Everyone else on these Los Angeles Lakers had showered, dressed and bundled themselves to march out into the coldest night across the past two winters here. As the clock lurched past midnight in the losing locker room, the team bus gone, Kobe Bryant still wore his purple and gold jersey inside a tiny cubicle.
For some reason, he was holding onto one more night, one more loss, a little longer on Monday. He had marched past the Michael Jordan statue in the United Center, embraced Scottie Pippen courtside and understood he had never been so far away from those six championship banners hanging above him
One more to go, and yet Monday night had been another cruel installment that Bryant no longer plays on a championship contender, that the parts, the system, the plan, is spiraling deeper and deeper into the abyss. Seven games under .500, four games out of the playoff picture and an unraveling in the final minutes of a 95-83 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
So far, these Lakers are a failure. So far, a bust.
“Obviously, this isn’t working,” Bryant told said.
Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have dropped to seven games below .500. It isn’t working for Pau Gasol, who has lost his starting job to Earl Clark. It isn’t working for Dwight Howard, who grumbled privately in the locker room over the truths on the stat sheet. Most of all, it isn’t working for the Los Angeles Lakers, on course to be remembered as one of pro sports’ biggest debacles.
On the issue of coach Mike D’Antoni stripping Gasol of his starting job, Bryant responded with a long, telling silence and smirk when pressed on whether he believed Gasol’s benching made these Lakers a better basketball team.
On the issue of Howard’s belief that the ball simply doesn’t go through him enough on offense, Bryant rejected the premise.
“I’ve tried to go out of my way to get him the ball,” Bryant said. “Sometimes I end up looking like an idiot, because I get up in the air, I’ve got a shot, but I try to find him. But he thinks I’m going to shoot, so his back is turned. I’m trying to think about getting him the ball a lot – take care of him as much as I possibly can. It takes me out of rhythm a little bit, but I’m fine with that. If that’s going to help our team, I’m more than willing to do that.”
When Howard did get the ball on Monday, he missed four of eight free throws. He let the Bulls strip him. He missed three of his five shots. His aggression seems to come and go, on offense and defense. Perhaps it’s the back; perhaps it’s something else.
“I’ve constantly tried to help him out, tried to talk to him,” Bryant said. “Two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning. Texting him. Sharing reading materials. Anything to try and help him.
“He’s coming off a major surgery in a market where it’s just merciless; where there’s demands and responsibilities of athletes. It’s been tough on him.”
Deep into the fourth quarter, within a basket, the Lakers crumbled to the Bulls. As one Western Conference assistant coach told Y! Sports, “If you just keep running your stuff, trust your offense, they will eventually break down on defense. You’ll get what you want.”
Dwight Howard had eight points, nine rebounds and four turnovers against the Bulls. This speaks to D’Antoni’s inability to cultivate an identity for these Lakers. Bryant wouldn’t come right out and declare D’Antoni’s system a failure, but he did speak to a need for the coach to find ways to flex everyone’s strengths. D’Antoni has a long, stubborn history of forcing talent to fit into his system, and right now that is clearly playing a part in the unraveling of this season.
“We need to go back to basics,” Bryant said. “We need to put guys in positions to do what they do best. We need to strip it down. Steve is best in pick-and-roll. Pau is best in the post. I’m best from the free-throw line extended down. Let’s go back to basics.
“We’ve got to evaluate what’s going on. Management is looking at it. The players are looking at it. I’m looking at myself. I’m shooting a low percentage right now, and I’ve got to look at that. It’s on me to make shots, but I’m having to make tough shots, getting the ball 30 feet from the basket and [expletive] like that.
“Originally, teams would have to play our pick-and-roll coverage, which left me open on the back side quite a bit. But they’ve made adjustments, and they’ve decided to stay home on Kobe no matter what. So I’m trying to space the floor. I’m trying to do my job the best I can. I try to create opportunities. But most of them are trying to take the ball to the basket with four or five seconds left on the [shot] clock, trying to manufacture tough shots.
“Listen, no one is more critical of their game, of how they’re playing, than I am. And right now, I’ve got to shoot at a higher percentage, have to play better. ”
It was late Monday, and the No. 24 jersey still stayed on his back inside the arena where No. 23 won those six championships. Kobe Bryant has five titles, and this had been proposed as a season for him to chase his sixth. Bryant had made seven of 22 shots against the Bulls, gone to the free-throw line only three times.
“On me,” Bryant would say again. “I’ve got to find a way to make shots.”
Midnight passed, the Lakers bus had left the United Center, and still Bryant sat inside his locker and searched for solutions. Mostly, they were abstract, unrealistic and ultimately at the mercy of D’Antoni valuing victory over the validation of his precious system. These Lakers aren’t pursuing a title, but merely the stabilization needed to secure the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
All alone in the United Center locker room, all his teammates gone, Bryant still hadn’t peeled the uniform off his back. He chases ghosts in this gym. He chases the elevated immortality that comes with catching Michael Jordan. In the empty room, in the Lakers’ spiral, there were no empty words about chasing a championship.
Another lost night, another embarrassing loss. Bryant stayed back and let it wash over him. Those six Bulls championship banners dangled over him, and never had they felt so distant, so unreachable. Nevertheless, Bryant stayed in the still of the room. Coldest night of the year in Chicago, and Kobe Bryant showed no inclination to hustle out into the winter of his basketball life.