Beloved star, hated foe. Celebrated hero, criticized villain. This has largely been The Bean’s career.
But one thing Kobe Bryant wasn’t last season was a good basketball player*. It pains me to say that since I’ve watched this guy since I was six years old. But that’s the truth. Kobe Bryant as we knew him “died” on April 13, 2013 – the day he tore his Achilles tendon. It seems fitting that the most ironic injury is what “ended” Kobe’s career.
But does this mean Kobe is doomed in what is likely to be his final season? Is he going to be an oft-injured inefficient player who plays no defense once again? Or can we reasonably expect a better Mamba this year?
Call me naïve/crazy, but I think we can expect a relatively better Kobe this year. Here are the reasons why.
1) He’s Not Chasing Michael Jordan or Any Other Record
Going into the start of last year, Kobe was really close to Jordan’s career scoring total. Now I have no way of confirming this, but you could tell Kobe really wanted to get to that record ASAP. He could probably tell that this team was going nowhere, so the 2nd best thing he could’ve done is gone stat-stuffing, as an injury could knock him out of the game forever, leaving him short of MJ.
Watching the games up to the game he passed Jordan, Kobe’s mentality was just chuck, chuck, and chuck some more. It was quite painful to watch at times even though the volume output was high. However, once that subsided, Kobe took his foot off the gas pedal. Don’t believe me? Look at his field goal attempts before passing MJ (22.25 FGA/game) and after (16.3 FGA/game). Now, the sample size isn’t THAT huge, given Kobe only played 35 games last year, but this was encouraging. Kobe was gunning for that record and likely will not be gunning for any other one this year.
(*Let’s be real. Kobe Bryant put up a lot of volume last year, but his inefficiency was off the charts – in a bad way. He did average 5.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists, both above his career-average, so that was encouraging, but since 1980, for players who played at least 35 games in a season and put up 20 points per game, Kobe’s effective field goal percentage of 41.1% was the lowest. His true shooting percentage wasn’t much better as it was the third lowest – ironically 1 spot higher than the soon-to-be discussed Jordan’s first season in Washington.)
2) He Wants To Finish The Season Healthy
Kobe’s last 3 seasons have ended with injuries. For a guy who prided himself on playing through pain/not missing games, missing his final season due to injury wouldn’t be something he would want. So don’t expect Kobe to push overextend himself too often. He’s Kobe, so to not expect him to push himself sometimes is silly, but I do expect him to dial it back this year.
3) Talent Infusion/Mentorship Aspect
The Lakers are filled with talented guys. Now, that might (but probably won’t) translate into wins, but he’ll need to do less this year. Russell and Clarkson can bring the ball up and start the offense. Randle can be a playmaker. Lou (and hopefully a better Swaggy) can score. He doesn’t need to be a hero this year.
As for the mentorship aspect, Kobe has three or four youngin’s he can help grow (Russell, Clarkson, Randle, and Brown) this year. He didn’t have any of that a year ago. Randle was out. Russell was still an unknown college prospect. Clarkson was just another random second round pick. But fast forward one year and now Kobe gets to work with the future of the Lakers.
4) Does Not Want To Go Out On A Sour Note
This kind of relates to the previous two points. Kobe just doesn’t want to be remembered as a overpaid chucker who didn’t help the Lakers organization move forward.
5) The Jordan Parallel Is Real
Before the start of last season, I tweeted that I expected Kobe’s last two seasons to be similar to Jordan’s last two in Washington. So far, it’s been pretty spot on. Though the number were there, Jordan’s first season was a disaster by MJ standards. His shooting percentages were all career lows – same as Kobe.
However, Jordan’s final season, he was not horrible! He wasn’t good, but he wasn’t just horribly bad either. I expect Kobe’s final season to be the same. Expect some career mean-reversion from the Bean.
6) Byron Scott’s Minute Limit Promise + Fresh Legs
Now, this is probably my weakest point (because Byron Scott), but Scott did promise a hard minutes cap this season. Quoting Byron: “I want him to go out standing”.
Lastly, let’s not forget. Kobe didn’t hurt any part of his lower body last year. It was his shoulder. And he sat out a lot of the season. His legs should be fresher than what they would’ve been if he had played last year.
7) Playing For a New Contract?
My last point is pretty speculative. If this isn’t Kobe’s last year, then he is in a contract year. Now, some would say Kobe would get whatever he wanted, but I’m not so sure. Who’s going to be paying top-dollar for an old chucker with multiple serious injuries in his late 30s? Now, some might, given he is KOBE BEAN BRYANT. But with the cap jumping, if Kobe wants to prove he’s worth $25 million again (whether it be to the Lakers, Heat, Knicks, or Bulls…let’s face it, he isn’t going to Milwaukee or Portland), he’s going have to be healthy and somewhat good.
8) Preseason Stats & Move To Small Forward
Yes, it’s preseason. Yes, Kobe’s only played 5 games. But in those five games he wasn’t horrible! He shot 45% from the field and 37.5% from three. He only hoisted up 9.4 shots a game (third on the team). Now, he was only playing 18 minutes/game, and he wasn’t being very aggressive, so some of those numbers might go down (or up!). But it was semi-encouraging to see him catch & shoot off Clarkson and Randle. He was facilitating ball movement. In fact, if you look through a lot of his preseason highlights, you find a lot of “Facilitator Kobe” in there. Which is great because Kobe is so good at finding teammates easy shots – which would be a great boost for not only the young guys but also guys like Hibbert and Nick Young.
And lastly, Bryant moving to small forward is probably a good move for him. He likes being in the post on offense and won’t have to chase quick guards around on defense.
So there you have it. I’m a Kobe optimist. Fight me. As a lifelong Kobe fan, I’m just hoping he has a semi-productive and healthy year in this hopefully newly accepted mentor role. I’m hoping he proves me right.
Go Kobe and Go Lakers.