Maybe a change of pace will lead to just that.
The 34-year-old averaged 38.5 minutes last season, a fairly significant increase over the 33.9 minutes Phil Jackson played him in 2010-11. Of course, Kobe's no stranger to a hefty workload. Over the course of his career, he's averaged more than 40 minutes in five different seasons.
Sitting an MVP-caliber player isn't easy, but sometimes it's necessary.
Mike Trudell reports that head coach Mike Brown is beginning to agree:
Mike Brown definitely wants to reduce Kobe's minutes this year. Acknowledges they were too high last year, feels team is now deeper.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 2, 2012
Indeed, Brown and Kobe alike have general manager Mitch Kupchak to thank for that added depth. The most obvious help will come from Jodie Meeks, a 25-year-old shooting guard who can light it up from long range. Not only will he be able to give Bryant a breather from time to time, he'll ensure Los Angeles' second-unit doesn't turn in a stagnant offense.
So will 36-year-old Antawn Jamison, a spread-4 who will fit in just fine with the bench after spending his last two-and-a-half seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers will rely on Jamison for sixth-man minutes and production given his scoring instincts and the experience he brings to the second unit.
Jamison obviously won't be subbing in for Kobe directly, but the point is that this team has some scorers to whom it can turn when Bryant goes to the bench.
And let's face it, we're not talking about him playing 25 minutes a game.
It wouldn't be at all surprising to see Kobe averaging something closer to 32 or 34 minutes, but not even the Lakers can afford to go without him much longer than that (at least against any serious competition). Coaches like Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers have had to take similar measures in recent years, ensuring that valuable veterans like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett aren't spent by the time the postseason comes around.
Ideally, the Lakers will be blowing teams out frequently enough for Bryant to come by his rest naturally. There's no substitute some ole' fashioned garbage time.
Otherwise, Brown will need to sit him even when he doesn't really feel like it. He may even resort to holding him out of entire games every so often.
If that sounds drastic, we should remember that this isn't about what Kobe can handle or the extent to which he remains as one of this league's fiercest competitors. We know he'd play 40 minutes a game for the duration of his contract if he were asked, and he'd still be really good.
But even Bryant conceded that tired legs may have played a role in his worst game of the 2011-12 season, a nightmare shooting performance against the New Orleans Hornets (via ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin):
"Fatigue might have something to do with it, but I had good shots," Bryant said after starting the game 0 of 15 before finishing 3 of 21 from the field. "You figure ways to work through it. I have a great team here and a lot of support. I really pushed myself defensively tonight to get after the guys, so sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit of the offense and the stamina that you have to defend. That's what we believe is going to get us to the championship."
Keeping Kobe fresh is fundamentally about two things in the short-term: preserving his legs for the postseason and hedging against even the slightest risk of injury.
The enemy here is fatigue, a factor that plays a subtle and often unnoticed, but incredibly important role in a game where the difference between winning and losing is sometimes so slight. The Lakers can neither afford to be without Kobe nor to have him playing at less than full capacity when do-or-die games are on the line.
As good as Bryant was in the 2011-12 postseason (in which he averaged over 30 points), there were also some games where he wasn't at his best—like Games 2 and 3 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when Kobe shot just 36 percent from the field.
A rested Kobe should be a more efficient Kobe, the one who takes games over and closes them out with or without the help of his fellow superstars. That could be the Kobe we see for at least the next two seasons, so long as Brown keeps his word anyway.
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