Lakers Teammates Hope Kobe's Step Back Will Allow Him to Let Them Step Up

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterDecember 30, 2014

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 19:  Kobe Bryant
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The world is going to watch and wonder whether Kobe Bryant is indeed taking concrete steps toward aging gracefully.

He has finally accepted that his body won't let him do what he is used to doing—all over the floor, virtually always with the ball. He's speaking as if it's finally time for the old habits to die and for him consistently to pass the ball when he sees a double-team coming.

Described in Phil Jackson's 2013 book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, as "a hard-headed learner," Bryant transitioning fully to the latter from the former is going to be fascinating to track.

Yet there are some other people involved here. Let's call them an underserved minority, because even though they outnumber Bryant in body, they certainly do not in clout. The rest of the Lakers players, so often overlooked by coach Byron Scott this season and totally uncertain if they have futures here, are headed for real opportunities.

The only two guys you could say with any confidence will be in L.A. next season are Julius Randle and Nick Young—and Randle's not playing because of injury, and Young's below-market $5.2 million salary next season and productivity might make him the Lakers' best trading chip.

All of them knew when they showed up for training camp that the story of the Lakers' season was going to be Kobe's comeback. But no one was assuming Bryant's usage percentage would be the 35.8 it is right now, higher than ever in his entire career—except when at age 27 his 38.7 usage rate was the highest in pro basketball history.

(Bryant averaged 35.4 points on 45 percent field-goal shooting with 1.8 steals per game that 2005-06 season and absolutely should've been the NBA MVP over Steve Nash. He wasn't, partly because the Lakers were only pretty good and mostly because mainstream America wasn't ready to acknowledge Bryant so soon after the Colorado allegation.)

Dec 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) laughs with head coach Byron Scott during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Lakers defeated the Timberwolves 100-94. Mandatory Credit:
USA TODAY Sports

While Bryant and Scott have been exchanging their private text messages this season deep into the wee hours, all these other players have been yearning to have their slumber disturbed and their numbers called. It's not accurate to call this season a nightmare for them, because no one had any great expectations for any of these guys, but there's no doubt that their frustrations have been real.

If Bryant is now ready to dial it down—and if Scott is going to lead accordingly despite still admitting he is going to have to "fight that temptation" to rely so heavily on Bryant—then there is hope for these other guys to be more than furniture in the background on the Lakers' set.

Jeremy Lin, the only other Laker with an eight-figure salary, and thus the default voice of the downtrodden, has hinted at how hard it is to play in this system. In addition, Scott has put a premium on defense, which is good, but he hasn't kept Bryant accountable on that end, which has been ruinous.

Bryant naturally has to save some energy on defense at this point in his career. Certainly less so, though, if he's not killing himself on offense.

"Try to make the simple play," Bryant said of his new philosophy after he took just one shot in the first quarter and one in the fourth quarter Sunday night versus the Suns. "Hit the guys when they're open."

Dec 28, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) passes against Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Said Lin: "He did a great job making basketball plays. That's what we're going to need."

Bryant most definitely can play that way. It can inspire his team, too, as seen in the playoff passes he threw en route to those five championships and how Mike D'Antoni actually wound up playing Bryant at point guard and moving Nash to shooting guard when the three of them did briefly get to work together.

As bad a rap as Bryant gets for being a ball hog, he has usually operated from the same basic premise: read the defense. If guys aren't hitting shots off his passes when the defense traps him, then he'll take it upon himself to try to hit tough ones—which is what has failed him and the Lakers this season.   

Hell-bent on not being like all the others who got hurt and were never quite the same, Bryant has spent his 19th NBA season trying to show it's not over until he decides it is. (And Bryant is indeed so old that he was born the year the movie Animal House came out: 1978.)

That's just dandy if this was 2005, when Smush Parker was the third- and Kwame Brown was the fourth-leading scorer on the Lakers…and Kobe was in his prime. Bryant did well enough that some of the other guys on that roster wound up becoming parts of Lakers glory: Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Andrew Bynum and Sasha Vujacic were NBA champions three years later.

Dec 14, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) protects the ball from Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng (5) and guard Andrew Wiggins (22) during the fourth quarter at Target Center. The Lakers defeated the Timberwol
USA TODAY Sports

The goal for some of the cast members now is to build lives for themselves and maybe even something for the Lakers' future. It can still go either way for guys with the potential of Ed Davis, Ryan Kelly and Lin.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether Bryant sticks to not shooting his guns.

But, to be clear, he never said he wasn't going to shoot. He is hoping to spare his body the wear and tear of fighting from an inferior position. Indeed, this was what Suns forward Markieff Morris said about his team handling the Lakers with Bryant scoring 10 points: "Keep a man on Kobe and make the other guys beat us."

"I can force it," Bryant said. "But the defenses are just saying come hell or high water I'm just not going to beat them. It's as simple as that. They'll double or triple. I go through three guys, and everybody is bitching and complaining, right?"

People bitching and complaining has never stopped Bryant. His body might, however. Give him some credit for being as potent as he is, post-injuries and with all the mileage. He just flat-out can't overdo it anymore if he wants to stay healthy.

Dec 28, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Jeremy Lin (17) shoots against Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) and center Miles Plumlee (22) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Even though he clearly had more juice in his legs Sunday night versus the Suns after a week of rest, he was still wearing a heating pad on his back while on the bench and seeking out extra treatment from team physical therapist Judy Seto.

His only shot in the final quarter was a missed three-pointer with that imperfect hitch in his form that he gets when his body is out of alignment.

So it was Lin missing the tying three-pointer with 1:41 left Sunday night after doing most of the Lakers' scoring in the second half. And it was Lin saying afterward, "I still think I can make even more plays for this team."

And it was Young, who did most of the Lakers' scoring in the first half, seemingly speaking of the potential for his non-Kobe teammates after the loss: "Kobe was my favorite player, growing up. To have him talking to me and telling me to come get the ball when he's out there? That's all-time confidence for me."

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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