First of all, we have all seen Kobe play exhibition games before, and from what I’ve seen, Kobe knows how and when to pace himself. Although these exhibition games are being played on a worldwide stage, Kobe knows when the games really matter, and will undoubtedly have his moments and put his fingerprints on these Olympics. However, I don’t expect him to force anything or play outside of the system; the same way he didn’t in the 2008 games.
As for the way he’s been playing, he may seem like the “odd man out” in terms of scoring, but he is simply making the right plays. Additionally, he may not appear to be the team’s best perimeter defender anymore, but he is still tied for second with regards to steals with LeBron James (at nine total apiece, second to Chris Paul’s 13) for the exhibition games.
Back to his offense, though. Bryant scored just 8.2 points a game (which was fifth), trailing LeBron James (18.6), Kevin Durant (17.6), Carmelo Anthony (13.2), and Russell Westbrook (9.4) in the exhibition schedule. Similarly, he only has 10 assists total, but the same guys who were facilitating last time around are doing it again as James, Paul, and Williams each dished out 20 assists to lead Team USA.
However, if you’ve been watching the games, you will have noticed that Kobe has been the initiator of the offense on many occasions, and possibly has more “hockey assists” than regular assists. In other words, his decision-making once he received the ball led to easy baskets on a number of occasions.
He has basically just been casually sitting back, and as soon as he gets the ball along the perimeter and the defense commits to him, has either dished it out to a wide open Kevin Durant behind the three-point line, or backed down in the post to find a cutting LeBron James. I’m not going to sit here and act like he’s been playing like Magic Johnson or anything, but he’s been simply playing smart basketball–read and react basketball, if you will.
I personally don’t expect Kobe to score the way he did last time around, but he did have one in-rhythm game in which he put up 18 points on (on 6-12 shooting). But, in the same game, Durant dropped in 27 (on 10-15 shooting). Again, even though Kobe may not have the same role on this team as he did in the last Olympic games, I strongly disagree that his production or efficiency in these games will reflect how he’ll coexist with Steve Nash next year.
Right now, he’s on a team with other offensive juggernauts in their primes–a few of which are more explosive than he is at his age–and is not going to compromise the team by trying to get himself going; he doesn’t have those juggernauts on his Lakers team, by the way. For these games, he’s likely going to find his role on the team much like he did last time; although last time he found himself scoring as well, but it was his second focus behind defense.
As for next season, I completely believe that Kobe and Nash can and will coexist. Each will have to alter their games a bit, but it will work. Why? Because both are towards the tail end of their careers and understand they will have to play with each other in order to win. Additionally, they will make one another better. Kobe won’t have to focus on play-making for literally everyone else on the team, and Nash won’t have to either.
The benefits for Kobe will be that he’ll get much more easy shots, and will get some rest on the offensive end. To Conway’s credit, yes, Kobe will have to adjust to hitting wide open shots and moving off ball–which is something he hasn’t done much of throughout his career.
As for Nash, he will also get also get a lot more open shots than he’s used to, and may have to carry a bigger offensive load this season; which will be the adjustment to his game. With his sniper-sharp shooting, Nash will be encouraged by Bryant to be more selfish and take the wide open shots that are created by double-teams on Kobe. I am going to actually go out on a limb and say that Nash will average more points per game this season than he did last season.
Yes, Kobe will have to adjust his game to play alongside Steve Nash, but it will be a positive adjustment and one that will hopefully elongate his already legendary career.
The fact that Kobe was able to score, make plays, and coexist with three great play-makers in the 2008 Olympics should be proof enough that he can still be effective without the ball always in his hands; none of those guys complained about Kobe being too much of a ball-hog, and Dwyane Wade actually came to Kobe in the gold medal game and said “let that Mamba loose!”–which was coming from that team’s leading scorer.
However, I am not counting Kobe out of these 2012 Olympics, either. He may not be the first, second, or even third option this time around, but you better believe that the Black Mamba will put his imprint on these Olympics at some point in time.
Let the games begin.
Update: Since this article was written, one official Olympic game has been played, and Bryant actually saw his minutes drop to just 12 against France. However, he put up 10 quick points and looked more aggressive offensively. It is likely that his minutes–and assertiveness–will gradually increase as the gold medal game (assuming Team USA gets that far) approaches.