Sitting down with Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum, Bryant spoke at length about the situation facing these Lakers. About the adjustments made under head coach Mike D'Antoni, about his drive to be better even at age 34, and most notably, about his confidence in himself and his teammates.
Asked by McCallum whether the Lakers' struggles to make the postseason were weighing on him—they are 26-29 and 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference after defeating the Boston Celtics Wednesday night—Bryant wasted no time doing his best Joe Namath impersonation and guaranteeing a postseason berth.
"It's not a question of if we make the playoffs," Bryant said (via Sports Illustrated). "We will. And when we get there, I have no fear of anyone—Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Denver...whoever. I have zero nervousness about that."
On the surface it seems like a brash quote from Bryant. The Lakers' season has been stuck in neutral since the opening tip, languishing around the .500 mark while everyone and their great-grandmother speculates about internal friction.
But it's also a calculated piece of conjecture. As he's aged, Bryant has become increasingly aware of his ability to use media to create a specific effect. It's something he undoubtedly picked up after spending years burrowed under the wing of Phil Jackson.
Bryant's message wasn't to McCallum or Lakers fans, it was to his teammates. He's telling them that this team is too good to miss the playoffs.
He's right. But it's ultimately an empty quote, with little to no forbearance on what happens the remainder of the season. Bryant has likely said similar things in the Lakers' locker room throughout the season, only for the team to continue eroding away at its core.
Dwight Howard and Steve Nash are obviously Bryant's most important teammates for this stretch run. They are also grown men, former MVP candidates (and winners in Nash's case) and among the best players at their position.
They don't need a silly little motivational ploy from Bryant to play hard. Both Nash and Howard know what an embarrassment missing the playoffs would be not only for the team, but personally.
If there's anything that will "motivate" them, it's fear of the aftermath.
I'm fully of the opinion that the Lakers will make the playoffs this year. That's my position because it's unfathomable to me that a team with this much individual talent can be run into the ground enough by management and coaching to not be one of the eight best teams in the West.
It also helps that the 2012-13 Western Conference is not the top-to-bottom juggernaut we've become accustomed to over the past decade.
Houston, the West's current No. 8 seed, has to rely on James Harden to be Superman on a nightly basis to compete. It's an inherently flawed basketball team that craters defensively when Omer Asik is out of the game and that just traded two of its best floor-spacers (Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris) for a guy who has a ton of potential but has shown little substance (Thomas Robinson).
General manager Daryl Morey is a chef cooking up a roster for the next five years. Though it would be a nice cherry on top of his Executive of the Year sundae, the 2013 playoffs are not all that big of a concern.
With the Warriors' play taking a steep nosedive of late, thanks to a regression to the mean defensively, it's possible that there are two playoff spots available in the West. (Utah essentially locked one up by bafflingly holding onto Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson at the deadline.)
The Lakers just need one.
When the horn strikes on the Lakers' 82nd game, they will have made the playoffs. And when their first-round matchup comes against a Western Conference contender, they may win a couple games and create some media havoc. They will do this because talent almost always wins out in the NBA, and this Lakers team has enough individual talent to win a couple playoff games.
Can we all just make a deal and cool it on the "Kobe Bryant guaranteed it" stories when that happens?
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