Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, right, here dunking over Denver's Kosta… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Kobe Bryant leads.
Everyone think they know how he does it. Bryant leads the team in points. He leads the team with his work ethic. Bryant leads his team with all those game-winners that leave teammates, coaches and Laker fans forever giddy.
He does all those things for the sake of winning. So he can collect his sixth NBA championship. So he can further cement his standing among the league’s greatest. So he can extend his career when many already believe it’ll soon be over.
But that’s not what solely defines him this season as a leader. How he’s handled everything surrounding him also defines his leadership.
Plenty of external circumstances this season could’ve shaken Bryant’s core. And we’re not just talking about his injuries that have included a torn ligament in his right wrist, a broken nose, a concussion and a sore right shin. We’re talking about coaching changes, shuffling rosters and even a controversial benching. It shook the Lakers from time to time. Bryant didn’t allow it to significantly shake him, though.
The Lakers have a 2-0 lead in their first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, partly because Bryant has averaged 34.5 points on 49.1% shooting with plenty of rest. But the team mostly stands where it is because of how Bryant’s calm personality has helped assuage the continual uncertainty felt during the 2011-12 season.
"I think it has a huge effect," Bryant said of his even-keel approach. "You can’t panic. If I panic, everyone else panics."
There have been several instances that could’ve prompted Bryant to erupt in a firestorm. Knowing how Bryant infamously demanded a trade in 2007 over frustration with the team’s roster, many suspected he could have had a similar reaction this season. He hasn’t.
The Lakers' front office didn’t consult Bryant or even alert him beforehand that they would hire Mike Brown as their head coach. He spent the summer remaining silent on the hire, but Bryant immediately bought into Brown’s workmanlike enthusiasm once they met May 31 before his introductory press conference.
The Lakers traded away Lamar Odom to the Dallas Mavericks for a first-round pick and an $8.9-million trade exception. Bryant vocally opposed the trade but still gave the front office a vote of confidence. Even when Bryant met with Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak afterward, he described his personality as calm.
Throughout uncertainty on how the Lakers would construct their final roster, Bryant stayed pretty stoic and refused to show too much sentiment toward his teammates about it. Teammates say they interpreted Bryant’s message as stressing the need to concentrate solely on basketball. That role, teammates and Lakers Coach Mike Brown say, increased even more once the Lakers traded fellow co-captain Derek Fisher before the March 15 deadline.
"It makes a difference," Lakers forward Metta World Peace said. "You can’t control what you can’t control. He’s 100% right about that. He’s trying to lead. He’s trying to win games."
Bryant deviated from this approach somewhat in mid-February when he publicly blasted the front office for not providing clarity on Pau Gasol’s standing with the team. Gasol viewed it as a sign of support rather than practically believing the front office would reveal their intentions weeks before the trade deadline.
"He’s been very involved and very talkative when he’s leading," Gasol said. "I’m very happy with what I’m seeing from him."
Bryant remained calm when instances affected him directly. After Brown criticized him for shooting nine-of-31 from the field in the team’s 106-101 loss March 6 to Washington, Bryant didn’t say a word. The criticism was warranted considering Bryant at the beginning of the season shot at a high volume at the expense of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. But Bryant easily could’ve sulked. Instead, it became a dead issue the next day after Brown apologized both to Bryant, World Peace and Matt Barnes for publicly questioning their shot selection.
Bryant also avoided having a spat with Brown over a controversial benching. In the Lakers’ 102-96 loss March 25 to Memphis, Brown sat Bryant for undisclosed reasons from the 5:45 mark to the 1:51 mark despite the Lakers trailing by 14 points. Bryant, again, declined to question Brown, who has noticed the effect Bryant’s behavior has had on the team.
"It has trickled down a ton," Brown said. "He’s a veteran that has five championship rings. For him to be calm in certain situations definitely helps out."
How to explain Bryant’s patience with Bynum’s immaturity issues, World Peace arriving to training camp out of shape and his willingness to be a coach on the sideline during his recent shin injury? He has a former head coach to thank.