Kobe Bryant's Competitive Disadvantage: Why He Should Care Less About Wins

Ben TeitelbaumCorrespondent IIOctober 26, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts in the second half against the Boston Celtics Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 17, 2010 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.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Adjectives. They're how we paint our reality, how we help others see without eyes. They're flesh and blood and pleasure and pain. They make you love or hate, care or shrug. A world without adjectives is a two-dimensional landscape lacking depth or profundity. It is barren, desolate. Oh wait, that can't be; I used descriptors in the previous sentence. I guess a world without adjectives just is. And that's not enough.

Discussing Kobe Bryant, recent adjectives have been primarily superlative: unbelievable, explosive, versatile, unstoppable, intense, hardworking, dedicated, complete, immortal, ultra-competitive. Every team would theoretically like its players to possess all of these qualities.

However, this might be the year that Kobe's competitiveness becomes a disadvantage. Kobe's will to win each and every game may not be beneficial; in fact, it may even be downright detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The reports coming out of LA concerning the status of Bryant's knee, on which he underwent surgery over the summer, have been wholly inconsistent. Kobe will be ready opening night. He will take time off. He will receive as much court time as needed. Phil Jackson will limit his minutes.

In typical Zen Master fashion, the answers won't be honestly revealed until Tuesday night, when the Lakers take the court against the Houston Rockets.

Truth is, we don't know exactly where Bryant's balky knee is at. According to Mike Bresnahan in today's LA Times, Kobe claims "everything [is] fine" and he could play 40 minutes if necessary. That begs the question: Do we believe him?

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What we do know is that Black Mamba hasn't been his athletic, effective self during the preseason. He has shot a woeful 28.2 percent from the field and 17.2 percent from behind the arc, and he appears to be missing his usual burst and lift. By all accounts he's definitely not 100 percent, rather at a stage in recovery that would probably keep most guys on the sideline.

Remember, though, Kobe Bryant isn't most players.

When have we seen someone more willing or able to battle through injuries? Kobe seemingly hasn't been completely healthy in years, though you wouldn't know it by his production or the Lakers' success. In addition to last year's knee issues, Bryant had a broken index finger that caused him serious pain and forced him to revamp his jump shot.

Although he struggled at times due to these various ailments, he found a way to lead the Purple and Gold to another title. When Kobe says he can go, he can go, and usually at a high level.

Despite the buildup of aches and pains and breaks and sprains, Kobe rarely complains or makes excuses. He has always downplayed his injuries, refusing to give opponents the slightest psychological or physical edge. This warrior's spirit has helped endear him to Lakers' fans, teammates, and opponents alike, for you can't but respect his commitment.

Still, this time Kobe should rest until the knee is no longer a problem at all. Bryant is 32 years old and has several careers worth of miles on his wheels. The wear and tear on his body is certainly taking its toll.

He continues to amaze, but he has started to occasionally look guardable, something you wouldn't dare say two years ago. As players age, they don't bounce back as quickly from injury. Kobe is getting to the point in his career where he should embrace his mortality and make the requisite adjustments.

Yet I wonder if Kobe even realizes that he's trending downward physically, or if he would ever allow himself to admit it. Due to his competitiveness, it might be hard for Bryant to even contemplate not being the best player in the world.

Moreover, he keeps adding moves to his offensive arsenal—recently he's trotted out the lefty runner and the step-through post moves—to keep himself deadly. He's been fighting Father Time and thus far winning, but Time is undefeated and the tide of the war may be about to turn.

For better or worse, though, larger historical circumstances have established this year as one in which Kobe will not ease off the gas pedal, considering that Bryant is almost painfully conscious of his place in basketball's pantheon. He's going for his second three-peat to equal Michael Jordan. He's going for his sixth Lakers title to surpass Magic Johnson.

And if you think Kobe hasn't been paying attention to the hoopla in Miami, you're delusional. Having a better record than the Heat and then beating them in the Finals would be the ultimate cherry on top of his legacy.

Therefore, I foresee Bryant pushing it as hard as ever and consequently opening himself up to severe risk. I'm worried that this is the season the competitiveness, the drive to prove to the world that Kobe and the Lakers are still the best, causes a true physical breakdown.

Regardless of the Lakers' great depth, they cannot hoist the trophy again unless Kobe is healthy. Even though he probably won't, he should sacrifice some early games to ensure that he is prepared for the late season stretch run.

In spite of these concerns, the basketball world has to trust in Kobe Bryant until he proves unworthy of that faith. He hasn't let Laker Nation down in years, and I doubt he would do it now.

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