Far be it from me — or anyone else sitting on a couch — to tell a 17-time All-Star when it may be time to hang up the customized Nikes, but there does come a time when you simply have to be willing to offer truth to power.
Before this is somehow misconstrued into simply “hating on a legend” or a similar variation, Kobe Bryant is one of the ten best players I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching; so I absolutely assure you I take no pleasure in acknowledging this.
He’s been a fierce competitor, a champion and will go down as an all-time great. The same unwavering confidence that led to much of his success is probably what makes it so difficult for him to accept the suddenly extreme limitations and restrictions his body has placed on his game. Put simply, the man donning the No. 24 jersey in ‘purple and gold’ for your 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers is a dwindling shell of his former self.
In a perfect world, Bryant comes back this year, collects the smiles and well-deserved adulation from fans, peers and competitors alike. His customary baseline jumper on a random January night in Cleveland is followed by a father trying to convince his 10-year-old (wearing a ‘James’ jersey) of just how deadly Bryant was around the time of his birth.
The organization finds a way to pay him tribute and show him its appreciation along the way while focusing on the continued development and progress of what looks to be a talented young core. The team doesn’t win much, but a promising foundation has been carefully laid as Bryant dribbles off into the sunset (fade to black).
The trouble is, this is not that “perfect world” scenario and those moments simply aren’t taking place. Bryant is shooting 33.1 percent from the floor and an abysmal 20 percent from deep. Without the speed to consistently turn the corner and the lift to actually do something with it when he gets into the key, defenders are essentially able to sit in his lap at this stage.
For a man that has literally made a career out of finding a way to climb the mountain — to the tune of seven Finals appearances, two Finals MVP awards and one of the more impressive lists of career accomplishments — this must be an agonizing reality. The ‘will’ that permitted him to overcome a countless number of injuries and ailments throughout his 20 years in the league is precisely what those of us that had the pleasure of watching him at his greatest knew would likely lead to things being ugly at the end.
Check out @flea333’s Tweet:
Flea, bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and longtime Lakers fanatic is exactly right in his assessment. Bryant has been one of the most ruthless competitors of his generation and a younger version would have gleefully dissected the player we now see. Take a look at the double-nickel he gave to an older Michael Jordan if you have any questions about the savagery a young Bryant unleashed on certain teams and matchups. All the respect in the world still didn’t prevent him from going off for 42 in the first half against a man he literally appeared to idolize. That’s also exactly why these current greats won’t be taking any mercy on him throughout his farewell tour. Flea is dead-on in that he wouldn’t want them to.
Again, while some may see this as disrespect or disregard for the living legend, it is actually quite the opposite.
We saw him outscore the Mavericks through three quarters, the multiple times he’s enjoyed destroying one-time Western Conference rivals like the Suns, Kings and Blazers. We all look back on his 81 against the Raptors and comment on where we were when it took place. Some of us even celebrated that slugfest victory over the hated Celtics back on 2010 with such ferocity it felt like WE were out there battling for seven games. For us, those and countless other memories will be reflected upon with great reverence for many years to come.
The trouble is, for 2015-16… none of that matters. This current stretch won’t actually do anything to tarnish what has been a great legacy once we’re a few years removed, but it certainly isn’t doing much in terms of helping out with the here and now. Coach Scott has admitted to struggling with sticking to limiting his playing time for some reason this year, and in an even more perplexing response when asked about Bryant relying so heavily upon isolation-sets, Scott somehow justified inefficient and momentum-killing basketball as a “privilege” somehow earned.
With all due respect, that’s simply an unconscionable stance. Of course, we can all understand why Scott would want to publicly show respect to the league’s third all-time leading scorer, but the idea that developing players will somehow learn or benefit from that practice doesn’t make much sense.
We saw glimpses of what positive minutes from Bryant can look like at this point in the team’s last victory (ten days ago at Staples over the Pistons). He still shot just 6-of-19 from the field (17 points), but was able to balance the performance by acting in a playmaking role to the tune of eight rebounds, nine assists and two steals just for kicks. If Scott insists on playing him a team-leading 31.1 minutes per contest, he could at least require that it be dependent upon his ability to provide those types of all-around performances rather than essentially enabling a style of play that simply doesn’t win and doesn’t promote positive tendencies for these young players.
Time will tell when that final bell will ring on Bryant’s illustrious career, but I’d personally like to see the best possible version of him for the remainder. On a team that is clearly headed to the Lottery (if they ultimately keep their top-three protected pick) for the third consecutive season, it would be nice if this staff could at least set this young crop of talent in the right direction. If anything, this season has been about remembering how tough it is to transition to playing consistently at this level, let alone figuring out how to win together.