Has there ever been a more compelling terrible team to watch than this year's Los Angeles Lakers?
Bad teams usually are easy to ignore: There's always something better on than a game involving a last-place team. A Jets-Raiders game would be torture; I'm not sure I could last longer than a quarter-and-a-half of a 76ers-Nuggets game; the Astros' grand experiment of the last three years has been far more compelling in theory than in practice.
We watch sports for the athleticism and the creativity and the ability to consistently surprise, but what we're really watching them for are the context and the stakes. Detroit and Milwaukee can play a perfectly competitive game in mid-February, but if neither team has a chance at making the playoffs, it's all sort of pointless. You're not supposed to have to pay attention to last-place teams.
But you have to pay attention to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are 1-9, with hardly any competitive games in those nine losses, and it's possible they're the most fascinating story in the NBA. They're on national television twice a week while better, more relevant teams like Toronto or Memphis or Portland barely show up there at all … and it's totally fine. The Lakers are essentially can't-miss right now.
This is all, of course, because of Kobe Bryant.
What is happening to Kobe Bryant this year is unlike anything I've ever seen in professional sports. The Lakers seem to be conducting a wide-ranging social experiment to see if they can get Kobe Bryant to crack wide open for us all to see. It's basically "The Truman Show." Grantland's Zach Lowe joked that this might be the biggest stealth tank job in NBA history, and he might be right. But that's the only thing stealth about what's happening in Los Angeles.
There are four basic facts that make up this amazing Lakers season.
1. Kobe Bryant is clearly losing his mind.
Some photos from the Lakers' recent wipeout loss to Golden State:
Kobe could have the Ebola virus and still chuck up 25 shots tonight in run and gun vs Warriors. pic.twitter.com/zQgR37mtxn- Mamba Stats (@MambaStats) November 17, 2014
As Los Angeles Daily News writer Tom Hoffarth put it: "This season's cut-and-past headline: Kobe Bryant scores (xx) but Lakers lose big to (xxx)."
Kobe is currently leading the NBA in scoring at 27.3 points per game and putting up 24.4 shots per game, more than the next two Lakers (Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer) combined. He has a chance to take a higher percentage of his team's shots than any player since Wilt Chamberlain.
Why is Kobe shooting so much? Well, because he's Kobe. But also because he sees it, as he put it, a way of fighting his own team's crimes.
I asked Kobe a/b his many shots. Kobe: "I'd rather not have to do that, but you can't just sit back and watch crime happen in front of you."- Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) November 17, 2014
Kobe believes he has to shoot as much as he does because the team around him is so horrible. This is a man who has always been dissatisfied with his teammates, even when they were Hall of Famers. So fair to say that Robert Sacre just isn't going to cut it. Thus, Kobe shoots and shoots and shoots and shoots.
The typical Lakers "SportsCenter" clip this year involves Kobe making a succession of acrobatic shots and fadeaway jumpers as the scorebox in the lower righthand corner grows ever more lopsided. (If you took away the scorebox from a Lakers highlight this year, you'd think they were winning.) Kobe looks around at the mortals around him, decides them unworthy and deems himself the only man who can save them.
It's starting to kill him, not just emotionally but physically. After the Lakers' loss to the Spurs on Friday, Kobe said he was "sick" and his body "just wouldn't respond." Teammate Jeremy Lin said "he doesn't look good." Bryant was 1-for-14 on the night and said afterward, "Tonight was one of those nights where it makes me really remember the challenge of being 36 and being 19 years in." Of course, the next game Kobe scored 44.
Every night, you watch as Kobe desperately tries to turn back the clock and pretend it's 1999. But you can't turn clocks backwards. And it's not 1999. Kobe's refusal to accept this is riveting to witness.
2. Kobe's teammates hate him.
Here's Jeremy Lin after the loss to the Warriors:
And here's Carlos Boozer: "A lot of times we run a set, but Kobe is extremely aggressive. And then we try to hit the glass, get it off the glass. We've got to find a balance. It can't be lopsided. We've got to find a balance."
