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Tex on Kobe: He's not why we lost
by Roland Lazenby / May 13, 2006

If there’s anyone who should be able to figure out Kobe Bryant, international man of mystery, it ought to be Tex Winter, Bryant’s mentor and a longtime Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach and consultant.

Although the NBA playoffs have moved on, the basketball world remains atwitter in the wake of Bryant taking just three shots in the last half of the Lakers’ Game 7 blowout loss to the Phoenix Suns during their first-round series.

Bryant’s lack of aggressiveness at such a key moment has led to a variety of media figures offering their theories as to what he was doing:

- Some figures have said he was overreacting to heavy criticism from broadcast analyst Charles Barkley;

- Others have said he was pouting because Lakers coach Phil Jackson had admonished him to play team ball;

- Jackson and Bryant both have said that, because a typical Kobe scoring outburst would have proved fruitless, he and his coach were trying to force his young, inexperienced teammates to step up.

Winter himself admitted to being amazed at Bryant’s failure to force the issue in the second half of that game.
The 84-year-old coach had spent most of the first round delighted at Bryant’s leadership of a green Lakers roster that struggled mightily with inconsistency.

“I don’t know what happened to Kobe, taking just three shots in that situation,” Winter said in a phone interview from his Oregon home. “There were times when he had the ball, he didn’t look to do anything, didn’t look to assert himself. He didn’t look to create anything for himself. He did a lot of what we asked him to do for the series, and that was move the ball. Kobe’s the kind of player to always leave people puzzled about his shot selection.”

Winter, who had spent the playoffs working with the Lakers, wasn’t able to join them for Game 7 in Phoenix because of his wife’s illness.

It might have been that Bryant, as some have charged, was pouting because Jackson admonished him during halftime to “play team ball.” But Winter doesn’t think that was the case.

In fact, Winter said, Bryant’s lack of shooting had almost no impact on the outcome.

“Strangely enough,” Winter said, “our offense functioned pretty well in the second half. That wasn’t the problem. It was our defense. We couldn’t stop anybody.”

Winter had spent much of the postseason encouraging Jackson to play veterans Jim Jackson and Aaron McKie because of their playoff experience, defensive abilities and their sense of how to run an offense.

The Lakers’ head coach, though, staked the outcome on the use of younger guards Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic, with mixed results.

Winter ultimately was disheartened by the young Lakers’ inconsistency. “They were too fragile,” he said.

The Lakers had taken a three games to one lead in the series, but the key moment came at the end of Game 6, when the Lakers had a three-point lead but gave up three offensive rebounds that eventually led to a tying trey from the Suns’ Tim Thomas.

“We lost a game we should have won,” Winter said. “You can’t give up three offensive rebounds in that situation.”

The veteran coach reserved the brunt of his criticism for Lakers 24-year-old center Kwame Brown.

“Brown, he’s not a competitor,” Winter said, pointing out that Brown played with bursts of energy mixed with strange bouts of apathy. “He just doesn’t know how to compete.”

Asked if he thought Brown could improve in the intangibles, Winter said, “I don’t know. You can’t change spots on a leopard. I don’t know how interested he is in playing.”

Sexual assault allegations against Brown may have played a part in his loss of focus for stretches at the series’ biggest moments, but Winter said the center seemed to lack enthusiasm in getting the ball.

“Kwame missed four or five easy shots early in Game 7,” Winter said. “He didn’t even try sometimes to go after key rebounds that we needed.”

Winter also leveled criticism at another key figure, another one of his favorite players.

Odom, he wasn’t a whole lot better,” Winter said. “He’s a great talent, but I’m not sure how comfortable he is in a system. He’s more of an instinctive player.”

Having developed and pioneered the triangle offense, Winter is a proponent of system basketball.

Odom, a big man with ballhandling gifts, has been more comfortable playing for coaches who allow him to be guided by his substantial instincts. Odom has struggled with the triangle, then seemed to get a stronger sense of the offense at the end of the season.

“When it comes time to run our offense and make the right kind of cuts, he just doesn’t do them,” Winter complained.

The veteran coach had worked often with Odom this season, trying to get him to vary his cuts, but was frustrated with the results.

“When Odom makes a basket cut, he makes it the same way every time, which makes it easy for the defender,” Winter said. “I tried and tried, but I just couldn’t get him to change directions, or to change the pace, with his cuts. I tried to get him to set his man up, so that he could get deeper into the post to set up. But he used the same cut all the time, which meant that he would end up setting up in a mid-post. That made it easier to defend him. I never could get him to change it.”

Despite his complaints, Winter called Odom a “marvelous talent” and said he hoped the Lakers kept him, because another season in the triangle would bring much development.

As for the international man of mystery, Winter said he will talk to Bryant and find out what was going on in that last half of the season’s final game.

It was curious, he said, but Bryant’s conservatism with the Lakers’ offense wasn’t the reason the team lost.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show: The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill

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