Love him or hate him, it's difficult not to admire the way Kobe Bryant has played through much of the 2012-13 NBA season. For the first two-and-a-half months, Kobe led the league in scoring and was producing more efficiently than ever before, in service of a Los Angeles Lakers squad that was (and still is) foundering amidst coaching changes, injuries, roster turnover and the unbearable weight of championship expectations.
His shooting percentages were way up and his field-goal attempts were slightly down. He played the point and ran pick-and-rolls (admirably, at that) while Steve Nash was out with an injury, in addition to his usual duties as the team's go-to scorer. He spoke honestly and candidly with the rabid press, occasionally calling out his teammates (big boy pants, anyone?) but never coming completely unhinged.
The Lakers, losers and all, were still Kobe's team, as he'd proclaimed in the preseason. But, at the very least, he'd proclaimed himself a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem, if not absolving himself of any wrongdoing amidst the organization's downfall.
But the burden of putting the Lakers on his back (and not getting the desired results) has begun to exact a noticeable toll on Kobe, both physically and mentally. On the court, the task of taking on the other team's top guard (usually Steve Nash's man) seems to have dragged down his offensive production. Over his last three games, Bryant has averaged 21.3 points on an abysmal 31.6 percent shooting from the field, with more turnovers (5.0) than assists (3.7).
Coincidentally (or not), all three of those games have resulted in losses for the 17-24 Lakers.
Those frustrations have clearly spilled into Kobe's life off the court, as well. He's now actively attempting to avoid reaching his "breaking point" by escaping from basketball in any way he can.
And to think, the Lakers still have 41 games remaining on their schedule. The second half of the campaign may well be an opportunity for the Purple and Gold to turn this mess around. Or, it could devolve into the next chapter of a long slog that, at times, seems destined to go down as one of the most monumental disappointments in the history of sports.
For better or worse, so much of that distinction hinges on Kobe Bryant and his 34-year-old frame...and frame of mind. Aside from Metta World Peace and Jordan Hill (who's out with a hip injury until next season), Bryant's the only Laker who's played with effort, energy, intensity and purpose on a nightly basis this season. His manner of activity is one of a man who knows that his time is short and that every game lost drags him one step further away from his goal of winning a Michael Jordan-matching sixth ring.
If only the rest of the Lakers could or would follow suit. Dwight Howard's effort seems to wax and wane without rhyme or reason. Once as reliable with the Orlando Magic as the sun rising in the east, Howard has since seen his hustle and productivity tail off considerably. He still leads the league in rebounding, though that may have more to do with his prodigious talent than it does with his focus on a nightly basis.
How much Howard's decline is due to his ailing back and how much to a growing frustration with head coach Mike D'Antoni's system is unclear. In any case, he's quite plainly not the same player he once was, and certainly not the one-man wrecking crew the Lakers need him to be. Even general manager Mitch Kupchak has taken his fair share of thinly-veiled shots at Howard's apparent lack of effort.
Pau Gasol, too, has been the subject of many a public lashing this season, some more outright than others. The slender Spaniard has had his own issues with his body, between tendinitis in his knees and a recent concussion, that have limited his effectiveness and made it difficult for him to jell with his new teammates on the court.
Along with those problems, though, have come all-too-constant tweaks to Pau's role on the team. He's spent more time than ever launching jump shots from the perimeter. Anyone who knows Gasol's game and appreciates his size (at seven-feet tall) understands full well that he's far better suited to playing in the post than he is to being a "stretch 4."
D'Antoni's solution to this conundrum? Bring Pau off the bench and start Earl Clark—EARL FRICKIN' CLARK—at power forward. Gasol's bristling, then, is perfectly understandable, though detrimental to the Lakers' attempt at a turnaround nonetheless.
Then again, at least Gasol knows he's going to play on any given night. For some of the Lakers' veteran role players (most notably Antawn Jamison), the season has devolved into a constant guessing game regarding playing time. The prospect of another "DNP—Coaching Decision" seems to loom larger than any possibility of actually partaking in meaningful minutes. That, in itself, has been the cause of some conflict and frustration in the Lakers' locker room, and figures to remain so unless/until D'Antoni settles on a steady rotation.
As for Steve Nash, there's only so much that can reasonably be expected of him. He's done a solid job of running point for the Lakers (8.6 assists to 2.7 turnovers) and is well within striking distance of yet another 50-40-90 season, as far as shooting is concerned.
But to ask Nash to save the Lakers from themselves is to misplace responsibility for the team's fate. After all, Nash's 39th birthday is right around the corner, he spent nearly two months sidelined by a leg injury, he's yet to develop a workable chemistry with his new squad and, while smart enough to play the angles, he's always had difficulty guarding even his own shadow.
So, though Nash's ball-handling and shooting have made Kobe's life easier on one end, Steve's inability to so much as slow down opposing point guards has left Bryant equally burdened on the other.
It's no wonder, then, that Kobe already appears to be losing steam, that he's seeking emotional release wherever and whenever he can find it. He's yet to miss a game while playing the third-most minutes and attempting the most shots by a substantial margin.
All to help a team for which the eighth seed in the Western Conference has since become a pipe dream. The hope and promise of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June have since been replaced by the desperate attempt to save face and salvage what's left of a lost season.
In that case, if Kobe does, indeed, lose steam (along with the motivation to keep runnin' on empty), can you really blame him?
Not that anyone should expect him to do that. Bryant's fashioned one of the all-time great careers in NBA history in large part by relentlessly persevering through pain and anguish when faced with unfavorable odds. He's a fighter, first and foremost, one whose competitive fire is not and cannot so easily be put out.
Lakers fans can only hope that the trials and tribulations of this season will strengthen Kobe's world-class resolve, not extinguish it. In the meantime, he needs help from his teammates—plenty of it and fast—lest the Lakers run the risk of burning out the one man who's shown up to play with any true consistency this season.