Kobe and the kids: Lakers stuck in delicate balancing act

TORONTO -- Julius Randle looked despondent, answering in short bursts. His head tilted down, his eyes toward the floor.

"I don't know, man," the seventh overall pick of the 2014 NBA draft said. "It's not my decision, so I don't know."

D'Angelo Russell looked bewildered, shaking his head while offering up shrugs and even a few chuckles.

"Hopefully I can look back at this and laugh," the second overall draft pick in 2015 said.

Randle and Russell are the Los Angeles Lakers' most prized young possessions, their lottery picks from each of the last two years. They're considered key pieces for a storied franchise that's never been worse -- cornerstones drafted to help the Lakers return to prominence down the road.

And then they were yanked from the starting lineup, where they had resided all season prior to Monday's 102-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre.

Lakers coach Byron Scott announced the decision before the game, and, as expected, the move ignited more outrage among a Lakers fan base desperate for any semblance of hope and logic. There has been little of either in a season on pace to be the worst in franchise history -- i.e., worse than last season.

Scott said the switch was made because the Lakers (3-18) are dreadful and a change was needed. He said the starting unit, specifically, needed to be shaken up, especially as it had no flow and kept getting burned right out of the gate.

He stressed that it was nothing personal against Russell or Randle; the situation could change again in the next five to 10 games.

But why bench them in the first place? Why those two young players, who should ostensibly be on the court as much as possible to develop and who ought to start so that they trust that the franchise believes in them?


"Those two still have to understand how to play this game," Scott said. "It's a tough game. They're young. It's going to take them some time. They are a big part of our future. There's no doubt about that. I still think at this point in their career, with a quarter of the season done, you can still learn some things by sitting there watching as well."

Such as?

"The biggest thing for those two right now is to understand how to play with their teammates," Scott said. "This is more of a team sport, so I need them to learn how to play off each other and not with the ball all the time as well."

Scott's answers only summon more questions.

If Randle and Russell need to understand how to play, shouldn't they play -- especially considering Scott has said many times that to learn there is simply no substitute for bona fide playing time?

If they need to understand how to play with their teammates, shouldn't they play with them? If they're to learn how to play off each other, shouldn't they play, period?

Those players need time to grow, and now is the perfect time. As Kobe Bryant said, "It's not like we're championship contenders or anything like that."

Instead, the Lakers are contenders for the top overall draft pick in 2016, and every mistake the young players make and every loss the team endures pushes them closer to that pick. (Also, the Lakers risk losing that pick if it falls outside the first three slots, so losses are even more valuable this season.)

If moving Russell and Randle to the second unit was intended to light a fire under them, well, a few sparks were evident against the Raptors. Randle collected another double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds), his fifth in the past six games. And Russell looked more free in his role, playing off the ball instead of playing point guard.

"There's just more ball movement," said Russell, who finished with nine points, three rebounds and two assists. "No disrespect to Kobe, but you just know you have more opportunity because he's who he is."

It's impossible to evaluate any decision the Lakers make this season and remove Bryant from it. The franchise revolves around its fading superstar, and even more so during a farewell tour that resembles performance art far more than it does coherent basketball.

An argument can be made that Bryant deserves to do whatever he wants to cap off a legendary run, and it's clear that he's enjoying that freedom. It is also for the best that he not play alongside the young players; his style stunts their growth, as Scott knows full well.

"With KB is out there, they seem to defer a little bit more to him," Scott said. "I thought tonight they played a little bit more free."

Yet it's hard to justify shrinking playing time for Russell and Randle when the optimal approach is to limit Bryant's minutes so the oft-injured guard can stay healthy for his final ride. Russell and Randle each played 21 minutes Monday; Bryant played 32. It should be the other way around.

Aside from losing, the Lakers aren't guaranteed much this season, but it's obvious Bryant will do as he pleases and no one will stand in his way, least of all Scott, Bryant's former teammate.

Considering his decrepit play for much of the season, Bryant did play fairly well in Los Angeles' loss against the Raptors. He scored 21 points, made half of his shots (8-for-16) for the first time this season and shared the ball often.

In other words, it was the exact opposite of how Bryant has played for much of his career, and all of this season. He is hell-bent on exiting this league as he entered it -- shooting at will. Scott was asked why it took Bryant this long to play under control versus playing as he were 10 years younger.

"I think, No. 1, because he's Kobe," Scott said. "He's probably got more confidence than anybody in this league that he can still get it going. Tonight was one of those nights where he played under control, had some great looks, took some great shots, got to the basket and also set up his teammates as well. I think we're going to see flashes just like we did in Washington [where Bryant scored 31] where he plays extremely well, and then we're going to see games where he struggles."

Bryant still carries that confidence, no matter how many triple-pump-fake contested jumpers he launches, no matter how often he pulls up a few steps after crossing the half-court line, no matter how many air balls go wide left or wide right, no matter how many bricks he lays. Nothing has shaken his belief that he is still elite. Most players accept lesser roles late in their careers, when their bodies begin to betray them. Even the player whom Bryant modeled himself after, Michael Jordan, did that.

"Those two still have to understand how to play this game. It's a tough game. They're young. It's going to take them some time. They are a big part of our future. There's no doubt about that. I still think at this point in their career, with a quarter of the season done, you can still learn some things by sitting there watching as well." Coach Byron Scott on taking D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle out of the starting lineup

"Michael kind of slowed down, changed his game a little bit, adapted," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "But [Jordan and Bryant are] different people."

Indeed. And it's hard not to roll your eyes at Bryant's answer about why he's still chucking at this point -- a team-high 17.8 field goal attempts per game on a career-worst 30.6 percent shooting.

"You have to just take what the defense gives you," Bryant said. "When you come up and you catch and shoot and the defense is [playing] off [you], you've got to take the shot."

That answer, as many others have done this season, teeters on the edge of downright delusion -- and, more to the point, anyone who has watched Bryant play this season knows that (A) he's taking whatever shots he wants regardless of what the defense does, and (B) defenses are sagging off him because at times he can't hit the broad side of a barn.

It was always going to be difficult, if not impossible, for the Lakers to develop their youth while also building a shrine for Bryant as he rides off into the sunset after his 20th NBA season. But removing Randle and Russell from the starting lineup makes that task harder. Bryant may be confident, but if they don't feel the same way about themselves, who could blame them?

"I feel like I was starting to figure it out, then this happened," Russell said. "I've never been in [this backup] position, so I don't know how it's going to affect [me]. I didn't expect it to happen like that. If I was the problem, or I was the change that needed to happen to better the team, I guess it was worth it."

The Lakers will lose, but they can at least milk the most from their losses by allowing their young players to play, to grow, to develop -- and maybe, just maybe, flourish into the stars who one day revive the franchise. But that priority seems increasingly lower on the list. In fact, it seems that the Lakers are just as determined to not develop their young players as they are to let Bryant live in the past, no matter what it does to their future. It doesn't have to be this way, but it is, and it's not likely to change any time soon.

Maybe Lakers fans can one day look back on this period and laugh, as Russell said he hopes to do. But for now, no one is laughing -- at least with them -- at this "circus," as guard Nick Young recently described his team. There are only answers that lead to more questions and more confusion. Randle spoke for more than just himself and his move to the bench when he said, "I don't know." He spoke for Lakers fans and anyone else trying to make sense of a situation that, more and more, makes little sense at all.