Kobe Bryant refuses to relent. He refuses to bypass this troubled season in Los Angeles and prepare for the next one, even though his return from a knee injury may damage the organization long-term.
The Lakers, who are 19-36, are headed for the draft lottery and potentially a premium pick in perhaps the deepest draft since the Class of 2003 produced LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
The more Bryant plays this season, the more Lakers’ wins are likely and the lower their draft position. But he insists on returning to a lost cause. Despite being one of the game’s great warriors and competitors, he should not view this injury as some challenge to his legacy.
He should sit for the rest of the season, as Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley suggested. But we all know how stubborn Kobe is, and that is not a possibility.
“Well, I just stick to the script,” Bryant said during All-Star Weekend. “Just try to get better and then go from there. I just try to focus, keep my blinders on, and just do what I have to do and not worry too much about what’s going on around you — but just stay focused on what my responsibilities are. I am [hopeful]. I just need to keep my blinders on and just focus on getting better myself and going from there.”
Regardless of whether Bryant comes back, the Lakers are headed for the lottery, and they have about $27 million in salary-cap space to attract a free agent. Bryant already said he was unhappy with the trade that sent Steve Blake to Golden State for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks. But he also said he won’t take an active role in what management does in terms of upgrading talent.
“What we have coming up this offseason with the cap space and what we have ahead of ourselves seems to be right in the Lakers’ wheelhouse in terms of turning things around pretty quickly,” Bryant said. “We have had summers like this, they have never really faltered. They have normally made really sound and excellent decisions that put us right back in contention. So, I think this offseason is right in their wheelhouse.
“In all honesty, I don’t want [the responsibility of helping with roster decisions]. That’s what they do. I’m not a general manager. I don’t know about scouting players and doing things of that nature. So, I’ll let them do their job. They have obviously done a phenomenal job at it for years, so I’m not going to jump in the way.
“All I ask is if something is going to go down, just let me know about it beforehand so I don’t hear about it on a ticker or something. But that’s about it.”
Bryant signed a two-year, $48 million contract extension last summer that will leave him at 37 years old when it concludes. He has sustained a fractured kneecap and torn left Achilles’ tendon in the past two years, leaving observers to doubt whether he can return to All-Star form. Bryant said he shares those doubts.
“Absolutely, [but] that’s part of the excitement of the challenge, that level of uncertainty — are my best days behind me sort of thing,” he said. “And to have those conversations with yourself and not be intimidated by that, and not be not succumbing to that, is part of the challenge.
“It’s really the biggest challenge saying, well, maybe this is the end, but then again, maybe it’s not. And it is my responsibility to do all that I can to make sure that it’s not. So, that’s really become the biggest challenge.”
There is no timetable for when Bryant will return, but he is getting close. He may use the final 20-plus games to regain his confidence after missing several months, but in his six appearances this season, Bryant was a shell of himself.
“That’s the challenge of it. I don’t know. I think I can [return to form],” he said. “But everything I read from players is that they all think they can go out there and score 40 or 50. But it’s not the mind that wears down, it’s the body. So, my job is to try to keep my body as fresh as possible, keep it as strong as possible, so it can be right there with my mind in terms of how I can execute things. That’s part of the challenge. So, we’ll see.”
SETTING A TREND
Popovich’s big-picture approach now copied
Five years ago, when San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sensed his aging club needed a break, he began resting his healthy starters for particular games, unheard of among NBA people who believed the coach was creating a competitive disadvantage.
Despite resting Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan on occasion, the Spurs have remained successful, and coaches such as Doc Rivers have picked up on the effectiveness of giving older veterans regular-season rest. Now, such ploys have their disadvantages. When Popovich sent three starters home instead of playing in a nationally televised showdown against the Miami Heat, the organization was fined $250,000 for his decision.
