Filled with big personalities like Nick Young, Metta World Peace, Lou Williams and D’Angelo Russell, the Lakers locker room is buzzing following a 104-98 Friday night win over the Nets in Brooklyn. As the media huddles around World Peace and the rookie Russell, Kobe Bryant is noticeably absent from the postgame festivities.
Huddled in a backroom with bags of ice covering his right shoulder, knees and shins, Kobe doesn’t celebrate the victory with his teammates. As he will do for the remainder of the games he plays, Kobe immediately starts rehabbing, a necessity if he hopes to make it through his 20th NBA season injury free. While the rest of the team cracks jokes and partakes in minor hazing of Russell, Bryant sits in silence in an unseen room cut off from his teammates. After the rest of the locker room clears out, Kobe holds court with the media and once he’s done, Bryant doesn’t ride back to the hotel on the team bus. Instead he gets chauffeured from the stadium in a waiting SUV.
It’s an interesting dynamic. For 19 seasons, Kobe has been the face of the Lakers franchise, but with pieces like Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson on the roster, it’s only a matter of time before the Lakers move on from the Kobe Era and begin anew with an exciting—or at least, intriguing—young core.
Whether head coach Byron Scott realizes this remains to be seen. Late last week, Scott came out and told reporters that his patience for guys like Russell and Randle will soon wear thin if they don’t start performing better and playing harder. “It’s going to take those guys some time,” he told the OC Register. “Like I said, I just got to continue to be patient. But like I told them, I’m not going to be patient for long. I expect guys to get it on both ends of the floor in a relatively quick manner.”
Scott followed that up by saying that he is not worried about the 37-year-old Bryant, who is shooting a career low 32 percent from the field and has looked every bit a player who is in his 20th season. “It’s not a challenge to get Kobe right,” he said. “The challenge is to get the young guys right. I’m not worried about him. He’s the last thing I’m worried about on our team.”
Friday, Scott backed up his threats by playing Russell just 23 minutes and yanking him for Lou Williams after a turnover. Despite the limited minutes, Russell scored 16 points and grabbed 4 rebounds. At 19 years old, the SLAM Rookie Diarist has a long way to go, but the absolute worst thing Los Angeles can do is not let him play through the inevitable growing pains.
Meanwhile Kobe, who showed flashes of his old self but by and large struggled against a putrid Brooklyn team, took a team-high 16 shots in 31 minutes and finished with 18 points. When his shots weren’t falling in the first half, Bryant’s body language was terrible and there seemed to be a real disconnect between KB24 and the young players on the court—one that looked even more obvious in the locker room following the game. Reports of Kobe working with the young guys off-court have surfaced, but Bryant has been surly during the Lakers’ lean years and his influence will be something to keep an eye on as the season moves forward and the losses pile up.
Whether Scott truly believes that the best route for the Lakers is to not let his young players work through mistakes and put them on a short leash, or is merely feeding into the front office narrative is unknown. But at 1-5 with the season only getting tougher, there has to be a point where either Scott or the front office realize that running Kobe out there for 30 minutes a night and letting him jack up shots while the young guns look on from the bench is only going to hurt the team in the long run.
Bryant has all but guaranteed that this will be his last season. Unfortunately, he’s not going to go out with a championship. But he can help set up the Lakers for more rings if he graciously steps aside, cuts down his minutes and serves as more of a mentor. During the game against the Nets, Bryant’s longtime teammate Metta World Peace served as a coach on the floor during his minutes. Giving guys pointers and leading team huddles, the vet looked more like a player-coach and is much more impactful in this role than someone who LA looks at to carry the team. Hopefully for the Lakers sake, Kobe will follow suit.
Down the hall in the Nets locker room, the situation is much more dire. Feeling like a home game at Staples Center, Barclays Center was (unsurprisingly) overrun with purple and gold as Laker fans poured in for what was likely Kobe Bryant’s last game in Brooklyn. The Nets currently sit at 0-6 and based on the overwhelming pro-Lakers crowd at the Barclays Center on Friday, the team has a fan base that is either 1) non-existent or 2) does not care. Per ESPN, the Nets draw the 25th-most (worst?) fans at 16,013 per game, and are even more unappealing on the road, as they draw just 15,925 per game, good for 28th in the League.
The front office certainly hasn’t done much to drum up excitement. Not only is the team bad, they are incredibly boring. The Nets have as bleak a future as any team in professional sports. In 2012 and 2013, the Nets made two disastrous trades that all but ruined any hopes of winning in the near future. In 2012, the Nets traded their first-round pick (which wound up being used on Damian Lillard) to the Blazers for Gerald Wallace. In 2013 Principal Owner Mikhail Prokhorov went all-in by making a draft day trade that sent Wallace and the Nets 2014, 2016 and 2018 picks to Boston in exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and DJ White.
At the time, Prokhorov said, “Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets.” Since then, the basketball gods have done nothing but shit on the downtown Brooklyn Barclays Center.
If the losses continue to pile up, the Nets’ pick could very well end up being No. 1 in the 2016 Draft and the Celtics will finally get the payoff they’ve been waiting for since the breakup of Garnett, Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. In 2017, the Celtics have the right to swap picks with the Nets in the first round and in 2018 the Celtics own the Nets pick. Brooklyn also gave up ownership of its second round picks in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Nets fans are now stuck with a lineup that includes Brook Lopez, Thad Young, Jarrett Jack, Joe Johnson and no assets to trade or pieces to attract big free agents.
As cheers of “Kobe! Kobe!” rang down from the Barclays crowd and Bryant made his way off the court waving to adoring fans, the Nets looked despondent as they made their way to the locker room. The exit perfectly summed up the dramatically different directions the two franchises are heading. The Lakers rebuild is much more tolerable by fans since it is being masked by the Kobe farewell tour and the exciting pieces they have to look forward to. The Nets, on the other hand, have no hope, no future, no picks and no fans.
Thanks to Kobe, the Lakers are still an in-demand ticket as they compete with the popular Clippers for dominance in LA. The Nets, however, seemed destined to play little brother to the Knicks for as long as the two teams remain in New York City.
Peter Walsh is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @Peter_M_Walsh. Photo via Getty Images.