Contrary to popular belief, Kobe Bryant is well aware of his own limitations. He allegedly considered retirement after a physically taxing 2010-11 season, and spent much of the 2011-12 campaign simultaneously fending off Father Time and Mother Nature.
It would stand to reason, then, that the Black Mamba would be more than happy to ease off the accelerator now that the Los Angeles Lakers have upgraded the roster around him with an All-Star point guard (Steve Nash) and the best big man on the planet (Dwight Howard).
Not to mention a scorer supreme (Antawn Jamison) to anchor the second unit.
Except "taking it easy" has never been a part of Kobe's modus operandi. As close as Kobe came to calling it quits during the lockout, he came even closer to leading the NBA in scoring thereafter.
Not that falling just short in the scoring column kept Kobe from racking up numbers in all the other ways 16-year veterans aren't supposed to.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Bryant was tops in the Association in usage percentage (35.7) and field-goal attempts (1,336) and probably would've topped the charts in shots made and minutes played if not for a two-week stretch in April during which he was sidelined by a shin injury.
Burning the candle at both ends yielded plenty of brilliant moments for Bryant, but hardly proved to be the most efficient use of his talents. In fact, the Mamba ranked just No. 16 in player-efficiency rating and couldn't even crack the top 20 in win shares or win shares per 48 minutes.
Ahead of him in each of those categories was Andrew Bynum, once his enigmatic Lakers teammate and now the talented headache of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even with Bynum and Pau Gasol—two All-Stars in their own right—patrolling the paint (not to mention Bryant's own attempts at times to force deference), Kobe too often tried to do it all by himself, particularly in crunch time, and came up short more often than he'd likely care to recall.
The fearlessness and supreme sense of belief of a younger, healthier, more spry Mamba were still there in full force.
Just without the same speed, athleticism and sheer physical dominance that once justified and lent Lakers fans the same sense of confidence in him that he had in himself. As Grantland's Bill Simmons wrote back in April, Kobe had essentially become (or, rather, was playing like) a glorified Allen Iverson:
He's a 42 percent volume shooter who plays an ungodly number of minutes, shakes off every injury, fills the box score (good and bad), keeps coming and coming, and fervently believes he's always the best guy on the floor (even when it's not true).
That single-minded desire to win and the accompanying conviction that he's the best man for the job have long been Kobe's impetus toward greatness, but have since become the most widely-discussed impediment to his team's success.
And will be even more so if his ego (for better or worse) doesn't align more closely with his ideal role in the Lakers universe.
Where Kobe was once the savior of a seemingly sinking ship, he'll now be the first and biggest goat if the supercharged Lakers fail to live up to their lofty (if not impossibly so) expectations. After all, he's the face of the franchise and the man around whom this team was, is and continues to be built. As such, if the team's design falls short, then it's Kobe who catches the most flak.
His status as a purple-and-gold legend and an all-time great in the sport can only absorb so much criticism and deflect so much blame at any given time.
He'll have to make sacrifices in his game to accommodate those of his highly-regarded compatriots. Establishing better balance on a crowded floor will require that Kobe spend less time shooting and dribbling and more time facilitating.
He'll have to cede control of the rock to Nash, who's better equipped to grease the squeaky wheels of an offense that's expected to be orchestrated from the sidelines by Princeton guru Eddie Jordan. At times, he'll have to hover around the perimeter and operate as a spot-up shooter while Nash and/or Gasol go screening with Howard.
In the locker room, too, Kobe will have to add a bit of benevolence to his "alpha dog" act to get the most out of a sensitive Superman. To be sure, Howard could use some tough love after having his run of the asylum with the Orlando Magic, but needn't be hazed too harshly or goaded quite as often as Bynum was.
But whereas the Kobe of old would've been far too bullish and headstrong to be expected to make way for others, the older and (presumably) wiser Kobe should understand the value of taking a back seat when it's so graciously offered to him.
He's talked openly about his time in the NBA drawing near, his desire to win a sixth ring to match Michael Jordan's total before he hangs 'em up and what it'll take from everyone involved to bring that banner to fruition.
Bryant's time with Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics served as a perfect primer for the on-court life he has to look forward to in L.A. He was the star of the gold-medal squad in 2008 and hung onto a starting spot this time around, but still acquiesced to LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and the like more often than not.
There were times when Kobe seemed determined to prove that he wasn't too old and too slow to be running with the young guns, but only looked older and slower the harder he tried. Such was all too apparent in the first half of USA Basketball's quarterfinal against Australia, when he was left in the dust on defense and appeared to turn the ball over or miss a shot just about every time his hands came in contact with the ball.
By the same token, though, there were occasions wherein Kobe was keenly aware of his limitations and was content to bide his time for a proper strike. That was the case during the second half of that very same game against the Boomers, when the Mamba struck for 20 points (including six three-pointers) to help Team USA pull away for a 119-86 stomping.
And, in the gold-medal game on Sunday, Kobe went head-to-head with one of the men for whose benefit he'll have to eschew some of his urges to take over. Pau Gasol's 24-point, eight-rebound, seven-assists masterpiece helped Spain to give the U.S. its toughest test of these Olympics and demonstrated that he, too, is capable of carrying a team.
It's no wonder, then, that Kobe publicly rushed to Pau's defense in the weeks leading up to Dwight's arrival in Lakerdom, per Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press:
Kobe, answering a question from a Spanish reporter about Pau's status with the Lakers: "As long as I'm there, he's going to be there."— Brian Mahoney (@briancmahoney) July 21, 2012
Now that they're both still in L.A., it'll be up to Kobe to make it work.
For all of head coach Mike Brown's attempts at micromanagement and all the miraculous moves GM Mitch Kupchak and team executive Jim Buss have made this summer, the Lakers remain Kobe's team first and foremost. Some will remind him that he needn't try to do everything himself, and still others will suggest to him (albeit carefully) that he couldn't even if he wanted to.
But when push comes to shove, it's Kobe's call as to how he'll go about his business. He's earned that right, thanks in large part to his five titles, and will reserve it until it's no longer his to reserve.
If the Mamba opts for the "business-as-usual" approach, he'll likely be faced again with the boundaries of his own mortality, as he attempts to drag a loaded lineup past the second round of the playoffs amidst perhaps more pressure than he's yet encountered in his NBA career.
However, if Kobe makes a conscientious effort to subjugate his "demons" of self-confidence and put involving his teammates atop his to-do list, he may well spark a new Lakers dynasty and further cement his legacy as one of the greatest, most enduring and most bejeweled players in NBA history.
In the end, the choice is his.
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