Lakers Face Tricky Balancing Act This Season If They Want Kobe to Be Kobe

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 5, 2015

HONOLULU, HI - OCTOBER 4: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers warms up before the preseason game against the Utah Jazz at the Stan Sheriff Center on October 4, 2015 in Honolulu, Hawaii. 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)
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HONOLULU — The Society for the Preservation of Kobe Bryant held its first meeting Sunday.

The unofficial declaration of the SPKB was as follows:

Regarding the critically endangered species known by the common name of No. 24 Black Mamba, we shall not allow for premature extinction under any circumstances. And to have this end badly in the friggin' exhibition opener? Heck, no!

Coming off of three consecutive season-ending injuries, Bryant played only the first quarter of the Los Angeles Lakers' exhibition opener in Hawaii. He then unlaced those high-tops early and was saved for another day.

He was a little slow and not very sharp—shooting 1-of-5 from the field, hitting the side of the backboard on his first attempt and looking particularly at risk pump-faking into oblivion on his last one. But Bryant's energy and endurance were fine for 12 continuous minutes.

Not that there's anything wrong with the whole overprotective philosophy with Bryant right now, but this, at heart, is the problem for the rebuilding yet conservationist Lakers.

For Bryant's potentially final season to be a true success for him and the team, he has to recapture his dominance and his ability to play the 30-something minutes per night required of a superstar.

The SPKB is unilaterally opposed to the latter happening.

Kobe loyalists—and Lakers management can certainly be included in that group—desperately want Bryant to finish his career on his feet.

Sooner or later, though, all must come to this conclusion:

The SPKB cannot be the governing body of this season for the Lakers.

If Bryant, 37, goes for it and goes down again, that's just the way it has to be. That spirit would be far truer to his NBA life force than half-stepping for an entire season and hiding behind the curtain instead of performing on the edge of the stage.

Certainly everyone needs to be smart and take into account the overwork that hasn't worked in recent seasons, but the sweet spot is not going to be erring absolutely on the side of caution.

There needs to be development for the Lakers' youth. There also needs to be Bryant trying to be the best he can be and seeing how it goes.

You can already hear the crankiness and cockiness in Bryant's voice from being doubted and coddled, even though none of it is unfair given his recent context.

I asked him Sunday night if he has a feel by now—after ramping up his individual training without restrictions, starting Lakers camp and doing what Byron Scott called "triple shifts" with how much extra training Bryant is taking on—of what level he can play at this season.

"Yeah," he answered, smiling.

When I waited for elaboration, he said: "Ah, nothing. Be average."

When it was suggested the confidence is then there, he shrugged and said: "Nah, I'll be average."

HONOLULU, HI - SEPTEMBER 29: Kobe Bryant chats with Head Coach Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers during training camp on September 29, 2015 at the University of Hawaii, in Honolulu, Hawaii.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
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To those who believe Bryant won't know his limits, remember he's the one who cautioned Scott last season he should hold him to 32 minutes or fewer per game. When Scott suggested Bryant looked strong enough to do more, Bryant went along and wound up averaging 34.5 minutes (and looking shaky).

His body balked, requiring first rest and eventually suffering a torn rotator cuff. Scott isn't going to make the same mistake this season, which has led most to believe Bryant might play just half the game or something.

But Scott acknowledged that Bryant already "looks so much stronger" than a year ago, when he was coming off of consecutive season-ending lower-body injuries (Achilles rupture, tibial plateau fracture). While rehabbing his shoulder over the summer, Bryant set out to make as sure as possible that his base was as strong as possible.   

Bryant said of his legs in game action Sunday: "They feel strong. They don't feel tired—at all. It's just getting timing down."

So if Bryant is to feel strong enough to tell Scott he can play 30 minutes a night, sitting out the occasional game, there's hope the Lakers can have the best of his world and the one they're building for another day.

