Kobe's Dilemma: How the Lakers Need to Manage Bryant in His Last Few Seasons
There are a ton of reasons the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder: Pau Gasol never looked totally invested, the entire roster looked slow, and Mike Brown has the coaching acumen of a particularly feisty lima bean. To blame Kobe Bryant seems a bit hypocritical since he's largely responsible for the Lakers winning five championships in 11 years.
So I'm not going to blame Kobe. I'm going to blame everyone else for letting Kobe be Kobe.
There have been signs for a while now. He shot a lower percentage this year than in any of his previous 13 as a starter. The Lakers stopped showing up in big games around the middle of last year. Then, of course, there was his 6-of-24 shooting performance in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals.
Kobe just isn't isn't Kobe anymore. The problem is, Kobe doesn't know that.
Don't get me wrong—Kobe Bryant is a great player. When it's all said and done he'll be the greatest player to ever wear a Laker uniform. He'll make the Hall of Fame. Honestly, at age 33, he's probably still one of the five or six best players in the league.
However, he's no longer Kobe the invincible. He doesn't have 81-point performances up his sleeve, and his opponents know it. The Thunder did everything short of daring him to shoot. And Kobe fell for it. His shot selection in Game 4 was awful. He managed to score 42 points in Game 5, but he needed 33 shots to do it.
What Kobe doesn't seem to realize is that every shot he takes is a shot Andrew Bynum doesn't get to take. Ditto for Pau Gasol. For this group's entire run, that has been LA's biggest advantage. Nobody ever had two big men who could stand up to them, but Kobe never fully embraced that. He had to be the hero, even when logic dictated he shouldn't be.
Stats don't lie, and while Kobe Bryant is known as a legendary closer, statistically it's Bynum who should be leading the way. He shot a staggering 76.1 percent in clutch situations (defined by 82games.com as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points").
I'm not here to suggest Kobe needs to completely defer, but he needs to recognize who he is. It's time for Bynum to become the leader of this team and for Kobe to gracefully slide into the role Tim Duncan has mastered in San Antonio.
He shouldn't be taking 20 shots per game anymore. He should try to cut that number down to around 15. The shots he should be giving up are the ones he described as difficult after Game 4. He needs to focus on high-percentage shots. Kobe making 50 percent of 15 shots is a lot more valuable to the Lakers than Kobe making 40 percent of 23 shots.
The lightened scoring load would allow Kobe to focus more on defense. He's been a superb defender for most of his career, but that's the sort of thing that slips with age. Kobe's always been excellent at adding new elements to his game, but maybe it's time to focus on refining his defense so that he can still contribute on both ends of the floor.
Finally, he needs to shed the chucker label and focus on passing. The Lakers don't have a point guard, and while they'll probably look to get one this offseason, I don't think it'll be one who can make a significant difference.
The odds are that Kobe will be the main ball-handler once again next year. If that's the case, he needs to start getting his teammates more involved. Kobe is dangerous when he's shooting, but he's even more dangerous when the other team only thinks he's shooting. His scoring opens up opportunities for teammates, but he's never been great at capitalizing on those opportunities.
This year Kobe Bryant averaged 27.9 points per game on 43 percent shooting to go along with 4.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds.
Here is my challenge to you, Kobe: Score 22 points per game on 48 percent shooting, to go along with six assists and six rebounds.
Part two of your challenge: Andrew Bynum averaged 18.7 points on 56 percent shooting this season. Whatever it takes, raise that to 23 points on 60 percent shooting.
If that happens, the Lakers will be right back in the thick of the title hunt. Kobe just needs to accept who he is. If we see a little less Batman and a little more Robin, Kobe has a chance to rewrite the last few years of his seemingly already-determined legacy.
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