizards, he started toning it down a little bit. He knew he didn’t have it. Kobe is the opposite. He wants to show everyone so much. I remember seeing Kobe, I think it was 70 games in [this past season] and he had out-shot the whole Lakers team by like 100 shots. C’mon now. We love you, Kobe, but c’mon. It’s, like, it’s now time to start giving up. Most guys don’t want to play with Kobe.”

“[Dialing it back is] tough for guys and for him, obviously, being one of the greats. Also, the worst thing about it is, he can.  Remember, Kobe gets in this thing where he doesn’t pass and then he over-passes and he’s trying to get triple-doubles every night.

“So we know you have [the ability to defer], it’s just not something he wants to do, and that’s why I think it’ll be a while before the Lakers can get good, because no stars — I mean, [Kevin] Love — I’ll be surprised if Love wanted to go there.”

Let’s get the obvious dog whistle stuff out of the way first.

It’s impossible to believe Kobe’s personality, presence and style of play has never deterred stars. To a certain degree, we’ve never truly known, because his peak years came on a team perennially over the cap without the necessary space to land a premiere free agent. Save A-List players “forcing their way to the Lakers,” which is far easier said than done, avenues for teaming Kobe with fellow superstars were, realistically speaking, pretty limited. But there’s also common sense. Kobe’s the first to admit being his teammate is no walk in the park. Teammates adjust to him, not the other way around. Moreover, the organization has revolved around Kobe for over a decade, and dude’s never been shy about leveraging the power harnessed from doubling as the sun. Obviously, there’s been far more good than bad created by this setup for all parties involved. But it was nonetheless much easier for players to roll with Kobe’s punches when he was an elite player and the Lakers were perpetually in the championship mix. A shot at a title is worth enduring a few death stares. These days, Kobe’s age, health and effectiveness, not to mention the Laker roster, offer serious question marks, which makes dealing with all things “Mamba” a far less tantalizing proposition.

— Have you seen the ‘Bleed Purple and Gold’ phone case? —

That’s just reality, and while it’s not the same thing as saying “nobody” wants to play with Kobe, assuming “everybody” would is naive at best.

On the other hand, I don’t know how much this matters anymore. Kobe’s under contract for one more season, and I’d be stunned if he doesn’t call it a career afterward. All signs have pointed towards retirement, and I don’t get the sense Kobe particularly wants to play beyond next year. Obviously, a lot could happen between now and then, but a lot would also HAVE to happen. For the time being, I’m operating with an assumption the question of “who best fits alongside Kobe” is one that won’t be pondered much longer.

Oddly enough, that’s good and bad news for the Lakers. One one hand, the Lakers can’t ever truly move forward with Kobe still on the roster. The guy will never take a back seat, and nobody will ever demand it. The only way to turn the page is for the book to end. On the other hand, as tough and perhaps unappealing a task as playing alongside Kobe may be, following him is likely gonna be 100 times worse. Save perhaps being the poor S.O.B. eventually tasked with taking over for Vin Scully, there ain’t a worse “next guy” gig in Los Angeles sports.

There has been a blueprint established when it comes to “the right way to win” in purple and gold since Kobe’s arrival. Laker fans, and in particular, Kobe fans, who I often say see Bryant as “half basketball God, half political prisoner,” have bought into this plan wholeheartedly. As a result, any star coming in after Kobe will be constantly compared to him, and spoiler alert… the comparison will never be favorable. The next guy will never be talented enough. Or intense enough. Or focused enough. Or driven enough. Or clutch enough. Or “alpha dog” enough. Or serious enough about winning.

Simply put, until a title arrives (and maybe even afterward), he’ll never be good enough. Period.

Just ask Pau Gasol, a three-time All-Star and two-time champion in purple and gold who couldn’t have been a more perfect teammate for Kobe if he’d been created in a lab by a group of Nobel-winning scientists. But despite everything he brought to the table, fans constantly jumped on and off El Spaniard’s bandwagon, in very large part because he didn’t fit the mold by inspired (and, frankly, demanded) by Kobe. And this is a guy who helped bring titles to L.A.

Now picture life for a future star with no equity as a Laker. Sounds like a blast, huh?

I can’t imagine this reality is lost on prospective free agents, nor that it doesn’t provide pause. It’s hard enough living up to the massive expectations that come with being a star in sports, and even harder as a star of one of the most high profile teams in the world with a fan base that’s loyal and smart, but also demanding as hell. It would take seriously thick skin, not to mention serious huevos, to be genuinely comfortable receiving that torch from Kobe. Among active superstars, Russell Westbrook comes to mind as an ideal candidate. Maybe Damian Lillard, were he to become disenchanted with the Blazers’ direction. And that’s about it.

To be clear, I’m not saying “nobody” will ever come to L.A., and if the Lakers can build a foundation attractive enough to lure a star, that pressure can be offset.

Still, it’ll be an uphill climb when it comes to winning over fans raised on two decades’ worth of Mamba. Without question, Kobe has earned this rarefied, iconic status, and any star who signs up for the task of filling his shoes likely knows what he’s getting into. But on some level, his legend is arguably too big for the Lakers’ own good, and I’m curious how many stars will be up to this gig, much less succeed.

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