VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 29
NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kupchak knew all along this season was Kobe’s last | Warriors will experiment without Barnes | Kobe’s long walk has finally begun | Kings try to stay strong without Cousins
No. 1: Kupchak knew all along this season was Kobe’s last — The timing might have caught some off guard. But Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak knew all along that this season would be Kobe Bryant’s last in the NBA and in purple and gold. Kobe’s Sunday announcement, via poem on the Players’ Tribune website, stunned many in the sports world, though not anyone paying close attention to the struggles Kobe and the young and inexperienced Lakers have been going through. And certainly not Kupchak, whose charge it will be to craft the post-Kobe rebuilding plan in Los Angeles. ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes was there for Kupchak’s media session Sunday that provided some perspective on the past 19-plus years, the announcement and perhaps most important, what comes next:
Reaction [to the news]?
Kupchak:I’m not surprised. The surprising part of this is that he made the announcement today. My understanding all along was that this was going to be his last year. Certainly there’s been speculation and this puts an end to any speculation that he may come back for another year. But it was my understanding all along.
Kupchak: We didn’t make it any easier for him with the group we have on the court. And that’s not to say that they’re not a talented group of players, but they’re certainly young and unaccomplished.
Awkward having Kobe and the young players — that balance?
Kupchak:It is awkward. It’s awkward, but there was really no other way to go about it. When you have a player of Kobe’s caliber that wants to continue to play and you think he can play at a high level, you’re going to let him play until he no longer wants to play. Yet it’s clear that we had to begin the process to rebuild the team. Now we were hopeful that we would get off to a better start this year. We think we added a couple veterans, along with a bunch of young players, and I thought we’d be better than two wins into the season. That’s not to say that we’d be on pace to win 50 or 60 games. But I thought we’d be a little bit better. But clearly we’re not playing at the kind of level that a player of Kobe’s age and experience finds challenging.
[It’s] kind of like, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not surprised that he would make the announcement now. I think the game will be easier for him now. I think he’l be able to enjoy the rest of the season. We haven’t had a chance to huddle up to see if we’ll use him any differently in terms of minutes. I don’t think that’s something that’s going to be decided today. But since he has made it clear [that] this is the last season for him, I think it will be more enjoyable. I think people will appreciate what he’s accomplished, not only in our building, which has always been [filled] with loads of love, but I think more so on the road.
Want him to change his approach and not be so shot-heavy?
Kupchak: I gave up hoping he would change his approach like 15, 18 years ago. He is what he is, and I’m thankful for it.
[When did you] find out the news?
Kupchak: This afternoon. My son is a freshman in college right now. He’s going to be 20 and he was born on the night of Kobe’s first game. So I did not see Kobe’s first game. So that kind of puts it in perspective. Twenty years. I have a son who’s a freshman in college, and that’s how long he’s been playing.
What has he meant to Lakers?
Kupchak: It is impossible for me to sit here and describe what he’s meant. Five championships, 20 years, 17 All-Star Games. MVP trophy. I’ve watched him get hurt, play hurt. We’ve watched the last three years with serious injuries [and] having to come back. Most players would not come back. So it’s hard to describe in two or three minutes. But he’s a winner. And he came into this league with an unprecedented desire to compete and get better and be the best and he remains that exact same person today and that’s with the good and the bad that come with it. But he remains that exact same person.
Did you think it would be this hard?
Kupchak: When he tore his Achilles, it took me completely by surprise. In fact, I thought it was a sprained ankle … Until John Black came to me and he’s walking to the locker room, I thought it was a sprained ankle. And he was 35, 34 years old then. So it’s not that surprising to think after a serious injury at 35 years old. Your body has a way of compensating or under compensating — if you hurt this leg, then you lean more that way and now that leg gets hurt and so forth and so on … at least this is what [Lakers trainer] Gary Vitti tells me. So it’s not that surprising that one injury would lead to another. Inactivity for half a year, then come back — there’s no way to duplicate an NBA game. And he’s 36, 37. How surprising can it be?
