For all the time Kobe has been in the league, time almost entirely spent in an intense spotlight with virtually every aspect of his game sliced and diced and analyzed, it’s amazing how people still seem not to understand him. Kobe Bryant has, for nearly 20 years, been unrepentantly himself, always believing he’s the best chance for the Lakers to win. When the Lakers fall behind, he really thinks he’s the best chance for the Lakers to win. This is not some strategy he came up with sitting on the sidelines last season. He’s always done it this way.
He’s a control freak. Giving it up, even when it makes good basketball sense, has always been difficult for him. While it has come with some cost, fundamental to Bryant’s overwhelming success over the course of his career is an unfailing confidence in himself and the belief that come hell or high water nobody is better prepared, mentally and physically, to meet challenges the game presents. Being 36 on a lousy team doesn’t change his fundamental wiring.
It does, though, change the context in which he’s operating. First and foremost, Kobe there are the candles on his birthday cake and 54,708 high-intensity regular season and playoff minutes on his odometer. Then there are the injuries, not just the ones to his Achilles and knee robbing Bryant of his 2013-14 season, but all the other stuff built up over the course of his career. His brain might be the same, but the body no longer allows superior skill to overcome, often spectacularly, questionable tactics.
But it’s not simply a matter of age. At his most successful, Bryant has been surrounded by an infrastructure checking his worst impulses. He had much more talent around him, which helps, and also greater continuity. Kobe and Shaq may have grown to detest each other — should time have dulled your memory a bit, click here for a reminder of how much — but on the floor they had a great deal of understanding. On a basketball level, Kobe trusted him. He had a comfort level with Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace, to name a few, and his comfort in them made it easier to be comfortable with the other guys, too. He had Phil Jackson on the bench, and Jerry Buss upstairs.
Now he’s surrounded by the weakest supporting cast of his career, without the self-editing demands of a title chase. At a time where Kobe needs the most protection from himself, he has the least. Should anyone really be surprised how this is playing out?
Kobe is skilled enough to play any way he wants, frustrating people who believe he could have periodically achieved even greater heights, and in the grand scheme of his career, “Selfish to Pass M.J.!” barely makes a blip on the Kobe criticism landscape. But because he’s such a bright, interesting guy of monumentally strong will and extraordinary talent, finding interesting and/or Machiavellian motivation for his play has become a form of sport over the last 18-plus years. Sometimes, though, it’s just not that complicated.
Kobe Bryant is shooting as much as he is this year because he’s Kobe Bryant — nothing to apologize for — and he’s too far down the road to be anything else.[divide]
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