When asked if he considers himself a trail blazer for better preparing his team for the postseason by resting players during the regular season, Popovich said, “You don’t want to be fined $250,000 too often, so that’s not a good trend, obviously. But we’ve been resting guys for 20 years since I’ve been here. I think it extends their careers. It’s logical that when you’re playing four games in five nights or eight games in 12 nights or some crazy thing, and your guys are getting older, you do what makes sense.”
The Spurs’ way of operating has been imitated by several teams. San Antonio has been able to remain relevant without signing a major free agent or drafting a high lottery pick since Duncan in 1997. Popovich attributes that to being ahead of most teams in scouting European players. That ingenuity brought the club Parker, Ginobili, and Tiago Splitter.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to have a core for quite a while, so that continuity has been great,” Popovich said. “We’ve sort of put the pieces around it for the last 15, 16 years. But Tim Duncan has allowed us to do that. Without him, I’d be coaching the JVs at Pomona [College] or something.”
“Pop and [general manager] R.C. [Buford] are doing a great job of putting teams together,” Duncan said. “They keep our core together and that’s a huge help. We continue to do well in the draft with our late picks and continue to build around a system that is in place to play the way we want to play. We’re able to execute and understand the discipline it takes year in and year out.”
Said Popovich: “We count all the first-round picks, even Charlotte the other night, we were counting all the first-round picks that were below 10 and there were three or four of them. That adds up after a while. Teams start to get better and that athleticism is tough to match. We hope we can do it by adding Kawhi Leonard or young guys along the way. But that’s what we have to deal with.”
Popovich tells a story about his first year with the Spurs as an assistant coach in 1988, begging management to attend the European Championships at a time when NBA teams barely paid attention to overseas prospects.
“The only other NBA guy in the room was Nellie [former Warriors coach Don Nelson],” Popovich said. “There was nobody in there. And that’s when he was bringing Sarunas [Marciulionis] from Russia and I felt like a kid at a candy store just looking around. Yugoslavia was Yugoslavia [talent-wise] and they had that team, which was ridiculous. Russia was really good when they were the Soviet Union. There were just players everywhere. So, I knew early on it was a market we wanted to tap, so we did Parker at 28 [overall in the draft] and Manu in the 50s and [Luis] Scola and Splitter.
“I liked the way they played over there. Those kids were really committed. They were not entitled. They wanted to practice as much as you wanted them to practice. They played team basketball and I was really impressed with all that, so I did my best to bring those guys over.”
Cavaliers are turning corner on rocky road
The Cleveland Cavaliers were a mess six weeks ago. Coach Mike Brown appeared clueless, wasting a second chance to revive the organization. The Andrew Bynum signing was an abject failure, prompting the firing of Chris Grant as general manager. The season seemed lost, especially since the team’s younger core — expected to mesh to attract LeBron James to consider Cleveland as a free agent destination — was bickering. Six consecutive wins later, that no longer seems to be the case. Kyrie Irving displayed his immense potential with 31 points and 14 rebounds to earn All-Star Game MVP honors, while Dion Waiters dropped 31 points in the Rising Stars Game, engaging in an entertaining scoring duel with Knicks rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. The Cavaliers then helped themselves by acquiring Spencer Hawes from the 76ers at the trade deadline for perimeter shooting.
Cleveland is now primed to make a playoff run and perhaps change the perception of its future for potential free agents. Waiters, who clashed with Irving earlier this season, said the process of gaining chemistry as an inexperienced group is difficult.
“It’s tough because you want to win and you want to win now,” said Waiters, who averaged 16.8 points during the first five games of the winning streak. “But I think the last couple of games before the break we’ve been jelling. We’ve been passing the ball and running the floor. We’ve been playing team basketball and it shows. You see the results. I think we’ve just got to keep that momentum.”
Waiters wants more leadership responsibility, despite this being his second year. The issue with the Cavaliers and their youth movement is the lack of veterans to guide even those such as Irving, who is just 21.
