From a league-leading volume scorer at the beginning of the season to his current incarnation as the team’s top setup man, the Mamba lives to prove his doubters wrong.
After a furious 27-game blizzard of taxing minutes and attempted heroics, the enduring Lakers star ran his tank empty. With all parts of his body aching and betraying him, Bryant took a three-game respite. It was a time of reflection and adjustment, not unlike other moments over the years.
For example, learning to sublimate one-on-one instincts for a triangular team approach or being tutored in post moves by Hakeem Olajuwon.
Or, perfecting his fadeaway jumper by studying how a cheetah moves, as explained in a New York Times interview in September.
Bryant has returned from his sabbatical a changed man, averaging 17 points, 8.5 rebounds and eight assists in 32 minutes per game.
After his second triple-double of the season in a win against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 30, Bryant said, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times: "I’m more of a natural scorer, but it doesn't mean I can't evolve."
Explaining the metamorphosis more thoroughly, the 36-year-old added:
To score the ball takes a lot out of my legs. I'm making some adjustments. ... But also it gave me a chance to reflect. Breaking down my game. You see now I'm very, very efficient. I know exactly where I want to go. I get to my spots, I don't try to beat guys with quickness. I back them down, I get to my areas, I elevate over them. It's just old-school Oscar Robertson style.
On Sunday night against the Indiana Pacers, Bryant’s fresh legs and more economical approach paid off again with a come-from-behind 88-87 victory, capped by his short jumper in the closing seconds.
A lifelong accumulator of basketball knowledge, Bryant recently offered his own perspective on the AAU system of teaching young players, versus the overseas approach.
"I just think European players are just way more skillful. They are just taught the game the right way at an early age,” said Bryant per Arash Markazi of ESPN LA. “It's something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way."
It’s yet another example of one player's personal evolution and how his mastering of the fundamentals has been critical to his success.
The longtime face of the Lakers franchise has seen both sides of the coin, spending his formative years in Italy as the son of journeyman forward Joe "Jellybean" Bryant and returning stateside as a teenager, playing AAU ball with the Playaz traveling club as well as Lower Merion High.
Drafted at 17, Bryant’s maturation process has been a path marked by extraordinary successes, and also fraught with challenges of growing up in the NBA. As a Lakers rookie, he was a personification of the kids he would later criticize—all helicopter dunks and playground flash.
A meteoric ascent accelerated, and sometimes exploded, under Phil Jackson and alongside Shaquille O’Neal—Bryant was brilliant, rebellious and determined to blaze his own orbit during three NBA championships. That chapter concluded with O’Neal being traded to the Miami Heat and Jackson exiting the organization.
In the famed coach’s 2004 book The Last Season, he wrote: "Kobe is missing out by not finding a way to become part of a system that involves giving to something larger than himself."
But the Zen Master would return to coach the Lakers for six more seasons and an extended period of graduate school for a superstar in his prime. There would also be two more championship runs, boosted by the arrival of Pau Gasol—a player whose own curiosity and fascination for the intricacies of the game complemented Bryant’s new willingness to adapt.
The post-Jackson era hasn’t delivered the same level of team success. But the odyssey has continued, nonetheless.
Under Mike Brown, the Lakers offense stagnated and sputtered, with Bryant increasingly relied upon for more minutes, points and usage.
Mike D’Antoni was hired with the goal of instilling a more free-flowing methodology. But while Bryant’s shooting percentage went up, the team itself went south, characterized in equal measure by a lousy record and an inordinate number of injuries—including those to the Mamba himself.
A torn Achilles tendon was followed by a fractured kneecap, and by the time the current season arrived—including yet another coaching change with Byron Scott—Bryant had become the embodiment of the Father Time narrative.
Nobody knew what kind of swan song to expect from the oft-injured guard after he missed 76 games last season. But he returned defiantly, seemingly determined to push an underwhelming team to the top of the mountain on his own, or collapse trying.
Bryant had faced his share of injuries and adversity before, but he had never embarked on this great a challenge—a literal battle between mind and body.
And while he knew logically how to adjust his mechanics to compensate for an athleticism in decline, there was still one obstacle Bryant couldn’t overcome—the unquenchable thirst for scoring that has been both a strong suit and an ever-present devil upon his shoulder his entire basketball career.
The toughest part of his evolution had arrived. The divide between what Bryant wanted to do and could do became a chasm that threatened to engulf the team and, for that matter, the remainder of his Lakers career.
And so, finding himself at yet another fork in the road along his lengthy serpentine journey, Bryant paused, recalibrated and set out again to prove the naysayers wrong.
Per Lakers.com, Scott believes the adjustments are paying off: “I think he’s doing a great job of facilitating, running our offense and getting guys to where they need to be. ... We’re shooting the ball extremely well, and our spacing is so much better.”
Bryant’s latest chapter comes at just the right time for the Lakers—he’s getting his teammates increasingly involved and the sharing spirit has been infectious. During a generally disappointing season, there now seems to be a renewal of energy and purpose.
It is not reasonable to assume that No. 24’s present path will remain as it is. Because the status quo is akin to stagnation in his book—the antithesis of an evolution that has been a hallmark for 19 NBA seasons.
The ending has not yet been written for a man driven by discovery and the willingness to confront the unknown.
And so the voyage proceeds—unique, elusive and ever-changing.