Kobe Bryant isn't Kobe Bryant anymore.
The work ethic and drive are there, the ruthlessness is alive and well and the saucy, defiant self-assuredness is intact. But his body is different. The Los Angeles Lakers are different.
Time has passed. Plans have shifted. Coaches have left, and certain players will too.
Things in Lakerland have changed.
To succeed and grant himself a legitimate shot at that sixth championship ring, Bryant must too.
Talk of Bryant's full recovery fails to recognize one pressing, unassailable dilemma: There will be no full recovery.
This is not to say that Bryant is done, nor does it gloss over his superhuman, caustic rejection of personal limitations. This doesn't even have anything to do with him only playing six games last season.
It's just the truth.
Whatever Bryant does, whatever he intends to do, life will never be like it once was. He won't return to the Lakers lineup and play 40 minutes a night while going one-on-five. Willingly or involuntarily shouldering that workload is no longer possible. The matter of necessity is preservation—finding ways for him to remain effective without compromising his body and what's left of his storied career.
Adjusting to his new constraints starts with his role. Bryant will still shoot, because that's what he does. Asking him to be something other than a scorer first and foremost goes against nearly two decades worth of demonstration. And yet, this is exactly what the Lakers must do.
When he begins his 19th season in 2014-15, he must do so as a frequent distributor. The Lakers will likely have at least two point guards on the docket in Kendall Marshall and Steve Nash, but there is room for Bryant to bear plenty of the playmaking responsibilities.
Nash, for one, is a silhouette of his former self. He's appeared in just 65 games over the last two seasons while coping with nerve damage in his back. Relying on him for anything more than the occasional appearance and irregular contribution ignores the obvious.
Marshall, meanwhile, isn't an established floor general. His 54-game run in Los Angeles was impressive, but it's a small sample size, and it came while he was piloting a bottom-10 offense. There's more to evaluate before the Lakers declare him someone other than a byproduct of inconsequential opportunity and fast-paced basketball.
Putting Bryant on the ball as a quasi-point guard gives the Lakers a proven playmaker and—more importantly—prevents their aging champion from waging unnecessary, athletically predicated paint forays that are more trouble than the two or three points they could be worth.
There's also merit to having Bryant create for his teammates. When he passes, the Lakers stand to win more. They went 28-12 in 2012-13 when he simply reached his per-game assist average (six).
We saw something similar during his brief stay in the rotation this past season. Bryant averaged 6.3 dimes a night, so this transition has already started in a sense. But it needs to be sustained.
"Unfortunately, yes," Bryant said when asked in December if he was the team's new starting point guard, per USA Today's Sam Amick. "We'll have some adjustments to make."
Indeed they did. And they still do.
Deferring cannot be a stopgap Bryant uses as he attempts to regain his groove and adapt to the ebb and flow of full-speed basketball. Running point needs to become a staple of his game.
Ball-dominator. Unabashed chucker. Ball hog. Isolation-heavy fanatic.
Bryant has been called each of those things, among others, at some point in his career. Stereotypes, groundless or justified, have never bothered him, nor will they ever gnaw at him.
Next year, though, salty and unflattering classifications shouldn't even be an issue.
Playing more point guard is only half of Bryant's offensive transformation. The other half is the manner in which he scores and generally plays, as ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin pondered:
Finally, it will be interesting to see how Bryant changes his game -- whether he'll play fewer minutes, sit out the second night of back-to-backs, etc. -- to try to stay healthy in the long run. How will he handle it if L.A. is out of the hunt by the All-Star break again next season? Will he be content padding his career numbers with no postseason in sight?
In lieu of venturous rim attacks, he needs to become more of an off-ball scorer—a spot-up shooter who doesn't need to dribble excessively, absorb superfluous contact or expend precious energy trying to manufacture his own shots.
Rim attacks, dribble-drives and isolations will always be part of Bryant's game. They just can't be as prominent. And this is where the real work comes in, since he's never been one to rely on others or even allow them to have any control over his offensive looks.
Roughly one-third of Bryant's makes in 2012-13 came off assists. A little over 44 percent of his converted baskets were off assists in 2011-12. Almost 38 percent of his buckets were set up for him by a teammate in 2010-11.
Those numbers need to go up. Way up. Like, exceed-50-percent-easily up.
Now isn't the time to test Bryant's offensive resolve. Depending on others to drive and kick will be frustrating, but it helps protect his body and ensure other players remain involved.
Improving his three-point shooting is the best place to start. More spot-up opportunities lie beyond the arc, where Bryant has shot over 36 percent just three times in his career. Worse, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he's knocked down more than 33 percent of his standalone treys just once since 2010.
Results aren't any different when two-pointers are taken into account. He's drilled better than 40 percent of his spot-up attempts overall one time in the last five years. Not once has his standstill rate exceeded his general field-goal percentage either.
Honing his off-ball touch needs to be done at this stage. It's not just Bryant's body that's changing and aging. The Lakers are different.
What they needed from Bryant five—even two years—ago, isn't what they need from him now.
Acceptance is bigger than everything here.
Before Bryant assumes his new role and changes his style, he has to understand how different things need to be. This is still his team, but not for much longer. He must find that balance between mentoring and self-interest, winning and transitioning, delegating and taking over.
Contending for a championship isn't on the agenda next season. The pieces aren't in Los Angeles for that to happen. Enough of them aren't going to be in Hollywood when the season begins either.
Instead of winning, the focus will be on rebuilding.
How will Bryant interact with younger players? Can he mentor the Lakers' top draft pick?
@DonPEscobar both have great potential. Id mentor either one— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) March 27, 2014
Is he willing to put his ego aside for the sake of recruiting other stars now and next summer? Will he respect and coexist with the new coach?
Will Kobe Bryant be able to adjust his game and mindset to meet Los Angeles' needs?
Can he accept that next season is merely a bridge between his requisite evolution and the last chance he will have to win a title (2015-16)?
Upon return, Bryant is coming back to an indistinct squad that needs him to check his alpha-dog mentality at the door and think about the big picture. The Lakers still need him. They also need to plan for life after him.
And, above all else, they need him to grasp this concept, adapt for the better of the team and himself and hope that's enough to make what's left of his career worthwhile.