It was a scrutinizing neck-and-neck contest through the first half, but Team USA came out guns blazing in the second to blow out their international archrival Argentina in the final game of the preliminary round on Monday.
And while Team USA was able to pull off the convincing blowout win, it became evident through the first half that 33-year-old Kobe Bryant isn’t the player he used to be, and is starting to see his basketball talent decline. He’s still talented enough to be considered amongst the NBA’s elite, but the Los Angeles Lakers' longtime superstar should take a reserve role with Team USA.
Bryant still processes his patented first step and slashing ability in the lane, but the nine time NBA All-Defensive First Team member doesn’t have the foot speed that he did at the apex of his career. He’s become a liability on the defensive end of the court and is hurting the Americans by eating up minutes with the starting rotation.
Manu Ginobili had an impeccable first half for team Argentina, coming in no small part to Bryant drawing the San Antonio Spurs star as his defensive assignment. Ginobili scored all 16 of his points in the first half, and didn’t appear to really slow down until Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook provided relief defensive efforts for Bryant off the bench.
Bryant hasn’t exactly had spectacular numbers in these Olympics either. His 9.4 points per game through the preliminaries ranks him just sixth on Team USA, an embarrassing mark for a player who finished second in the NBA in scoring last season (27.9 PPG). He’s shooting a dismal 39 percent from the floor and has yet to score over 18 points in any contest during the prelims.
Bryant’s on-court struggles could just be due to the crossover from NBA to international basketball. His game doesn’t exactly translate well, as Bryant excels in triple-threat isolation scenarios, and relies on his burst to the lane and step-back moves to manufacture points.
International ball is predicated on pick-and-roll and off-ball movement to create scoring opportunities, and while Bryant does possess the mid-range jump shot to have mild success in the Olympic games, he simply isn’t at the top of his game when the offense is not directly channeled through him.
Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski has limited Bryant’s play so far in London, allocating just 14.8 minutes per game through five contests, the lowest of any of the American starters. He’s favored using Iguodala at the two (Iggy is averaging 15.0 minutes per), largely due to his defense and rebounding abilities.
For a team that is giving up a whopping 98 points per game (heinously abysmal if you consider that international games are only 40 minutes, compared to the NBA’s 48) and is stock-loaded with younger scoring talent in Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, it makes sense to put Bryant in a sixth man role.
It does sound a bit odd though, placing a five-time NBA champion and two-time NBA Finals MVP coming off the bench. However, with his superstar celebrity status and respect aside, it’s time for Bryant and company to face the reality of his current basketball skill level. He would essentially be taking the same role that Team USA teammate James Harden plays with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a bona fide playmaker that gives the team depth, energy and a lethal scoring option off the bench.
It might not be a role Bryant is accustomed to, but it’s the best option for the U.S. going forward as the competition gets tougher in their gold-medal chase.