Bryant and Scott agreed to hold Bryant to 10 to 15 minutes in the opener against the Utah Jazz on Sunday. Scott then decided to play Bryant the whole first quarter and stop him there. Scott said Bryant will play more Tuesday in the next exhibition.

Where it goes from there remains for the two to work out. For the record, though, after taking Friday off, Bryant played what he vaguely estimated was "probably like 40 minutes straight" in the Lakers' scrimmage Saturday. From that, Bryant's back was "a little tight" Sunday.

That Saturday scrimmage was a more accurate gauge of where Bryant is now than the Sunday exhibition the public got to glimpse.

HONOLULU, HI - OCTOBER 1: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers during training camp at the Stan Sheriff Center on October 1, 2015 in Honolulu, Hawaii. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photogr
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Bryant got a blow late in that scrimmage, re-entering the game with his team losing. Soon after he did, he got the ball in transition but was stopped by Lakers assistant coach Jim Eyen, who jumped out into Bryant's path because there was a wet spot on the court.

Eyen didn't flash an SPKB membership card when he did so, but the point was clear.

Bryant rolled his eyes and said he was smart enough to avoid the spot en route to the hoop, but Eyen wouldn't hear it.

Bryant soon noticed the scrimmage game clock was still running during the cleanup and barked that his side should at least get the clock stopped for a better chance at a comeback.

Indeed, the competitiveness sure seems to be there still despite all of the lower expectations around Bryant.

Bryant was talking more in his team's huddles than its coach, Mark Madsen. Bryant got fouled shooting a three and hit one gorgeous baseline fall-away over Julius Randle ("He's a hard dude to guard, as you can imagine," Randle said). But there was no rally.

Bryant's team, down by seven in the final seconds, designed a play with Bryant as a decoy. Sure enough, everyone went to Bryant, which left D'Angelo Russell all alone—but Russell missed the open shot.

Russell frowned; Bryant smiled.

HONOLULU, HI - OCTOBER 4: Jordan Clarkson #6 and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers huddle during a preseason game against the Utah Jazz at the Stan Sheriff Center on October 4, 2015 in Honolulu, Hawaii. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Back in the day, one would assume Bryant selfishly smiled because it increased the odds he'd get to shoot the next clutch shot. Now, one assumes he smiles to encourage Russell—further evidenced by Bryant throwing an arm around Russell's shoulders after the buzzer.

Bryant's role as a mentor to Randle, Russell and Jordan Clarkson has been the primary narrative of Lakers training camp. The respect for Bryant is obvious. He repeatedly got pelted with multiple basketballs during warm-ups Sunday from teammates going out of their way to ensure he could get his practice shots up.

"He's borderline genius," Randle said. "Not just basketball. Off-the-court stuff, too. He hasn't been shy sharing his knowledge."

But as Bryant would tell you, that only goes so far. At some point, it boils down to how well he can play for this team.

For a Lakers franchise that lost Steve Nash in his first road game and Randle in his first home game, it would not have been shocking for something bad to happen in this first exhibition game.

But the No. 24 Black Mamba survived. When the Lakers' 90-71 loss was almost over, he stood up, stretched out his back, watched Robert Sacre's air ball peter out and raised a hand in respect to Jazz coach Quin Snyder across the way.

SPKB members could high-five their success. But more time on the court—in harm's way—is the only thing that will accelerate Bryant's recovery.

HONOLULU, HI - OCTOBER 4: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots against the Utah Jazz during a preseason game at the Stan Sheriff Center on October 4, 2015 in Honolulu, Hawaii. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

When he works as hard as he did for post position in the final minute of the first quarter, he needs the chemistry to get the ball from a teammate.

He needs reps to make the adjustment to catching and shooting more often instead of holding the ball and believing he can bank on beating the defender all by himself.

Even when the opponent is wearing Nike Kobe sneakers, as Gordon Hayward was, Bryant has to be a useful defender—which will only come by acclimating himself to playing team defense.

All of that needs to be tested all-out at some point.

Bryant's legend demands that much.

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


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