The Los Angeles Lakers have a rather comfortable lead over city rival the Los Angeles Clippers in the Pacific Division, yet there is some unease within the purple and gold, stemming from Kobe Bryant's recent benching by head coach Mike Brown.
ESPN could be making a bigger deal out of Brown benching Bryant in Sunday's loss to the Grizzlies, but there is probably truth to the suggestion that the Lakers could be entrenched in future turmoil as a result of the questionable substitution.
Bryant was replaced by Metta World Peace with 5:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, and with the Lakers down by 14 to the Memphis. Bryant returned to the game inside the two-minute mark, and the Lakers trailing by 11.
What concerns many is that the Lakers, and certainly Bryant, are accustomed to the star guard playing in his usual rotation, when he sits out the start of the fourth quarter, and then re-enters at about the eight-minute mark.
What prompted Brown to make the abrupt change has many people scratching their heads. Even fans were chanting for Bryant to enter the game.
Brown has already come under fire for his Xs and Os. The Lakers were used to the Triangle Offense, run by Tex Winter during the Phil Jackson era, and there have been accounts of Laker players wanting to returnd to the offense they thrived in.
But now there may be less conversations about such a change to the offense. Many Laker mainstays who likely voiced their opinion are gone. Lamar Odom was traded to the Dallas Mavericks before Brown ever coached a regular-season game, and long-time point guard Derek Fisher has moved on, along with heady forward Luke Walton. Pau Gasol was on the trade block, but stuck around when rumored deals apparently fell apart.
Bryant, for his part, has seemed to reject the notion that he has butt heads with Brown, and has supported the first-year Lakers coach. He admitted he was unhappy about being benched, but sided with the coach.
It's his decision to make, said Bryant following the game. 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.
However, Bryant's demeanor will surely change if the Lakers slip from the No. 3 seed in the West, or if the Lakers get bounced from the playoffs before the Western Conference Finals. A fierce competitor, Bryant has a reputation for being vocal about his displeasure with the direction of the club if they are falling short of his lofty expectations.
Brown maintains there is nothing interesting about his choice to bench Bryant in a crucial part of the game.
I just decided to make the substitution, said Brown, following the Lakers' Tuesday shootaround. That was it. Nothing else. Is it easy now to sit back and say, 'Would you do it again?' Anybody can play Monday morning quarterback. But, at the time, I probably would have done it again if the same [situation] came up. Who knows? But, I made [the decision] and to me, that was it.
Bryant shot a solid seven-of-15 from the field against Memphis, and finished with 18 points. He only turned the ball over three times.
The decision to sit Bryant may seem odd more than anything. There didn't seem to be a real reason Brown needed to rest Bryant, or to punish him for his possible lack of production.
Brown has a solid pedgree as an assistant, and doesn't have a reputation for curious coaching decisions. He served under well-respected coaches Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle, and is well-respected by many of his peers.
However, there were rumblings that he was undermined by LeBron James during his head coaching stint in Cleveland. He failed to win a title with one of the most talented players to ever play, which is a blemish on his coaching career.
The Lakers certainly hope to avoid the same fate of Cleveland when Brown coached James.