Why Kobe Bryant Enters 2014-15 Season as the Most Unpredictable NBA Star

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 16: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks on December 16, 2013 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
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There are two kinds of people who claim to know what Kobe Bryant will give the Los Angeles Lakers this year: legitimate clairvoyants and liars.

Actually, there are three. If pressed, Bryant himself would reveal that in his heart of hearts, he believes he'll have a dominant age-36 season. But even the supreme confidence of a generational star like Bryant now comes with a dash of rationalization, per an interview with Scooby Axson of Sports Illustrated:

So when I hear pundits and people talk, saying, ‘Well, he won’t be what he was.’ Know what? You’re right. I won’t be. But just because something evolves, it doesn’t make it any less better than it was before.

Bryant may have convinced himself that he knows what lies ahead this season, but with all he's been through, the rest of us can't be so sure.

There was the Achilles rupture in 2012-13 that ended his season. After just six games in the subsequent campaign, Bryant's fractured leg put an early coda on 2013-14 as well.

There's just no way to know how Bryant will perform physically after losing so much time to serious injuries. Maybe he's right, though. Maybe the productivity will still be there—just achieved through different means.

Head coach Byron Scott told Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times: "He will be on the low box, he'll be in the mid-post, he can be there a lot more than he has in the past and I think he can be very, very effective in all those areas."

In Bryant's last full season, he was an absolute monster on the block, ranking fifth among all NBA players in points per play on post-ups, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).

Just 13.1 percent of Bryant's possessions were devoted to touches on the block in 2012-13, a figure that should significantly increase in the upcoming campaign. If Bryant suffers a modest decline in efficiency as his volume spikes, not to worry—he'll remain a flat-out elite threat in the post.

"The mid-post is my kill zone. I have a go-to move and a counter. Try to stop 'em," Bryant told campers in a Shanghai Q&A.

It would seem that if Bryant is capable of walking upright, he'll be capable of dominating down low.

Dec 10, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) is defended by Phoenix Suns forward P.J. Tucker (17) at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Then again, the strange composition of the Lakers roster makes matters a bit more complicated than that. New additions in Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis all figure to have significant roles, and Pau Gasol is no longer on the roster as a facilitator in the frontcourt.

Toss in the perpetual uncertainty surrounding Steve Nash's health, and it's awfully tough to get a handle on how this team will play and what roles each cog will fill. Bryant has had success as a primary scorer (duh) and a setup artist (he averaged six assists per game in 2012-13 and 6.3 in his shortened effort last year, the two highest totals of his career).

But in addition to the uncertainty of a body that may not hold up anymore and the challenges of establishing chemistry with new teammates, Bryant's projected performance gets even hazier because of the issues he might have with a potentially poor Lakers team.

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
Kent Smith/Getty Images

"If things are going well, I don't think there will be a problem with him buying in," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told Bolch. "It's when things aren't going well and maybe we're not playing as well as he thinks we should be, things of that sort, that he may feel that he needs to play more, do more."

Kobe has never been shy about voicing displeasure with his team's performance, and he's never waited long to initiate "Operation: Takeover" when he doubts the abilities of teammates. Mediocrity, which is probably the best bet for the Lakers this year, has never sat well with Bryant.

Per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com, Bryant laid it all out on the line late last season: 

How can I be satisfied with it? We're like 100 games under .500. I can't be satisfied with that at all. This is not what we stand for. This is not what we play for. A lot of times it's hard to understand that message if you're not a diehard Laker fan. It's hard to really understand where we're coming from and what we're accustomed to, which is playing for championships and everything else is a complete failure. That's just how it is.

That was a frustrated Bryant, one who had just recently decided his season was over. He's been less extreme in his comments since then, but we can all agree that those sentiments came from a truthful place.

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 7: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers watches his team from the bench against the Dallas Mavericks on January 7, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Glenn James/Getty Images

How will Bryant react, physically and mentally, to a season in which the playoffs are a pipe dream? And will his body even allow him to shoulder the load like it used to?

Nobody knows.

If Bryant were to somehow perform like a star this year, it would be unprecedented. But in 2012-13, he averaged over 27 points, five rebounds and six assists per game, joining Boston Celtics great John Havlicek as the only players to accumulate those totals after their 10th seasons. LeBron James became the third last year.

Bryant has a way of setting precedents for the unprecedented.

Maybe he'll put up numbers like those. Maybe he'll decline a bit on offense but actually make an effort on defense. You know the growing criticism for his asleep-at-the-wheel approach to D in recent seasons has to be irking him.

As should now be abundantly clear, there are more questions than answers surrounding Bryant.

He's not alone in his unpredictability, though.

Derrick Rose could soar as a born-again MVP threat, or his surgically reconstructed knees might bring him crashing back to earth again.

The spectrum of possibilities open to Anthony Davis might be as broad as the one ahead of Bryant, though The Brow's potential outcomes cover a more positive range—with fringe MVP candidate and Holy Basketball God-King representing the two extremes.

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 6:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans grabs a rebound against the Portland Trail Blazers on April 6, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks second-year stud Giannis Antetokounmpo could also rightly be termed an unpredictable talent. We've never seen anything quite like him.

But with Bryant's combination of past greatness, age and mileage, we can't rule anything out. Maybe we'll witness a complete physical breakdown. Younger players with less wear and tear have fallen off cliffs before, and most of them hadn't suffered through the catastrophic injury Bryant did.

Or perhaps we'll watch a guy who put together one of the best age-34 seasons for a guard double down and perform as the best age-36 guard of all time.

Sift through the numbers and you can probably come out with evidence to support whichever preexisting bias you have for or against Bryant's chances to perform like a superstar this year.

Kobe will either do the impossible because he's Kobe, doer of impossible things, or he might be done as an impact player.

Kevin Garnett screamed it when he beat Bryant's Lakers in the 2008 Finals:

That's right, KG, anything is possible—especially when it comes to Kobe's 2014-15 season.

The search for certainty has so far proved fruitless, but we can safely bank on this: Whatever limitations Bryant's body imposes, and whatever constraints his team and situation place on him, he'll try like hell to overcome them.

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 10: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the performance of the National Anthem before facing the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center on December 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

He's never been doubted like this before, and Bryant hasn't had more to prove for almost two decades.

Nobody knows if Kobe will succeed in his struggle to dominate, but the only safe prediction is that he'll push himself to the absolute edge trying. 


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