Kobe and His Shadow Affecting Lakers Free Agency

On April 13th, on the last day of the regular season and the last day of Kobe Bryant’s career, he delivered a performance that will be narrated in the history books of sport as one of the most spectacular achievements to end a career. After 20 years and a broken body, he scored 60 points on 50 shots and played 42 minutes. He scored 23 points in the 4th quarter. He scored 17 of the Lakers last 19 points. The Lakers were trailing by 10 with two minutes left and Kobe outscored the Jazz 13-0 to close the chapter on his extraordinary career. Afterwards, he was sentimental and emotional and walked out of Staples Center for the last time as a NBA player, unaware his very presence as a Laker for 20 years would affect those who would come after him.

One of his students, one of the ones who looked up to him with reverence and awe and who benefited from Kobe, first as an attendee at one of his camps and then as someone he gave advice to, and then as a friend he supported, encouraged and rooted for, DeMar DeRozan was a natural Kobe is gone let me become the face of the Lakers franchise.

DeRozan, a Compton native, a Lakers fan, had the Kobe game down pat. He’s an iso player who takes and makes contested shots. He is a 20 point scorer and an All-Star; he is on the 2016 Olympic team. No, he’s not as gifted a player and scorer as Bryant was. DeRozan isn’t even a top-10 player in the NBA. He has terrible playoff numbers over his career. This year, he was mostly mediocre in the postseason. But he is a shooting guard who grew up watching Kobe Bryant and wanting to be Kobe Bryant. Free agency 2016 was his chance.

The Lakers had money. They needed a shooting guard. Kobe Bryant was gone. DeMar DeRozan didn’t have a contract.

But is Kobe really gone? Has his legacy transformed into a vigilante ghost that hangs over the franchise?

DeMar DeRozan re-signed with the Toronto Raptors in the wee hours of free agency. He signed  a max deal that will pay him north of $135 million dollars. Most max players have stayed with their teams. There have been no defections, and that is exactly how the NBA owners wanted it when they crafted a new CBA during the lockout of 2011. They wanted small markets to have the incentive to keep their own players by offering them the most money. The Lakers and Bulls, the teams that net the highest gross profit every year, are rebuilding teams and can’t flash their money in front of players anymore, nor can they use their city as a lure. But many believed DeRozan’s allegiance to his idol would tip the books in the Lakers favor, that he would be the one free agent to leave his team and step into the Kobe footprints.

But it is those same Kobe footprints that were too much for DeRozan to contemplate trying to match.

“Unless you go there and win seven championships, there’s no overshadowing who played (with the Lakers) for 20 years.”

DeRozan is right. The comparisons of DeRozan to Kobe would be never ending because their games have similar threads and because DeRozan is a Bryant disciple. It would have been impossible to carve out his own unique niche, always coming in second in a similar way that Dwight Howard was never allowed to be himself in Orlando, and was always compared (and still is) to Shaquille O’Neal.

Kobe’s legacy did impact DeRozan in a way the Lakers brass didn’t expect. The longevity of a player with one franchise and the ability to carve your name in their record books with your singular achievement motivated DeRozan to stay with the Raptors.

“I’m going to have an opportunity to be one of the greatest Raptors of all time, to do something that hasn’t been done yet, to do something that hasn’t been dreamed of.

“To be the second all-time scorer, the most wins as a Raptor, that’s something. You might not see it now but that’s a legacy. My mindset has always been what can I do here that will separate me from others? And maybe somebody will say, I want to try to pass DeMar. I want to do what DeMar did.”

 

photo via llananba