And here's Lin, with the equivalent of locker room subtweet: "The game of basketball is ... we've got to do it together. It can't be ... if I go into a game concerned about myself, then in some ways that's detrimental to the team."
On the postgame show, James Worthy and Robert Horry -- a couple of qualified fellows to have on your postgame show -- both hammered Kobe, saying the reason the Lakers were losing was because of his lack of trust in his teammates and his desire to further his personal goals. (Including passing Michael Jordan in career scoring, which should happen in the next week or so.) Often on bad teams, fans suffer the fallacy of blaming the best player -- who should be "doing more" -- rather than all the bad players that surround him. But in Los Angeles, they're not just blaming Kobe: They're saying he cares more about himself than his team.
It's a fascinating conundrum: Kobe Bryant says he wants to win, so he believes he must constantly shoot. Kobe Bryant's teammates say they want to win, so they want him to stop constantly shooting.
So who's right? That leads us to our third fact.
3.The Lakers are better with Bryant on the bench.
The Lakers, coming into tonight's game against Atlanta, have been outscored by a total of 105 points this year. You can probably see where this is going. When Kobe Bryant has been on the floor, the Lakers have been outscored by 130 points. When he has not been on the floor, they have outscored their opponents by 25 points. Now, plus-minus isn't a perfect stat … but it's difficult to deny those numbers.
In Basketball Reference's per 100 possession stats, Kobe Bryant has an offensive rating -- an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions -- of 99. This is ninth place on the Lakers. (He's actually tied for ninth with Sacre.) Here are the Lakers players putting together more efficient per 100 possession numbers than Kobe right now: Ryan Kelly, Wayne Ellington, Ed Davis, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Clarkson. (He's also 11th in defensive efficiency per 100 possessions, if you're counting.)
Isn't that amazing? Isn't that the most shocking thing? I mean, think about it: Kobe Bryant -- a Hall of Famer, one of the top 20 players of all-time, a man with five championships -- thinks the only way his team won't be embarrassed is if he completely takes over … and according to the efficiency numbers, he probably shouldn't be starting. Now, that's an exaggeration: Kobe's obviously the most talented player on his team. But lots of guys are the most talented guy on their team. (Thirty, in fact.) None of them shoot every time they get the ball. This makes Kobe's protests that he doesn't want to shoot so much, but simply he has to, so entertainingly wrong: It's like Kobe is saying, "I don't want to keep hitting myself in the face. But you're making me do it. [SLAP]"
Kobe Bryant is making his team so much worse. He's killing his team by trying to save it. The call is coming from inside the house. But none of this matters, because …
4. Bryant is so much fun to watch, even this version
This offseason, ESPN's Henry Abbott wrote a piece arguing that the problem with the Lakers was, in fact, Kobe Bryant, claiming that other players didn't want to play with him, that his personality drove people away, that his contract is too cumbersome for the team to add talent around him. Abbott's story was almost immediately vivisected. You know when you've upset Paul George, Flea and Phil Jackson all at once, you've touched a nerve.
The Lakers start has completely vindicated Abbott's story … but no one will still want to hear it. Take away Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers might be marginally better -- at least this Kobe Bryant who refuses to pass; a Kobe Bryant engaged with and interested in playing along with his team would be another story -- but man would they be miserable to watch. (Unless they can recreate Linsanity or something.)
The fact is that Kobe Bryant is so compelling because he's doing this to himself and his team, that he's losing his mind and raging at his teammates and making everything harder on himself. Kobe's single-mindedness is what makes him Kobe: It makes him that relic of a generation that believes one man can take on the world and win.
Kobe Bryant doesn't fit in today's game, but he's trying to force himself to defeat it anyway. And sometimes, with one of those fadeaways, or an improbable drive to the basket, he legitimately does. He doesn't do it nearly enough. He can't do it nearly enough. But it's amazing to watch him try.
The Lakers are aflame, and Kobe has the match and the gasoline, and he's blaming Carlos Boozer for not having the extinguisher. Why wouldn't we all gather around the fire and watch? I've not seen anything like it in sports. Some men just like to watch the world burn.