“There’s certain guys you’ve got to talk to differently,” Waiters said. “You can’t cuss everybody out or scream at everybody, especially the young guys. What I try to do, I try to talk to [rookies] because I’ve been in that position before. There’s different ways I could have handled it but now that I’ve got that year under my belt, I go about things differently.”
Because Waiters attended prep school, he is actually three months older than Irving despite Irving being in his third season. As a result, Waiters has sought more responsibility. He has formed a bond with troubled rookie Anthony Bennett, who is showing signs of improvement after a miserable first half.
“I’m being patient, maturing every day off the court,” Waiters said. “That’s the biggest thing, trying to stay the course. [Bennett’s] picking it up. He’ll tell you, I talk to him every game. It’s going to happen [for him]. It’s not going to happen overnight but it’s going to happen. He’s getting it, though. He works hard. He’s in there early every morning.”
When asked about the origin of his supreme confidence, Waiters said: “I’m from Philly, man. You get that toughness right away. I don’t know, they just carve it in you. It’s just being confident and having belief in yourself when nobody else does. That’s what you work hard for, those type of [big] shots, those types of moments. You’ve got to seize the moment and make it count.”
Irving said this season has brought self-examination after the Cavaliers were a vogue pick to win a playoff round.
“You have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask what do I need to do in order to change and make this team better?” he said. “That’s what I’ve had to do a few times this season. I’m just figuring it out. I’m a 21-year-old kid just trying to figure out this leadership thing and it’s been rocky. But hopefully in a few years I can look back and appreciate this journey. It’s a great journey that I’m going through mentally and physically. I’m enjoying the process.”
It’s been difficult for a young team with so many expectations to focus when the pressure has been immense.
“We can’t pay attention to our outside sources [of criticism], that can infiltrate our team,” Irving said. “I feel like some of the outside pressures got inside our locker room, whether it was stories coming out or anything like that. There was so much turmoil. That’s just the business. As long as we keep our expectations realistic in our locker room, I feel like the sky’s the limit.
“We’ve definitely made a turn in the right direction and I feel good about it. Our locker-room energy is totally different than before our general manager got fired, which is terrible but it’s part of the business. But now I feel like we’re making strides in the right direction.”
There is a market for former Baylor guard Pierre Jackson, whose rights are owned by New Orleans. The Pelicans have allowed him to play in the NBADL without a call-up. Several teams watched Jackson at last weekend’s NBADL All-Star Game in New Orleans and he is considered a definite NBA player. With the success of diminutive guards such as Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson, and J.J. Barea, Jackson has become popular among GMs looking for a dynamic scorer. Jackson is apparently considering a contract offer from Turkish team Fenerbache Ulker, which beat the Celtics in an exhibition in 2012. The only way Jackson can appear in the NBA with a team other than the Pelicans is if the club relinquishes his rights. He is averaging 29.1 points in 31 games for the Idaho Stampede . . . The NBA is seeking players to participate in an exhibition game in Johannesburg in August. The league is beefing up its presence in Africa, which includes seeking future prospects. The continent’s best players are located in Nigeria and Egypt . . . Chris Paul was peppered with questions during All-Star Weekend about his time with the New Orleans Hornets, including whether he would have stayed if Saints owner Tom Benson had owned the team two years ago. Paul said it was a consideration, but he felt the situation under previous owner George Shinn necessitated a change. Paul said he was grateful to the fans of New Orleans, and when he made a basket during the All-Star Game, his customary “woo” sound that became popular during his Hornets days was played at the Smoothie King Center . . . While the All-Star Game was sold out, every seat was not occupied, especially in the upper bowl. Whomever purchased those tickets would have been better suited handing them out to children and families of the host city who would actually use them . . . The NBA Players Association still has not chosen an executive director and those close to the situation are annoyed at the apathy of players given the apparent misdoings of previous executive director Billy Hunter. Taking so long to choose a leader and the apparent disinterest of key players almost makes certain the players will be unprepared when the next collective bargaining agreement comes up and the owners potentially opt out in 2017.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.