The National Basketball Association (NBA) season has not even begun, and yet criticism of the Los Angeles Lakers has already reached a critical mass.
An ESPN piece published last week suggested that Kobe Bryant, the team’s aging superstar and one of the best to ever play in the league, is “destroying [the team] from within.” Another ESPN article posted Friday called him the most overrated player in the NBA.
Now that he is 36, coming off an Achilles tendon injury and nearing the end of his career, the sports media seems to be ganging up on Bryant, who has never been the most accommodating to journalists. It is almost as if all the behind-the-scenes resentment of Bryant has been saved up until his game may not be able to answer to the constantly lofty expectations placed upon him.
All this criticism of Bryant, who should still be one of the most lethal scorers in the game, obscures the most legitimate critique of the Lakers organization—that the team, as it is currently constituted, is simply bad. Debates over Bryant’s salary should not distract from the fact that the team mortgaged its future to acquire the broken-down point guard Steve Nash, or that it could not hold on to Dwight Howard before the center signed with the Houston Rockets.
Blaming Bryant for re-signing to the bloated, two-year, $48.5 million contract extension he inked last fall puts the onus unfairly on a player who is the sole reason people still tune in to watch the Lakers. The conversation should not be about whether Bryant warrants being the most highly paid player in the NBA, but rather why the Lakers organization continues to conduct its operations as if it is a championship-caliber team.
The Lakers’ lack of direction can be attributed to the organization’s stubbornness and failure to adapt to the realities of the current NBA landscape, in which acquiring big names instead of developing and carefully compiling assets often leads to disaster.
Paying through the nose for two more years of a likely moderately-effective Bryant should not inhibit the Lakers from structuring the rest of their roster strategically. However, this year’s team, featuring the likes of Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Jordan Hill, is a poorly assembled patchwork group which will leave this season’s Lakers in Western Conference purgatory: not good enough to make the playoffs, and not bad enough to land one of the top picks in next year’s draft.