The Los Angeles Lakers official schedule for the 2015-2016 season was released Wednesday, and Laker-centric scribes immediately went into overdrive analyzing every possible implication from that 82 game layout. The most detailed look comes as always from Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell, but plenty of other sites – including this one – can and should be visited by fans seeking the skinny.
And of course, there’s no such thing as Lakers analysis that doesn’t in some way come back to Kobe Bryant. In particular, back-to-games are a prominent talking point. Last season, for the first time in Kobe’s career, one half of a back-to-back set was regularly missed as a means of self-preservation. By all appearances, this required more twisting of Byron Scott’s arm than Bryant’s. Competitive and confident as Kobe may be, three consecutive season-ending injuries are a unignorable reality check. Thus, the dominant narrative is that in order to keep Kobe on the court as much as possible, full participation in back-to-backs will remain a non-starter.
I’m not convinced this will be the case.
It’s not that I think Kobe will somehow emerge from this injury-riddled rubble newly superhuman. Unfortunately, I think the struggle to stay healthy will continue. I truly hope I’m wrong, because it would be a drag to see a career like this one end on a whimper. Players of his stature deserve better, and I’m rooting for Kobe to receive what he’s earned. Still, the recent sample size is sparks little optimism, which places an even higher premium on cautious planning.
But for this particular season, that methodology may encounter a unique wrinkle. Kobe has repeatedly said retirement in 2016 is a real possibility — I’ve been convinced for quite some time next season will be his last — but he won’t make up his mind until season’s end. (Personally, I think Kobe may not know he’s retiring, but he knows he’s retiring, if that makes sense.) With that in mind, every Eastern Conference road game could represent Kobe’s last time in that arena. He’ll also visit certain road teams twice at most. Among the many traits Bryant has picked up from closely patterning himself after Michael Jordan includes a hyper-awareness that all games feature fans who paid hard-earned money specifically to see 24 in person for the first and perhaps only time. Kobe has always admirably taken on the responsibility to hold up his end of the bargain, which in part explains so many seasons playing through “Injury X” whenever humanly possible.
Unfortunately, gritted teeth are no longer a reliable option, but I have a feeling Kobe will still do his best to give road crowds their last show, even when the schedule places him in two different cities in consecutive nights.
Like November 10 and 11 in Miami and Orlando, respectively. Or December 1 and 2 when the Lakers visit Philadelphia, then D.C. Same deal nearly a week later when the Lakers hit Detroit, then Toronto. As part of that sizable November roadie, the Lakers play in Atlanta with just a day of rest after a back-to-back, plus their only tilt in Dallas. I imagine Kobe will try to suit up those days as well.
The schedule features similar pockets where, based on my theory, Kobe could find himself forced to make some choices. Below are some spots that stood out to me:
11/6: @ Nets
11/8: @ Knicks
11/10: @ Heat
11/11: @ Magic
11/13: @ Mavericks (only time the Lakers visit Dallas)
12/1: @ Sixers
12/2: @ Wizards
12/4: @ Hawks
12/6: @ Pistons
12/7: @ Raptors
12/9: @ Timberwolves (only time The Lakers visit Minnesota)
12/11: @ Spurs (first visit to a rival franchise Kobe deeply respects)
12/12: @ Houston
12/22: @ Thunder
12/23: vs. Nuggets
12/27: @ Grizzlies
12/28: @ Hornets
12/30: @ Celtics
1/22: vs. Spurs
1/23: @ Blazers (last time in Portland, an amazing road venue)
2/4: @ Pelicans
2/6: @ Spurs (last time)
2/8: @ Pacers
2/10: @ Cavaliers
2/21: @ Bulls
2/22: @ Bucks
2/24: @ Memphis (last time)
3/1: vs. Nets
3/2: @ Nuggets (last time)
3/22: vs. Grizzles
3/23: @ Suns (last time)
3/27: vs. Grizzlies
3/28: @ Jazz (last time in Utah)
4/10: @ Rockets (last time)
4/11: @ Thunder (last time)
4/13: vs. Jazz (potential final game of his career)
As you can see, this could be tricky for Kobe.
Even if he truly hasn’t made up his mind about retirement, the acknowledgement of its possibility means even more planning ahead for a season where methodical regimentation is necessary just to attempt staying whole. If Bryant prioritizes “last time” games the way I suspect he will, full participation in back-to-backs or the dreaded “four games in five nights” becomes unavoidable, even if for just 15-20 minutes in certain cases. 15-20 minutes might not seem taxing, but they add up, especially for someone of Kobe’s age and mileage. He’d almost certainly have to grab rest in different spots throughout the season. The “how” remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kobe sat out a few more home games, the idea being there are more contests at Staples, and therefore he can, relatively speaking, “afford” to miss a few more contests in Los Angeles.
Would it feel twisted if Kobe’s backyard, where he gets more love than anywhere in the world (save perhaps China), emerged a recurrent sacrificial lamb? No question. But this season will become a balancing act no matter how it’s played, and the more details to juggle, the more complicated things grow. Ending a career as glorious as Kobe’s inevitably means trying to leave as few loose ends as possible, and it’ll be interesting to see how he goes about squeezing out every ounce of closure.[divide]