Watching the Lakers’ two preseason games against the Denver Nuggets I realized that I really like their team: a scrappy underdog squad with an aging veteran core and unproven role players with something to prove. From a narrative perspective it’s an easy sell. Even better, they’ve got two of the most likable players in the league in Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, with Gasol on a mission to quiet his critics after a mediocre season last year spent trying (and failing) to find a way to fit into coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. Gasol already looks more aggressive and more productive in his early court time than he did at any point in the season last year. Back to crisp 16-footers, agile rebounding, and dizzying post moves.
Add journeyman center Chris Kaman, retread Jodie Meeks and Nick Young, the shot-aholic guard you love to hate, and you’ve got yourself a team with enough talent and grit to fight their way to a playoff berth, then use their veteran savvy to make it tough on whatever first or second seed they face once they get there. That’s a team I’m interested in watching. That’s a team I want to win. Nash looking for his first ring to justify joining a long time nemesis, Gasol looking to prove he’s still the player that tore up the US in the Olympics, D’Antoni looking to show the world he’s the kind of coach who CAN mesh superstars into a winning team, and Nick Young looking to prove he can hit contested 18 footers as well as anyone in the league.
So you’ll find me tuning into the Lakeshow for now, at least until Kobe Bryant gets back. Once he returns the charm of that ornery veteran team is immediately transformed, recast in the light of Kobe’s unrelenting will to win as a shabby collection of neerdowells who will never amount to anything, and who, by the very mediocrity of their presence on the court, are obscuring Kobe’s brilliance, an unforgivable sin. Sure, you could argue that playing with a team of vets and role players could, in true Disney fashion, teach Kobe to truly live again…but we’ve seen this play out before, and given Kobe’s treatment of Smush Parker, I don’t think that’s very likely.
Perhaps, you may say, I’m a sap to want it to appear as though a team likes playing together. This isn’t a Disney movie, after all, so why should I expect good feelings on top of world-class feats of athletic prowess? Well, I suppose I see the game a bit larger than breathtaking alley-oops and devastating crossovers (though I love those too). I’m interested in the way that groups of people succeed together. I’m interested in piecing together the elements of success, from the front office to the center circle; how are teams putting themselves in a position to succeed? One of the essential elements to success is team chemistry, that ineffable quality that turns individuals into something more than the sum of their parts, and Kobe, despite his 5 rings, is about as close to the antithesis of that as I can imagine.
Let’s talk about those 5 rings he’s got, since they prove that Kobe knows lot about winning. It’s clear that chemistry is possible with him on the team, but I don’t believe it would have been possible without the addition of another element: the leadership and experience of Phil Jackson. Without Jackson’s world-class ability to blend disparate personalities into a single team, using the triangle offense and a weirdly effective style of corporate mysticism, Kobe doesn’t get a single ring. Following the Jordan model, Kobe’s not a team player without someone to suppress his inherent arrogance. Lacking a master chemist at the helm Kobe’s little more than a ringless scoring champ sipping bitter brews with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in the Loser’s Lounge of NBA history.
So although Kobe’s return may signal more success for the Lakers (though his successful return from his full achilles tear, even with the help of his mysterious German medical team, is anything but certain in my mind) it also signals the end of my interest in the Lakers and their feel-good basketball and, ultimately, the elimination of joy from their game. That, more than anything, is what Kobe signifies to me: a gritty, joyless approach to a game that, for many others, is enjoyable even when there isn’t a ring in sight.