Bryant has often defied the odds throughout his career, so it seems relatively reasonable for him to bounce back after missing 76 games last year due to an Achilles tear and knee fracture.
Whether it’s winning a title without Shaquille O’Neal when Shaq himself said he couldn’t after the 2008 Finals or slaying the mythical beast known as the Boston Celtics, Bryant has proven he cannot be denied.
That matters when projecting what he will look like going forward. Remember, Bryant has previously put off surgeries and avoided needed rest in an effort to chase after championships.
Consequently, imagining him as anything close to elite isn’t that far-fetched. Keep in mind that Kobe did mention he was “100 percent” healthy on Jimmy Kimmel Live in early May (via NBA.com), and I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt considering some of the unorthodox methods he’s taken to get himself right.
With that said, Bryant isn’t indestructible. He will be a 36-year-old 2-guard when the 2014-15 campaign starts, and an unhappy one at that because of the depleted roster. His body can only take so much wear and tear before it completely gives out.
Perhaps his knee fracture was a warning sign, as Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted in December 2013. Naturally, the Lakers will have to protect their $48.5 million investment in ways that may be foreign to Bryant but that are common practice for arguably his biggest rival.
The Tim Duncan Model
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich realized fairly quickly that he still needed Tim Duncan on the hardwood to compete for championships. In related news, the 38-year-old power forward is appearing in his sixth Finals.
Although feeding Timmy minutes might sound obvious, the execution behind it all isn’t. Big minutes for your best player should be synonymous with wins. However, the taxing nature of the time spent on the floor can wear someone down over the course of a few years.
Popovich made the decision to reduce Duncan’s minutes and even sit him for some games to keep his body fresh for the playoff grind. Basically, Duncan missed time in the short term and remained available for the bigger picture.
Since the 2010-11 season, Duncan has averaged 29.5 minutes per game during the regular season. As it pertains to the playoffs, he’s averaged 33.9 minutes over the same stretch. Of note, Popovich’s minutes “program” started when Tim was 34.
If we shift the focus back to Bryant, it seems as though the Lakers should take the same approach with their superstar.
Kobe’s age alone should have warranted concern over his outrageous minute count. In his last two full years, Bryant averaged 38.6 minutes during the regular season and 37.7 minutes over the course of his last two postseason runs.
If we factor in that he’s faced two major injuries within the same calendar year, it seems pretty clear that scaling back his playing time is the way to go.
One might ask: Why place so much emphasis on Kobe’s floor time?
The answer is twofold.
Reducing his workload is a great way to ensure Bryant will play out a contract that expires at the conclusion of the 2015-16 campaign (I think it’s fair to say the Purple and Gold need him in uniform until then given the way the roster shakes out).
The second part refers to his play: By shortening his minutes, the Lakers will be able to count on Kobe to play at a high level at all times.
If we use Duncan again, his numbers per 36 minutes have mostly remained consistent during his career. The Spurs have played him on the court just long enough over the years for him to maintain the same level of production on a per-minute basis.
That would be the goal in this case with Bryant. Cutting down his minutes will be the best way to get optimal production out of the five-time champion. Thus, this approach seems like a lock.
So what else can we predict?
The Low-Post King
Bryant was the best post-up player in the game prior to his injuries, and he will lean on this facet of his game more than ever next year.
To better cope with his loss of athleticism, Kobe went down low to punish defenders with his beautiful pump-faking skills and exquisite footwork.
Courtney Lee, then a member of the Orlando Magic, shared his take on Bryant with the New York Times’ Jonathan Abrams during the 2009 NBA Finals: “You’ve got to try and anticipate a little bit. But you don’t want to anticipate too much. He has that great footwork, and you can think he’s going one way, and he’ll feel you and make the right pivot and go the other way.”
If that seems too dated, let’s get a more recent take. In detailing the differences between Bryant and LeBron James last August, Inside SoCal’s Mark Medina offered: “Many consider Bryant a scorer. Many consider James a master at everything. Yet, Bryant relies on a wide-range of tools to score, including his footwork, driving and unmatched ability to make difficult shots through double and triple teams.”
Just for good measure, let’s get the opinion of a player who battled head-to-head against Bryant. In a Q&A with Medina, the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant had this to say in March: “That’s why Kobe is the top two best ever in just having skill, footwork, shooting the three, shooting the pull up, posting up, dunking on guys and ball handling.”
Everyone seems to agree that Kobe is a devastating figure in the low-post area, which I think should hold true to form post-injury.
Bryant might be a step slow and lack some of the explosiveness he had before his body fell apart, but he will always be able to get defenders to bite on his fakes during post-ups.
I foresee the Black Mamba drifting out to the perimeter every now and then, but that requires a lot of energy and endurance. He’ll probably spend the majority of his time operating with his back to the basket in the half court.
Interestingly enough, this change in his game will affect his production.
His numbers were already predisposed to take a dip with a lower amount of minutes, but the small role adjustment will have a similar impact.
However, he will now be relying on others to set him up. Kobe will likely get touches around the pinch post or low-post area, where he will go to work and set up scores for either himself or a teammate if doubled.
For the first time since becoming an elite 2-guard, Bryant will need others to set him up as opposed to the other way around.
There will be possessions where the ball won’t find him, because the Lakers might have another option at their disposal. Eventually, it’ll lead to…
The Bad Kobe
It’s widely accepted in LakerLand that Bryant had a penchant for occasionally going rogue on offense, but with fewer possessions to work with he’ll look to maximize whatever touches he gets.
This could be one of the more interesting developments for the Lakers, given its frequency. This will likely begin to consistently manifest itself prior to the All-Star break.
As general manager Mitch Kupchak made clear to reporters, Los Angeles is rebuilding.
By late January, the Lakers record should be indicative of the fact that the team won’t be making the playoffs, which is when Kobe’s fuse will be lit. He will have nights where he ignores teammates in favor of No. 24, which won’t be pretty.
Bryant should play around 70 games, and this is what his numbers should look like:
During the course of the season, Bryant will be as candid as ever. He will pointedly remind everyone that he lacks patience and expects his front office to do a better job of putting talent around him. Remember, Bryant had some choice words for management back in March:
It's my job to go out there on the court and perform. No excuses for it. Right? You got to get things done. It's the same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court is the same expectations I have for them up there. You got to be able to figure out a way to do both.
It’s worth pointing out that Kobe wasn’t even playing at the time L.A.’s losses were piling up. Thus it’s safe to say that if he actually participates in games and the team loses the majority of the contests, Bryant will throw jabs, hooks and uppercuts at the franchise in an effort to promote change.
His tactics probably won’t improve the situation, and if anything the Lakers will be worse off for it from a team-building perspective.
This is what Lakers fans should expect in 2014-15. It won’t be a pretty sight.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.