It’s something anyone who’s watched the Los Angeles Lakers this season already knew. But it still came as somewhat of a shock for Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak to openly admit that the 2015-16 season is all about Kobe Bryant — even if it means cutting into the development of the team’s future.
Kupchak told ESPN.com this week that while a team in the Lakers’ situation would typically be dedicated to nurturing players such as D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, Los Angeles "can’t do that right now:"
“This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history. And, God willing, he's going to want to play every game and he's going to want to play a lot of minutes in every game, because that's just the way he is.
“And as long as that continues, which it should, then that's 30-35 minutes that you might give to a young player that you can't. How do you get a feel for your team going forward when you know that your best player is not going to be there next year? So it's really hard to go forward until he's no longer here.”
The Lakers GM even went so far as to call it a good thing. When you have a true legend like Bryant, you celebrate his career properly. That means letting him play and say goodbye to the game and fans in the way that he wants.
But Kupchak’s explicit admission makes Bryant’s time on the court a little easier to swallow, so long as there’s no longer any question about what’s really going on with the team. Coach Byron Scott’s failure to play Russell in the clutch and his decision to tell Randle he needs to "grow up" get sheltered under the umbrella of "Bryant’s farewell tour." It’s nice that there’s no more pretending that the Lakers care about anything but Kobe for the here and now — for now, at least.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, despite what Kupchak says. For these Lakers, coaching matters. And every day wasted on development kicks the Lakers’ return to playoff form farther down the road.
Bad coaching might not derail Hall of Fame-caliber talent. Just look at the lofty heights to which Blake Griffin has soared despite beginning his career under the tutelage of Vinny Del Negro. But there’s no evidence that Randle, Clarkson and Russell have that kind of generational skill. They are all very good players who could in fact become All-Stars and NBA greats in their own time. But they need to combine their own abilities, intelligence and work ethic with advisers and teachers focused on making the most of players who are still growing and learning in order to get there.
There is no easy answer here. And again, good on Kupchak for laying everything on the line. But as long as the Lakers are done pretending this season is about anything other than Kobe, let’s stop pretending that’s in any way a good thing for the team.