Anyone making a list of reasons the Lakers lost to Memphis Sunday night at Staples shouldn't put the "benching" of Kobe Bryant by Mike Brown at the 5:45 mark of the fourth quarter in the top five, or even the top 10. They were terrible defensively both in the half court and in transition, soft on the glass (Andrew Bynum finished with four rebounds), got virtually nothing from the bench, rarely rotated the ball effectively on offense, and saw Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace shoot a combined six-of-24. Just to name a few.
At the point Brown pulled Kobe, Memphis had pushed a three point at the start of the quarter to 14, and in the three-plus minutes Bryant was on the sidelines L.A. actually cut the deficit to eight. Point being, it's hard to say Brown wrecked a good thing when Bryant went to the bench, or completely eliminated any chance for the Lakers to win. They weren't going to, anyway.
The Lakers lost Sunday because they played lousy basketball against a good opponent.
More instructive are the big picture implications. All season long, we've wondered whether Brown could stand up to Kobe, or what might happen when Brown for whatever reason did something like this. Asked after the game to explain the move, Brown went cryptic. "I just decided to make a sub. I felt I wanted to make a sub at the time, so I did."
Later, he elaborated only slightly, saying (though not definitively) he wanted to keep Bryant from playing the entire second half, as happened in L.A.'s double OT win over the Grizzlies earlier this month in Memphis. He also said, and rightly so, he didn't feel it necessary to discuss the decision with Kobe. Brown didn't want to discuss it with us, either, perhaps to avoid opening himself up to second guessing or because he just didn't feel publicly criticizing Bryant for not playing the way he wanted was worth the trouble. I'm not sure. Either way, by not tackling the issue head on with a clear, concise answer, Brown left filling in the blanks to others.
A few minutes later, Kobe stood at his locker and delivered the ideal response, Hoovering as much air out of the controversy balloon as was possible.
"It's his decision to make," Bryant said. "He makes the decision. He's the coach. If you guys are looking for a story, I'm not going to give you one. I can't sit here and criticize his decisions. In leading this ballclub, that's something I can't afford to do. I got to have his back. I've had his back the whole season; I can't start doing something crazy now. It wouldn't make no sense."
No, it wouldn't, and his comments reflect the same approach Bryant has taken all year, whether presented with opportunities to undercut Brown's authority or criticize his boss. Bryant isn't going to blow anything up. He's just not. Yes, he expressed disappointment after Lamar Odom was shipped out, and was none too thrilled when Derek Fisher followed a few months later. Still, on multiple occasions this year he's expressed a desire to stay in L.A. for the rest of his career, and has consistently supported Brown.
That doesn't mean he can't or hasn't used other means to make a point, express frustration, or steer Brown in a certain direction, but publicly he's shown near lock-step solidarity in no small part because he understands on the opposite road he gains nothing and loses everything. At 33 years old, 16 seasons into his career, and with a contract almost impossible to move even if he lifted his no trade clause, Kobe doesn't have the time or flexibility to scuttle a season by undermining the coach or ripping the organization. He'd almost surely carry the public -- Lakers fans as a whole still aren't sold on Brown while Kobe just beat Shaq, John Wooden, Magic Johnson and Chick Hearn to win ESPNLA's Most Beloved Athlete bracket -- but how would Bryant actually benefit?
Forget going nuclear, Kobe isn't busting out the conventional weapons, either. I'm not sure I even see a cap gun.
Not that he necessarily wants to. For the record, I don't think Kobe's lying when he says he likes Brown, respecting both his work ethic and desire to win. Even if he didn't, Bryant knows better than to say so. No stranger to controversy, he understands he's not working opposite someone with the gravitas of Phil Jackson and has the maturity and leadership skills to adjust accordingly. Experience is a big reason he handled Sunday night so much more effectively than Brown, who is still feeling his way and has the unenviable task of following a coaching legend, rather than luxury of being one.
As a practical basketball matter, what happened Sunday is unlikely to prove important because the circumstances aren't likely to repeat themselves. There will be moments Brown has trouble wrangling Bryant's lesser tendencies, just as Jackson sometimes did before him and any other coach would, but nothing suggests the relationship is coming to a head.
Instead, it showed something more important: It's OK to stop walking on eggshells on Kobe's account. Once and for all, any lingering concerns Bryant might feed a controversy proving the undoing of the 2011-12 Lakers can be put to bed.