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Los Angeles Lakers Making Right Call to Avoid a Kobe Bryant Shutdown

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2015

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court before the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at STAPLES Center on January 07, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. 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 2015 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There is no single remedy that will treat or cure what ails the Los Angeles Lakers. Each purported ploy that suggests otherwise is as flawed as the next—not the least of which is the idea that a talent-taut Lakers team should shut down Kobe Bryant.

Good on the Lakers themselves, then, for recognizing the value in keeping him on the floor whenever possible. For now.

Sitting him down is still an option if things get out of control, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan:

Mike Bresnahan @Mike_Bresnahan

Chances of Kobe shut down this season? Byron: "If we're nowhere near playoff contention in March...then we might discuss that."

Still, it's important to note Bryant's indefinite removal doesn't appear imminent. March is not January. The Lakers can cross that bridge when they get there. For now, they're making the right call, eschewing the temptation to prematurely pull the plug on a player who, whenever possible, still needs to play.

Too Drastic

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gives some on court coaching to a teammate during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center on January 4, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.The Lakers won 88-87.  NOTE TO U
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It started with a question. After Bryant sat for the sixth time against the Portland Trail Blazers, head coach Byron Scott was asked if the Lakers had given thought to resting him for the remainder of 2014-15.

"I haven't thought about that yet," Scott said, per ESPN.com's Arash Markazi. "I keep thinking about game-to-game right now. So I haven't gotten to that point. Maybe after the All-Star break, maybe we will start talking about something like that if necessary."

The idea makes some sense. The Lakers are 12-27 and going nowhere fast. Bryant is 36 and, until recently, was logging 30-plus minutes per night on a regular basis. Extended rest would keep him fresh, preventing him from expending energy and willpower for a team that doesn't matter.

Almost as soon as Scott lent merit to the idea, though, he took it away.

"This is going to be game-by-game and will be that way until the end of the season," he said not two days later, via the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. "If we ever decide to shut it down for the rest of the season, we haven’t gotten near that point at this particular point of time. We continue to go day-by-day."

Going day-by-day makes more sense. It allows the Lakers to monitor Bryant's health without tabbing him for indefinite bench duty.

Sure, he ranks 10th on the all-time list of regular-season minutes played (46,712). But shelving him for the latter half of 2014-15 accomplishes nothing.

Rest is never given in the form of half-season vacations. Sitting Bryant for that long puts him out of action until next November(ish), roughly nine months later. And while his body will have been spared from the push and pull of an NBA schedule, he'll return to the floor a year older, with another months-thick layer of rust to work off.

Bryant hasn't returned to form after basically a full season off. Why would next year be any different?
Bryant hasn't returned to form after basically a full season off. Why would next year be any different?Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Bryant hasn't even fully recovered from his previous absence. He appeared in just six games between April 2013 and this season, and his performance has visibly suffered.

He's averaging 22.7 points per game, but that contribution is coming on a career-worst 36.9 percent shooting. His current effective field-goal percentage—which accounts for the value differential between two-pointers and three-pointers—would go down as one of the 25-worst ever among players who averaged at least 20 points per game.

Time off is good when a player actually needs it. Injuries and aching bones demand it. But permanently benching players can be disingenuous to the cause if they don't need to sit.

And Bryant, for the record, may need to sit eventually. He's been open about his diminishing physical state, the Lakers already have him on a maintenance program and Scott plans to put him on a minutes cap the rest of the way, per Medina.

Which is just the thing: Bryant has played in just two of the last five games and is averaging eight points on 16.1 percent shooting during that time. The rust is real.

"The hard part is sitting down for stretches and then trying to get back in," he said, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "I feel like the Tin Man."

This is small-sample bias at its peak, but if Bryant's slowed by one- and two-game breaks, a nine-month absence cannot be seen as some health-hauling grace.

