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Kobe's picking his spots now more than ever.
This could be controversial.
Bryant's defense has been less than stellar for a few years now. While he is a near-lock for an All-Defense team every year, it's primarily a reputation pick.
Don't get me wrong, Kobe's still more than capable of great defense if he's locked in. However, those moments are becoming increasingly rare—his off-ball defense has gotten pretty shoddy.
For what it's worth, Synergy Sports Technology pegs him as the 43rd best overall defender in the league this season, so he's definitely improved from last season's 166th overall (via Hardwood Paroxysm's Clint Peterson). However, defensive stats are pretty hard to calculate, and the good old fashioned eye test says that Kobe isn't often a lockdown defender anymore.
Considering that defense has been the Los Angeles Lakers' Achilles heel this season, it's hard to call Kobe's slightly better defensive performance a real improvement. The way that he's learned to save his energy and pick his spots, though, is absolutely a sign of growth from No. 24.
Let's make a Michael Jordan analogy: Over the course of his last three championship seasons, Michael learned that he couldn't go 100 percent on both ends of the court for an entire game. His body wouldn't let him.
So what he did was pick his spots. He would relax defensively for much of the game and save his energy for game-deciding spurts, during which he was a two-way juggernaut. It saved his body not only in those particular games, but over the course of entire seasons.
Jordan got away with it because he had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman (two of the greatest defenders ever) backing him up. Kobe only has an aging Metta World Peace and a banged-up Dwight Howard to lean on, so he gets scrutinized far more. We've seen flashes of Kobe being his old disruptive self, but when he can't maintain that defensive level, he's considered lazy.
No doubt he's guilty of a few defensive lapses due to laziness or sheer frustration about the way that this season has gone, but Bryant is one of the hardest-working players the league has ever seen. He's also fiercely proud, sometimes to a fault. He is not a lazy player.
He is, however, an older player and one who can't go 100 percent for 38 minutes a game. Especially not while trying to do everything offensively for an injury-plagued team.
It's going to be hard to paint this energy-saving strategy in a positive light until Howard is fully healthy and can protect Kobe defensively, but when he is, it could do wonders for the Lakers.
Not only will Kobe be able to focus on his offense full-time and become a dominant two-way force for short spurts, he should have a lot more in the tank for a potential playoff run—assuming the Lakers make it that far.
Kobe looked visibly exhausted in last year's playoffs, even early in games. It was clear that he just didn't have much left at that point in the season. The Lakers will need him at 100 percent for the playoffs, and if he keeps picking his spots this season, they just might get it.