Watching him last 15 games?
Kupchak: Like everybody else, I go back and forth. I talk to Kobe about it and he says it’s timing and getting my legs under me and conditioning, getting used to playing with different players. And I buy in. Then I watch the games on TV and I read the paper and I remind myself that he’s 37 years old and maybe it’s more than that. So I go back and forth on it.
What’s his role for the rest of the season?
Kupchak: Not sure yet. Once again, this is something that was brought to my attention late this afternoon and I have not discussed it with ownership or our coaches yet. I would hope that he has more fun and appears less frustrated and also gets more appreciation. He’ll get it at home, but on the road as well, because people will now have to recognize that this is the last year watching one of the all-time greats.
VIDEO: Kobe Bryant speaks on his decision to retire at the end of this season
No. 2: Warriors will experiment without Barnes in the lineup — The Golden State Warriors will have to continue their undefeated march without Harrison Barnes for at least a week. It’s a basketball experiment the versatile and deep Warriors are prepared to deal with, but not one they are necessarily looking forward to. Barnes has fantastic start to his season and has played a huge role in the Warriors setting the record for the best start in NBA history. Now comes the tricky part for Luke Walton and Steve Kerr, figuring out what direction to go while Barnes rests that sprained ankle. Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group has more:
Harrison Barnes had been such a reliable component to the Warriors’ rotations — 205 consecutive games, 120 straight starts — that they hadn’t needed to do a lot of lineup experimentation that didn’t include him.
That all changed when Barnes missed his first game in nearly three seasons Saturday against the Sacramento Kings. Interim coach Luke Walton, after brainstorming with ailing head coach Steve Kerr, went to a number of novel lineups either rarely employed or never seen before in achieving the team’s 18th win without a loss.
The lineup laboratory work likely will continue on the Warriors’ seven-game road trip, which begins Monday night in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz, for as long as Barnes is out with a left ankle sprain. That is expected to be at least a week, which will cover four games of the trip, and he could possibly miss them all even though he’ll be along for the entire ride.
Brandon Rush, who started in place of Barnes and delivered an explosive 7½-minute third quarter stint, wasn’t the only revelation. Big man Marreese Speights, who has been aching to get back in the mix, played 17 minutes and was effective, scoring 13 with five rebounds. Veteran guard Leandro Barbosa played 21 minutes, including a good chunk alongside Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Even end-of-the-bench guard Ian Clark got some important time, playing alongside Curry and Thompson in a three-guard alignment. Within the groupings, Draymond Green played both big and small forward, and Speights played both center and power forward.
“It’s kind of a learning curve right now, because we use Harrison at so many different positions, we’ve got to find rotations that we haven’t had to use before,” Walton said. “So we’re going to keep trying different things.
“We know we’re going to need contributions from Mo and other guys so we’re going to keep getting them out there,” he continued. “If it ends up an awkward lineup, we’re going to ride with it for awhile and see how it goes. We’ll get a better feel for life without Harrison until we can get him back.”
No. 3:Kobe’s long walk has finally begun — Father Time finally got his hands on Kobe Bryant and refused to let go. The news that this would be his final season hit hard in Los Angeles, where the love for Bryant is just about the only thing the masses in the Southland agree upon. Longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke offers his unique perspective on the moment:
Bryant’s jersey will be going from his back into the Staples Center rafters, and his body will leave the court and be immediately bronzed for a Staples Center statue.
“I was shocked,” Coach Scott said upon hearing the news. “And then after I had a chance to kind of think about it, I was sad.”
There would have been more sadness in watching Bryant, whose $25-million-a-year deal expires after this season, attempt to earn another contract. Now, perhaps for the first time in the career of one of the greatest competitors in any sport, he can relax and enjoy the ride. Maybe, too, fans of opposing teams who have jeered him can enjoy that ride with him.
“The game will be easier for him now. I think he’ll be able to enjoy the rest of the season,” Kupchak said. “I hope he has more fun and appears less frustrated and gets more appreciation. People will now have to recognize this is his last year and they’re watching one of the all-time greats.”
