Kobe Bryant's Newest Challenge: Fitting In

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 15, 2013

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For as long as Kobe Bryant has been a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, his teammates have adjusted to him.

But now that he's operating at something less than his "full Mamba" setting, it's fair to wonder whether or not he should be the one making adjustments.

Before Bryant returned, the Lakers were playing Mike D'Antoni's brand of ball. Employing a generally undersized attack, L.A. kept the floor spaced, shot a lot of threes and rarely suffered from the stagnant sets that typically arise when stars like Bryant are a large part of the offense.

Castoffs like Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill flourished in the low-pressure, expectation-free environment. Nobody thought the Lakers could make any real noise without Kobe in the rotation, and that belief was oddly freeing for almost everyone on the roster.

Despite the Lakers' relative success in Bryant's absence, it's almost impossible to imagine him as just another component in the system.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 and the Los Angeles Lakers during the game against the Charlotte Bobcats at the Time Warner Cable Arena on December 14, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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The mere thought of Bryant taking a backseat unsettles a large contingent of Lakers fans. He holds some kind of special status among loyalists, many of whom seem comfortable with the idea of letting Kobe lead the team—regardless of what kind of physical condition he's in.

The thinking goes like this: No matter how well the Lakers played as a ball-sharing, starless outfit before Bryant returned, it's not realistic to think their surprising success was anything more than a feel-good story. The Lakers want to make playoff noise, or even pursue championships. Asking Bryant to slip into some kind of supporting role on a team that desperately needs some leadership would be counterproductive for everyone.

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 6: Nick Young #0, Jordan Hill #27, Shawne Williams #3, Xavier Henry #7 and Steve Blake #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers in a game against the Sacramento Kings on December 6, 2013 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE T
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Besides, it's not like Bryant has the skills to be an ideal wing player in D'Antoni's system. He's never been a knockdown three-point shooter, he tends to stop the ball almost every time he touches it and his legs probably aren't up to running at the pace necessary to make D'Antoni's favored style most effective.

So, there's some sense in letting Bryant try to take on an alpha dog role and allowing the chips to fall where they may.

For his part, Bryant certainly isn't talking like a guy who's looking to quietly "fit in" with his new cast of teammates.

Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, Bryant said:

Obviously, we have some improvements to make, whether it's with the guys that we have in the locker room or whatever the management wants to do. It's not my job to focus on that. It's my job to focus on what we have and making sure we make the necessary improvements every day to get there.

Based on that comment, Kobe's not considering ways he can change; he's thinking about how potential roster tweaks could help make the team around him better.

Allowing Kobe to run the show might ultimately hurt the Lakers. There's a good chance that his physical skills simply aren't up to that task anymore. But there's also a case to be made that the Lakers have a chance—however slim that chance might be—to do more with him in charge than with him playing some kind of complementary role.

In other words, handing the team over to Bryant and asking it to fit around him could give the Lakers both a higher ceiling and a lower basement.

Against the Charlotte Bobcats on Dec. 14, Bryant played his best game since returning. Incidentally, the Lakers also notched their first win since Kobe rejoined the lineup.

Notably, No. 24 still didn't look like the quick, physical player he once was. He gave the ball away seven times, which only added to the Lakers' skyrocketing turnover ratio since his comeback.

Still, he scored 21 points on just 15 shots while grabbing seven boards and dishing out eight assists.

Maybe the fact that the Lakers won with Bryant controlling things against the Bobcats is a sign L.A. should scrap D'Antoni's style in favor of a Kobe-centric attack. The counter to that proposition would be that this is the Bobcats we're talking about, and L.A. still has three losses against just one win since Kobe came back.

It's also worth mentioning that Bryant has always had a knack for reaching Pau Gasol. If he's in a leadership role, he'll have the clout necessary to motivate the struggling Spaniard in his own tough-love way.

If Bryant were only blending in, he might not have as much luck in reaching Gasol's ear. So, in that sense, handing total control over to Bryant could serve the secondary purpose of maximizing whatever value Gasol has left.

In the end, the Lakers don't really have a choice. For better or worse, Bryant isn't someone who adapts his game to fit into any scheme. Sure, he'll make adjustments when they're absolutely necessary—his assumption of point guard duties while the Lakers seek free-agent help at the position is a prime example.

By and large, though, teammates have always adjusted to Bryant.

The Lakers will go as far as Kobe can take them, and they'll get wherever they're going on his terms. If that sounds like a familiar narrative, it's probably because that's how it's always been.

Weakened or not, Bryant is going to remain who he is. It'll be up to his teammates to figure out how to adapt.