ESPN has dropped a feature on Kobe Bryant in the latest issue of ESPN: The Magazine, and it's a doozy. The title "Is Kobe Bryant the reason for the Los Angeles Lakers' downfall?" seems misleadingly non-committal, as author Henry Abbott clearly believes that the answer is an unequivocal "yes." The piece—which is heavy on the use of agents as anonymous sources—details the Lakers collapse since winning the NBA Finals in 2010, and lays most of the blame at the feet of one Kobe Bean Bryant.
The basic thesis is that Bryant's megalomania has precluded any free agents of note from signing with the Lakers in the past few years. Now that Bryant is not a top five (or even a top 40, but we'll save that topic for another day) NBA player, nobody that doesn't have to is willing to put up with his bullshit anymore. The piece details the numerous free agents who refused to sign with the Lakers in large part because of Bryant, but what's really breathtaking is just how many agents are willing to absolutely pummel Bryant.
"Peek behind the banners," says one longtime NBA agent, "and it's rotten."
"Kobe is like the big rock in their front yard," says an agent who has had a Lakers client in recent years. "You can't mow over it, so you just have to mow around it."
Another agent with current Lakers clients was asked whether Bryant undermined the team's rebuilding by alienating would-be free agent recruits. "Well, duh," he replied. "Isn't that obvious?"
"I've had a lot of clients in the last five years, good players, who didn't want to play with Kobe," says an agent who has had numerous NBA stars. "They see that his teammates become the chronic public whipping boys. Anyone who could possibly challenge Kobe for the spotlight ends up becoming a pincushion for the media. Even Shaq."
"I just never felt like the Lakers put as much effort into the building-the-team part of it," says an agent who once had a free agent decline a Lakers offer. "I saw some things in the players' parking lot. Conversations between Bynum and his people and some people with the Lakers. It got pretty rough and heated."
And just for fun, Abbott lets a front office executive take a swing at the piñata:
"It's horrendous. It's evil. It's a hard drug to quit when you're winning," says a front office executive from a rival team who knows everyone involved well. "Kobe has cost the Lakers dearly in human capital. Kobe has hurt a lot of people. In some cases jeopardized careers."
On a basic level, the premise is quite simple. Kobe Bryant is undeniably an asshole to his teammates, and has a well-known penchant to kill them in the press both on and off the record. That was worth putting up with when being his teammate guaranteed a shot at a title, but now that Kobe Bryant is basically as good as Dion Waiters, they'd rather work with literally anybody else.
But in nearly every example Abbott offers, there are also obvious non-Kobe reasons why players signed with other teams. Ramon Sessions got a longer deal with the Bobcats. Dwight Howard had a better chance of winning with the Rockets. LeBron James wanted to go home to Cleveland. Chris Bosh received more money from the Heat.
In any case, after Kobe Bryant supposedly ruined any chance the Lakers had at re-signing Dwight Howard, why did the team still hand him an astronomical two-year, $48.5 million dollar contract? Jim Buss and money.
Jim Buss—the son of longtime owner Jerry Buss—has had the final say on decisions since his father died in 2013, and decided to avoid pissing off Bryant. Buss has been harshly criticized by Peter Vecsey, Magic Johnson, and Phil Jackson among others, and has little credibility around the league or with Lakers fans. Rather than have his first two big moves as the boss be losing Howard and amnestying Bryant, Buss decided to buy Bryant's good will.
The other reason is purely economic. The Lakers can make up to $150 million annually from their local TV, but according to one of Abbott's sources, the final amount hinges upon ratings. Kobe Bryant alone is enough to keep a lot of fans watching a bad team, and that directly translates into dollars in the pocket. It's also important to note that the team is the source of Buss's wealth; the Lakers don't have an owner who can cover losses with personal billions.
Kobe Bryant is already pissed at ESPN. It'll be fun to see how he decides to respond to this one.
Photo via Jeff Gross/Getty