Kobe Bryant is one of the 10 greatest basketball players ever and one of the top five scorers. On top of his endless list of personal accomplishments, Bryant has won five NBA championships, cementing his place as one of the greatest to don the purple and gold.
However, the Lakers have not met high expectations so far this season after acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. A significant portion of the Lakers' problems can be traced back to Bryant's play style this season.
On the surface, Bryant's statistics look great this season: first in PPG, fifth in PER and his usual five rebounds and assists per game. However, the lengths to which Bryant is going to get those numbers is hindering the Lakers' ability to win games. Bryant has taken 121 more shots than any other player for an average of 21.8 shots per game.
Bryant may lead the league in scoring, but the Lakers have not won any of the seven games in which Bryant scored more than 35 points. His splits in wins versus losses show that Kobe assists more, rebounds and shoots less in Lakers wins.
In attempting to put the Lakers on his back with his shooting, the Lakers win less. While the blame of these losses is not exclusively on Kobe's excessive shooting, the Lakers sit at 15-16, and Kobe leads the league in usage rate. Although Kobe has tried to use his shooting to propel the Lakers to victory before, he needs to recognize that the Lakers are better when he involves his teammates.
Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless recently questioned how much Kobe Bryant's play contributes the Lakers' problems. While they addressed how much Kobe is to blame, it is important to explain Kobe's play to right the Lakers' ship before the playoffs. Kobe's return to Teen Wolf status stems from the Lakers' recent playoff failures, his desire for recognition and the team's recent personnel moves.
A year after winning the 2010 title, thanks in large part to Kobe's stellar play, the Mavericks swept Kobe's Lakers out of the playoffs. In those four games, Bryant shot 15 more times than any other player and still scored less than Dirk Nowitzki, who took the second-most shots in the series. Frustrated with the Lakers' loss, Kobe flew to Germany for a procedure to rejuvenate his knees in hopes of extending the Lakers' championship window.
Bryant enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in the 2011-2012 season, leading the Lakers into the playoffs thanks to his knee procedure and new coach Mike Brown's Kobe-oriented system.
However, the Lakers faced fierce competition from the Denver Nuggets in the first round, barely squeaking past the Nuggets, a deep, cohesive team, in seven games. In the second round, the Oklahoma City Thunder, a younger, team-oriented squad, defeated the Lakers in five games, and Kobe took 28 more shots than any other player.
While the Lakers' success during the past two seasons can be attributed, in large part, to Kobe, their shortcomings also rest on Kobe's shoulders. While these failures could push Kobe to defer to others and redefine his role on a championship squad, Kobe blames others on his team and continues to take on more responsibility, as his statistics indicate.
Kobe's increasingly individual play also stems from his desire for recognition as one of the greatest basketball players in history. Bryant is one of the most competitive athletes in the history of the sport; he wants to be remembered as the best who ever played the game. He is a surefire Hall of Famer, and as stated before, he is already one of the best ever.
However, with his success comes comparisons to others whose success matches, or even exceeds, his own, namely players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Magic Johnson for the crown of greatest Laker and Michael Jordan for best ever. Those nitpicking Kobe's success point to his first three championships with the Lakers, during which Shaq, not Kobe, earned all three Finals MVP awards. Was Kobe really a transcendent player? Or was he a great player on an even greater team?
In the late 2000s, when Kobe earned his fourth and fifth championships, he established his cache as the best player on a championship squad. However, Bryant's championships still paled in comparison to Jordan's six or Bill Russell's 11. On this basis alone, Bryant is determined to pursue more championships to augment his resume, but even championships will not sate his desire for recognition.
Bryant also wants to be one of the greatest individual players, as his ravenous hunt for the points record indicates. Bryant recently surpassed 30,000 points, and his high usage rate in past seasons could be a function of his desire to surpass Jordan and Kareem for the points record.
The third reason for Kobe's play this season is the personnel moves the Lakers have made over the past few seasons. Coaching changes constituted the first personnel change that affected Kobe's play. After Phil Jackson's retirement after the Mavericks series in 2011, the Lakers hired Mike Brown, who, during his tenure in Cleveland, was notorious for running his offense through his star, LeBron James. Brown ran a similar offense with the Lakers in the 2011-2012 season, encouraging Kobe's individualistic play.
Although the Lakers fired Brown after a slow start this season, new coach Mike D'Antoni's system does not mesh with the Lakers players, and therefore, Bryant has reverted to his play style under Mike Brown.
However, the Lakers' coaching changes do not tell the whole story. The players currently on the Lakers also encourage Bryant's current play. Recent acquisitions Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were both been battling injuries this year (back and fibula, respectively), leaving Kobe as the only healthy member of the Lakers' big three. However, both are on the court now, and Bryant needs to recognize that getting his teammates more involved is the key to not only the Lakers' success this year, but also to his own career goals.
These intertwining factors combine to explain Kobe's play this season. Kobe Bryant is still one of the greatest players in the league, but he cannot continue to push himself in this manner if he wishes to have the longevity to surpass Jordan's championship total or Abdul-Jabbar's points record.
As Phil Jackson said in a recent interview with Bill Simmons, Kobe when he's no longer Kobe is not a pretty sight. If Kobe gets his teammates involved enough for him to take some of the scoring load off his back, he will be fresh in the fourth quarter when he is deadliest, leading to more Lakers' wins.
This article is not meant to saddle Bryant with all the blame for the Lakers' sub-par play. Coach D'Antoni's system is clearly a grind on his players as well, and injuries have taken their toll. However, if Bryant wants to reach his goals, he must take on the responsibility that comes with such success and adapt his play for the Lakers, and himself, to succeed.