Third-year forward Larry Nance Jr. has played on Los Angeles Lakers teams both with and without Kobe Bryant, so he’s seen the stark contrasts between the two situations.
When the Lakers had Bryant, they were expected to compete for titles, or at least the postseason, every single year. Since then the franchise has entered two years where the word rebuild was no longer whispered, but openly discussed as to what was taking place.
With Bryant forever immortalized with two jerseys retired, it’s lent to current and former Lakers reflecting on their time playing alongside the five-time champion.
Nance spoke with Ken Berger of Bleacher Report about the big difference in the locker room when Bryant was still playing, compared to since his retirement:
Nance said Bryant was “everything I could’ve hoped for” in a veteran leader and franchise player. “You always look up to these guys and hope they’re what you envisioned, and he truly was.”
Bryant didn’t tiptoe around locker room issues or bruised egos, Nance added. It’s a trait that players who are 20 years Bryant’s junior find foreign to them. But with Bryant’s booming voice and imposing presence gone, “It’s a little bit easier to find your voice here,” Nance said.
Nance added that the increased ease in speaking out isn’t always a positive:
“It probably is a little bit more lax, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing,” Nance told B/R. “Because having his level of seriousness around definitely helped sometimes, and sometimes it was tough for the young guys. I think a certain level of that is needed and appreciated.”
Nance’s honesty in the face of the normally unreserved gushing about only the positives of having Bryant’s winning mentality is refreshing, as he acknowledges there are two sides of the coin.
On one hand, it probably is easier for young players to develop in a lot of ways without the pressure of having to win immediately, or at least win the way Bryant’s teams were always expected to. Even when they shouldn’t have been, in his later years.
That was the mentality Bryant brought to a franchise. However, as the Lakers have learned in the years since, winning also has to matter in building good habits, even if the team isn’t going to be anywhere close to title contention.
There was too much of an acceptance of the inevitability of losing with the team at times last year. A learned helplessness that wouldn’t have been allowed to fester with Bryant’s criticisms booming through the locker room.
Ultimately, it appears the Lakers have found that without Bryant around this season after a one-year lull without him. It’s clear that Nance and the rest of the Lakers care deeply about winning in the way the team has bought in defensively this season.
Building habits will help the young Lakers develop a positive culture and playing style for years to come.
They’re building these tendencies in a different way than the Lakers went about it under Bryant, but steps forward are steps forward, and should be lauded for a young team that looked so rudderless towards the middle of last season.
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