An outpouring of affection from notoriously tough New York fans during the Lakers’ recent visit to Madison Square Garden felt like the beginning of the farewell tour. The first stop on the now-official tour will be Tuesday in Philadelphia, where Bryant attended high school.
The last stop will be at Staples Center on April 13 against the Utah Jazz, an otherwise meaningless game that will become one of the hottest tickets in Los Angeles sports history.
In the months between those games, here’s hoping Lakers fans will stop complaining about how Bryant is stealing minutes from the team’s younger players and hindering the team’s ability to rebuild. With his retirement imminent and the Lakers’ playoff hopes already dashed, here’s hoping fans will now cheer for Bryant to play as many minutes as his body will allow, understanding that they will never see a player like him again.
Even in his struggles, there is a certain nobility to Bryant attempting to squeeze the final ounces of greatness out of a body whose game has brought so much joy to so many.
“What we want from Kobe is basically his last game to be able to walk off the court, wave to all the fans, and be able to go into the locker room standing up,” Scott said.
That long walk has now begun.
No. 4:Kings try to stay strong without Cousins — Before this season there was a healthy debate about whether or not the Sacramento Kings would be better off without their enigmatic big man DeMarcus Cousins. That debate ended weeks ago. The Kings are just 1-7 this season without Cousins in the lineup and are struggling to find their identity without arguably the best big man in the game healthy enough to set the tone this season. Cousins has missed three straight games (lower back strain) and is questionable for tonight’s game against Dallas. Kings coach George Karl insists his team has to stay the course until Cousins returns and is healthy enough to do what he does. But that’s easier said than done when Cousins isn’t in the mix, as Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee explains:
“I think you’ve just got to stay strong,” Karl said. “This is the time of the year where Cuz has missed (eight) games. We’ll get back on the right track, but right now we’ve got to hopefully get healthy with Cuz, and once he gets in the lineup, I think we’ll get our confidence in a good direction.”
The Kings appeared to be heading in a good direction last Monday. They had a 22-point lead at Charlotte and looked poised to win back-to-back road games.
But Cousins did not finish the game because of his back, and Sacramento blew the lead and lost. The Kings won at Milwaukee last Wednesday but have since lost to Minnesota and at the Warriors.
Sacramento is 1-7 without Cousins this season. His status for Monday’s home game against Dallas is uncertain.
The Kings touted their improved depth as being key to withstanding injuries, but replacing Cousins’ 27.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and his impact on defense is difficult.
“I think everybody knows that we’ve got to continue to keep our poise, staying together,” said guard Ben McLemore. “Even though we don’t have the big fella right now, we’ve still got talented guys who can go out there and compete every night.”
The Kings avoid panicking by keeping perspective. Since starting the season 1-7, they have gone 5-5, so they feel they’re improving.
And they realize they will have issues over the course of the season.
“Never too high, never too low,” said guard Rajon Rondo. “It’s a long season There will be ups and downs; it’s a roller coaster. Hopefully we can get this thing smoothed out pretty soon.”
The Kings could use a stretch of improved health and better defense to begin meeting their expectations.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Just so we’re absolutely clear on what Kobe Bryant has accomplished in his stellar career, take a look at Kobe by the numbers … Mike Dunleavy‘s return from back surgery might have hit a bit of a snag, as the Bulls’ swingman is set to see doctors today about soreness … Jahlil Okafor is in desperate need of some veteran assistance in that Philadelphia locker room, so says a couple of former prized veterans who helped their teams to championships … A strange scheduling quirk to test the Oklahoma City Thunder, who visit the Atlanta Hawks tonight at Philips Arena … No fear! The Utah Jazz are eager for a crack at the undefeated Golden State Warriors … Check out these archival images of Larry Bird like you’ve never seen him before …
ICYMI of the Night: Dwight Howard welcomed Kristaps Porzingis to the NBA with a wicked facial …
VIDEO: Dwight Howard smashes all over Kristaps Porzingis