Sending the Wrong Message

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 04:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gives some on court coaching to a teammate during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center on January 4, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.The Lakers won 88-87.  NOTE TO U
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Allow me to let you in on the worst-kept secret in the history of worst-kept secrets: Bryant is old. Visions of him retiring on top of his game at the age of 40 with Father Time in a sleeper hold are long past bending to reality.

Any bump or bruise or nick the 36-year-old star endures is susceptible to overreaction. Case in point: We're here actually entertaining whether it's worth shutting Bryant down because he, in layman's terms, isn't 20 years old anymore. And if that's where we're at now, think of the message shutting him down will send.

Justification will have to be offered for the Lakers' logic. They won't be able to cite 40-something games of "rest" or "beauty sleep." They'll have to list something, anything. And whatever they list will be at the forefront of every prospective free agent's mind this summer, when the Lakers have mounds of cap space, per HoopsHype, and thus the freedom to chase available stars at will.

Now, then, isn't the time to send such red flags—the ones that advertise Bryant's age and ebbing verve. It's a time for change.

"Bear in mind that Bryant is the only player left from the Lakers’ championship teams," Kelly Scaletta wrote for BBallBreakdown. "No one else has won rings with him. To them, quite possibly, Bryant is not the hero of the present. He’s a reminder of a bygone day still trying to play an obsolete brand of hero ball and doing it badly."

Recent performances have seen Bryant partially ditch his hero-ball style. He's been charged with running the Lakers offense as a surrogate point guard, and his 27.9 assist rate is the fourth highest of his career.

Will Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol and other free agents take even a cursory look at the Lakers if they're not somewhat certain Bryant can still last an entire season?
Will Goran Dragic, Marc Gasol and other free agents take even a cursory look at the Lakers if they're not somewhat certain Bryant can still last an entire season?Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Not that his timeworn brand of play isn't still prevalent. Nearly 70 percent of his made baskets have been self-created, and more than 44 percent of his attempts have come from mid-range, of which he's hit just 36.3 percent.

Bryant has thus far failed to hone his off-ball shooting as well. Almost 25 percent of his shot attempts have been catch-and-shoots, yet he's converting just 27.5 percent of those opportunities, including 26 percent from deep.

Selfless playmaking and spot-up shooting are part and parcel of pitching free-agent superstars. Future teammates will want to see that Bryant is both willing to cede control of the ball and work away from it. There's no way they see that now, and there's no chance they'll ever see it with Bryant wasting away on the bench.

The only way he can adjust and adapt and conform his game to more contemporary techniques is by playing.

Caution Over Paranoia 

Shutting Bryant down at this point, whatever the motivation, is taking things too far.

If there was a lasting benefit to his absence, then it becomes a legitimate option. But the only upside here is the Lakers would have more minutes to distribute among other players. And given the limited number of developing prospects on the roster, that's hardly a silver lining.

Not even their draft positioning stands to increase. This year's first-rounder will be shipped to the Phoenix Suns unless it falls within the top five, according to RealGM. The odds of the Lakers keeping said selection aren't any better with Bryant off the floor.

According to FATS (factor adjusted team similarities)—the brainchild of Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal that uses historical comparisons to generate predicted win-loss records for a team with and without any given player—they're actually worse:

Adam Fromal @fromal09

FATS projections for Los Angeles Lakers With Kobe on the floor: 16.9 wins With Kobe on the bench: 43.5 wins.

At the very least, playing Bryant won't hurt the Lakers' chances of retaining their pick. Even if it did, this isn't a team that plans on rebuilding through the draft. Again, as Ding wrote, it's "clear by now the Lakers' hope is to use their cap space on no-brainer top free agents."

Financial flexibility remains their primary building block. Free agents are their draft picks, the foundation on which they intend to develop. And with the success of those plans still tightly tethered to the performance of Bryant and his $25 million salary next season, shutting him down out of sheer convenience or fear is one option the Lakers have no use for.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate as of games played Jan. 13, 2015.

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