Shot after shot left Kobe Bryant’s hands, 37 in all, with 14 connecting, 23 missing and zero ultimately mattering in the Lakers' loss to the Suns on Tuesday night. It was a sad visual: The fading star dragging the ugly carcass of the 16-time champion Lakers through the minefield that is the Western Conference.
The Lakers are bad. Really bad. They may not challenge the '72-73 Sixers for the worst record of all-time, but at the very least they will keep pace with this year's tanking Philadelphia team.The Lakers are inefficient on offense (No. 16 in the NBA), a disaster on defense and have a weird aversion to shooting the three, a weapon that virtually every successful team of this era has utilized in one form or another. Bryant has attempted nearly a third of the Lakers' triples during their 0-5 start, suggesting that he has unilaterally decided there is still value in them.
It’s hard to see things getting much better, either. The schedule is brutal -- a Nov. 28 home date with the Wolves is the Lakers' first game against a non-playoff contender -- and help isn’t exactly on the way. Steve Nash is gone, Julius Randle is out for the season, and if you are banking on Nick Young to make a measurable difference, well, I’ve got Ernie Grunfeld’s office number for you.
So I’ll ask: Why not trade Kobe?
Or, at the very least, have a real discussion with Kobe about if he wants to be traded.
I know the arguments against it. The Lakers have the fourth-highest ticket prices in the NBA this year, according to Forbes, and they need a superstar to entice people to buy them. Save for a couple of post-Magic Johnson teams in the early 1990’s, L.A. has always had an attraction or, in the case of the Nick Van Exel/Vlade Divac/Eddie Jones-led teams of the mid-90’s, been good enough to make fans forget they didn’t. A starless stinker of a team is one Lakers fans aren’t accustomed to seeing.
They need Bryant for television ratings, too. The Lakers had the fourth-highest local TV ratings in 2012-13, Bryant’s last full season, and a $4 billion deal with Time Warner to live up to. He’s the reason TNT and ESPN will still pick up a Lakers-Warriors game that might be over at halftime instead of Mavericks-Pelicans game that might actually be relevant. Stars drive ratings, and Kobe is still among the biggest in the sport.
But those reasons have nothing to do with basketball. The Lakers are looking down the barrel of a difficult rebuild. They could have $30-plus million in cap space next summer, and there are players they can wave it at. They could make a creative, Chandler Parsons-style offer to a restricted free agent (LA-born Kawhi Leonard, OKC’s Reggie Jackson), they could throw a max offer at Detroit’s Greg Monroe or Memphis’ Marc Gasol and they could also hope that the handful of players with options for ’15-16 (Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez) opt out and look in their direction.
There is one player who makes sense in LA next season: Rajon Rondo. Several rival executives believe the Lakers will make a strong run at Rondo next summer, and it’s easy to see why. Rondo is young (28), plays a critical position and shares the same win-at-all-bleeping-cost attitude as Bryant. The Celtics are rebuilding and have a young playmaker in Marcus Smart, which may limit their desire to hand Rondo max money.
But Los Angeles had a boatload of money last summer too and all they could do was overpay their own players ($9 million for Jordan Hill?) and absorb Jeremy Lin. They tried to improve -- Bryant has attested to that -- but playing in purple and gold wasn’t all that appealing to free agents, for whatever reason. Who knows if next summer's crop will think any differently.
Even with Rondo (and, for the sake of argument, let's say Greg Monroe) what are the Lakers? A playoff team? With Randle back and another high draft pick -- which the Lakers will hand to Phoenix if it’s not in the top-five -- maybe.
A contending team? Not even close.
This isn’t to say the Lakers should give Bryant away. Flipping Bryant and his $24 million contract for expiring deals makes little sense. But what if a Bryant trade recoups a young player and a future first-round pick? As hard as it is to part with Bryant, life without him is coming eventually. Boston saw the end of the line coming for Paul Pierce and traded the homegrown icon and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for the assets that have replenished the roster and given GM Danny Ainge a surplus of draft picks to use down the road.
Bryant has the final say here. He has a no-trade clause and told Yahoo! Sports recently that he has no interest in going anywhere. But this is November. What will Bryant think in January, when the losses are piled up and his 36-year old body is feeling the weight of having to carry the offensive burden nightly? What will he think if Phil Jackson casually suggests that a change of scenery might be good for him? A reunion between Bryant and Jackson in New York makes sense on several levels. The Knicks get a second star (which Bryant, at this point, needs to be) with a deep understanding of the triangle offense. The Lakers could poach one of the Knicks' big expiring contracts, a young piece (Iman Shumpert?) and a future protected pick.
It’s something to think about. Bryant is, understandably, enamored with finishing his career with the Lakers, with joining Magic, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan among the NBA greats who played with one team their entire career. He has the power to do it, but it’s going to be a rough way to go out.