This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
When it was all over, when the farewell tour that crisscrossed the nation for a year had reached its final stop, when Kobe Bryant had dropped 60 points on the Utah Jazz to cap off a 20-year career, his teammates whooped and hollered and showered him with champagne in the locker room. It had been an astonishing, exhausting ending to an amazing basketball odyssey and you could be forgiven for thinking their joy also came from the fact that they were finally free.
Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, a five-time champion, a hardwood hero, a future Hall of Famer and, by the end of his career, an albatross. So with their faded superstar now in retirement, the Los Angeles Lakers can finally move on. The certainly appear to be enjoying their fresh start so far.
Bryant and company won 17 games last season, as the Lake Show took a backseat to Mambamania. They've started this season 8-9, just outside playoff range if the season were over.
Give some credit to new head coach Luke Walton. Last spring, the Lakers parted ways with coach Byron Scott, a former teammate of Bryant's and a man who seemed not only obligated but content to direct the nightly Kobe circus, letting the star exhaust two decades of equity and giving little regard to L.A.'s future. Scott was known for his marathon training camps and practices, his distrust of advanced statistical analysis and his dismissal of the growing value of the 3-point shot.
Now Walton has brought his laid-back SoCal style back to Los Angeles and some Golden State sensibilities to his new team, encouraging a squad of young, budding talent to get out and run, and to take advantage of life behind the arc. The result: the Lakers have been a top-five offense early in this season, as they hoist up 27 3-point attempts per game.
Rookie Brandon Ingram, the second overall pick last June and the Lakers' prize for another losing season, has been a fine addition. But players who struggled in purple and gold during Bryant's last year point guard D'Angelo Russell, forward Julius Randle, even shooting guard Nick Young have looked reinvigorated.
In his twilight, Bryant tried to motivate with tough love.
"Is this the type of [expletive] that's going on in these practices? Now I see why we've lost 20 [expletive] games. We're soft like Charmin!" Bryant shouted at them during one practice in 2015 as he returned from an injury, an incident caught on camera. Then he shouted at general manager Mitch Kupchak, "These [expletive] ain't doing [expletive] for me!"
The motivational tactics didn't appear to work.
Part of the problem, of course, had been Bryant himself.
The body that had once been able to do anything it wanted on a basketball court had begun to break down, but Bryant was still being afforded and taking the same license he had when he had been one of the game's best.
His farewell tour consumed the Lakers' season, with each game bringing its own press conference and video tribute and presentation of gifts. On the court, however, Bryant was a shell of his former self. And had he been someone else, anyone else, he probably would have been benched for it. The crowds cheered each time he made a bucket, but it didn't happen often, as he chucked up contested jumpers. In a game against the Jazz last season, Bryant, upset that Utah guard Rodney Hood had blistered the Lakers in the first half, made it his mission to stop Hood. On one possession, a two-on-one fast break, Bryant clung to Hood as the man with the ball went uncontested to the basket.
The Lakers were bad last year, but they were worse with Kobe. In fact, they were 10 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions when Bryant was on the floor last year than when he was off of it.
Perhaps he had earned that right.
But now the Lakers are getting right.
Early this season, Walton was standing against a wall inside the Jazz's Vivint Arena, surrounded by reporters peppering him with questions when he was interrupted by his starting point guard.
"Luke's 1-0!" Russell shouted, jumping up and down as he made his way into the locker room, referring to the season-opening win vs. Houston. "Luke's 1-0!"
The coach rolled his eyes and then he did something they haven't been doing much in recent years. He smiled.
Twitter: @aaronfalk NBA Power Rankings
1. Golden State Warriors • Averaging 118.6 ppg and have a scoring differential of plus-13.2. Durant's 57.4 FG% is ridiculous.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers • First team in NBA history to hit 20-plus 3-pointers in back-to-back games. Love went a combined 15 for 21.
3. San Antonio Spurs • Quietly won eight straight and are 9-0 on road. Kawhi's offense (25.1 ppg) catching up to his defense.
4. Los Angeles Clippers • Second-best point differential in the league (plus-12.3), but were dealt their first road loss by Detroit.
5. Toronto Raptors • DeMarre Carroll is finally showing signs of life after scoring 20 and 14 in his last two games.
6. Chicago Bulls • Butler and Wade forming a nice 1-2 punch, as Chicago beats up Philly to close six-game road trip 4-2.
7. Houston Rockets • Harden put up a 23-10-10 triple-double vs. Kings. He's fourth in scoring (28.3) and first in assists (12.4).
8. Memphis Grizzlies • Six-game winning streak snapped by shooting 29 for 82, scoring 81 points vs. Miami.
9. Atlanta Hawks • Trending the wrong way, losing four of last five. But they're not as bad as they looked Friday vs. Jazz.
10. Charlotte Hornets • Kemba's having a career year, but Hornets had lost four straight after Friday's OT defeat against the Knicks.
11. Boston Celtics • Isaiah Thomas is a top-10 scorer in the league (26.1), but there's not much consistent scoring after him.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder • Westbrook notched his sixth triple-double of the season Friday vs. Denver with a 36-12-18 line.
13. Utah Jazz • Every game's a slow-it-down grind, with the team averaging just 96.6 ppg and allowing a league-low 92.8.
14. New York Knicks • 'Melo's game-winning shot in overtime gave the team its third straight victory.
15. Portland Trail Blazers • Only the Nets allow more ppg than the 112.8 that Portland surrenders every game.
16. Detroit Pistons • Awesome at home (7-2) and awful on the road (1-7). Thoroughly outplayed Clippers on Friday.
17. Los Angeles Lakers • D'Angelo Russell's knee and playing Warriors back-to-back both hurt. Defense (111.9) remains abysmal.
18. Indiana Pacers • Paul George's absence didn't prevent Indy from lighting up Brooklyn for 118 on Friday.
19. Milwaukee Bucks • Giannis Antetokounmpo leads team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and FG percentage.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves • Many thought Kris Dunn was ROY favorite, but he's averaging just 3.8 ppg, 2.9 apg.
21. Denver Nuggets • Another high-scoring, no-defense team. Offense incredibly balanced, as seven guys average double-digit ppg.
22. Washington Wizards • Entered Saturday having won three of four, but two of those wins were vs. Phoenix and Orlando.
23. New Orleans Pelicans • Had won four straight before Friday's loss to Portland. Return of Jrue Holiday is helping Anthony Davis.
24. Sacramento Kings • Boogie has scored 30-plus in four of last six, and has also made 17 treys (on 44.7 3%) in that span.
25. Orlando Magic • Their 91.9 ppg are 29th in NBA, and they haven't hit 100 points in their past six games.
26. Miami Heat • Whiteside's been a beast (16.9 ppg, 15.1 rpg, 2.5 bpg, 53.3 FG%), but offense remains tough to come by for Miami.
27. Phoenix Suns • Devin Booker's scoring well (18.8), but doing it inefficiently, shooting just 41.7 FG% and 32.9 3%.
28. Philadelphia 76ers • Actually won back-to-back games vs. Phoenix and Miami before dropping next two vs. Memphis, Chicago.
29. Brooklyn Nets • Have dropped six straight, and allowed 127, 125, 124, 129, 111 and 118 points in doing it.
30. Dallas Mavericks • As bad as it gets: eight straight losses, league-low 91.5 ppg, trailed Cleveland by 45 at one point Friday.