On Tuesday Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak admitted what everybody already knew: the Lakers are prioritizing the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour, at the expense of the numerous exciting young players on the roster.
“This [season] is really a justified farewell to perhaps the best player in franchise history,” he told ESPN. “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.” It took just two days for Kupchak’s team to demonstrate why this philosophy is so stupid.
Against his old nemesis, the Sacramento Kings, on Thursday night, Kobe Bryant had a turn-back-the-clock game. He scored 28 points, 18 in the first half, on 10-18 shooting, and even got up for an alley-oop. Yet the Kings went up from the start, had a 27-point lead in the third quarter, and were up 16 when Kobe departed the game for good at the end of the third quarter. The Kings were well on their way to a laugher.
And then D’Angelo Russell happened. The rookie point guard who wasn’t allowed to play fourth quarters earlier in the season and was eventually relegated to the bench showed the tantalizing potential that made him the number two pick in the draft. He began the comeback from the 27-point deficit in the third quarter, with Kobe still in the game, hitting two three-pointers and a layup. In the fourth quarter he continued his tear, scoring 11 points while trading buckets with 23-year-old teammate Jordan Clarkson.
With 3:48 left in the game, the Lakers actually went up one, 109-108. They had ripped off a 48-20 run over 15:15, giving them a one-point lead in a game they’d been losing by 27. The comeback was led almost entirely by the young guns, Russell, Clarkson, and Julius Randle, along with old man Brandon Bass.
The young Lakers blew it at the end, of course, though coach Byron Scott’s asinine instructions (or lack of intelligent ones) contributed. Down one with 21 seconds remaining, instead of attacking the hoop immediately Clarkson cradled the rock for an eternity, before driving and losing the ball. Two DeMarcus Cousins free throws pushed the deficit to three, and after a Louis Williams missed three-pointer, the Lakers inexplicably chose not to foul and let the clock run out, losing 118-115.
Both halves of the Lakers comeback—the unstoppable Russell shooting 11-16 as well as the brain farts at the end—show why the team’s current strategy is so misguided. Russell, Randle, and Clarkson are legitimately good players, and there might even be a star or two in there. They need playing time against starters and bench warmers, as the first option and the decoy, in close games and blowouts, with the freedom to make mistakes and the knowledge that it is critical they do not.
Kobe Bryant or the youngsters is only a binary choice if the Lakers make it one, and so far they have chosen to do so. “Under normal circumstances [in a season like this], at some point, you would probably concentrate on just developing all your young players,” Kupchak told ESPN. “But we can’t do that right now.
Yes, they can, and furthermore, they need to. They can still have the Kobe Bryant pomp and circumstance before the game and during the first quarter, while de-emphasizing his role on the court. They can start Russell and give him some rope while still getting Kobe 14 (probably better!) shots a game. They can give the young players a consistent role with consistent minutes without benching Kobe entirely. A basketball team can do more than one thing at a time.
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