The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled all season long, and star guard Kobe Bryant is the only player who has been a lock for consistent production. In an interview with David Leon Moore of USA Today, Bryant talked about everything from his fear of bees to his new defensive attitude.
However, the words that stood out the most were those Bryant said of how his team can start improving this season. Using some...well...odd phrasing, the five-time champion was candid in what had to be done.
"The important thing is that your teammates have to know you're pulling for them and you really want them to be successful. And I'm trying to instill in them some of the DNA qualities that I have – being extremely stubborn, being extremely competitive, and getting the job done by any means necessary. No excuses. No poor me. No none of that. It just has to get done."
Though "DNA qualities" may not be the best choice of words, Bryant could not be more right. Except for him and center Dwight Howard, the rest of his teammates have not been playing with the competitive bite of which he speaks. Yes, Howard has only recently gone into beast mode, averaging 22 points, 15.3 rebounds and two blocks since returning from injury, but the fact that he went out and played hard regardless of his health is a testament to his commitment to succeeding this year.
The fact is that the Lakers need to fully embrace Bryant's words. This is a team with so much history, and just two-plus seasons removed from a championship. Granted, the roster now is far different than it was then, but the key players in Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol are all still there.
The core players know how to win together, and it's time for them to adapt to head coach Mike D'Antoni's system and, as Bryant so eloquently put it, stop making excuses.
The most guilty party in terms of excuses would be Gasol. He is having the worst season of his career under D'Antoni, averaging just 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Instead of just saying that he needs to improve his game, he instead spoke to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles and criticized his coach's philosophy and said how he could be made better.
"I'm not a pure jump-shooter," he said. "I can stretch the defense out and make a couple jumpers. But how I get going is by getting in the paint and creating off the post, things like that.
"That's historically how I've been really successful and made a really good name for myself and earned my contracts. But hopefully I'll find a way and we'll find a way to get me a few opportunities there and get myself going in that way and be more effective."
In that same article, Bryant was quick to defend Gasol. However, not two weeks after that, Bryant spoke to Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles and was blunt in his criticism of his teammate.
Granted, Gasol's struggles in D'Antoni's system are not entirely his fault. The fast-paced "seven second or less" offense calls for a great deal of running, and Gasol missed eight games this season due to tendinitis in both knees. If that was bothering him before he was shut down, it's understandable as to why his production was low.
But the man has had plenty of time back in the lineup since returning from that injury. Just by watching him, it's clear that he is struggling in the system but is not making a strong effort to fully buy into it. Instead of trying to "adjust," as Bryant put it, he's just going through the motions and blaming his struggles on not being in his comfort zone.
In fact, the entire Lakers team minus Bryant and Howard appears to have that mindset. Point guard Steve Nash played in D'Antoni's system for four years but is not getting involved nearly enough on offense. He is averaging 8.8 assists, but just 10.4 points, and his three-point percentage is at a career-worst 34 percent.
Even worse is that D'Antoni is now considering using Gasol in a bench role, as youngster Earl Clark is more capable of being a stretch 4, and playing in the second unit would give Gasol the extended time in the low post that he wants.
Instead of using this as an opportunity to help the team and view it as a fresh start, Gasol spoke to Dave McMenamin and made it clear that he did not want to be a second-unit player.
"I've never come off the bench in my career," Gasol said. "(Thursday) was my first game off the bench with the Lakers, maybe a couple other games due to injuries, but that's it. I've been a starter my entire career. I've been a star starter my entire career, so I want to continue to be a star starter."
It's hard not to understand where Gasol is coming from, but the fact of the matter is that he is the player, not the coach. If his being the sixth man or coming off the bench will help the Lakers in the long run, he should be more than willing to accept his new role rather than make an excuse as to why he shouldn't serve the team in that capacity.
Regardless of what happens with Gasol, the Lakers just need to look at Bryant's words to Moore and see the real message behind them. In a sense, Bryant is saying, "I'm trying to help you guys be the best, but you're not returning the favor in helping me on the floor. Let's put the bad games behind us and just focus on being the best and coping with our mistakes. Nothing more, nothing less."
Words like that only come from the heart of a champion, and winning a championship is what GM Mitch Kupchak hoped to accomplish in bringing both Howard and Nash aboard. Instead, thanks to injuries, a coaching change and other factors, the Lakers are struggling just to stay in the playoff race.
Yes, injuries have been a problem for the Lakers all year long, but other teams do not use them as an excuse to regress. Rather, the entire team should be playing harder because of that. With the explosive Jordan Hill out for the season, the Lakers need to fully embrace this type of mantra.
The same can be said for the team's chemistry. Everyone needs to be more committed to the system and not just wait for everything to click with a wave of the wand. Instead of waiting for something that they can't control to happen, the Lakers need to work together as a cohesive unit and see that D'Antoni's system comes to life in every single game—which they can make happen with the right amount of commitment.
Thus, it's time for Bryant to have a sitdown with his teammates and say to them just what he said to Moore. In doing so, he can hopefully help turn the Lakers around and get them back to their regularly contending ways.
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