Is Kobe Bryant the Answer to Los Angeles Lakers’ Small Forward Problem?

Small forward poses big problems for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Unless Kobe Bryant takes ownership of this situation, too. 

Immersed in the hustle and bustle of a very active offseason, the Lakers haven’t found a lasting solution to their void at small forward. With the summer winding down, they can’t expect that to change.

Anything they do now, anyone they plug into that starting 3 spot, will be a temporary stopgap or ill-equipped to perform there. Or both. 

But as luck would have it, all hope is not lost.

Turning to Bryant, like they tend to do when facing conflict, might be just the answer—however impermanent—they need.

 

Underwhelming Alternatives 

Assembling almost an entire roster on the fly isn’t easy. The Lakers have spent their offseason trying to remain competitive without compromising any long-term financial flexibility.

Options are limited in these situations. The Lakers haven’t had their pick of the litter, and it shows in their outcast-overloaded roster. 

Lottery busts Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson are the only two legitimate small forwards the Lakers employ.

Both are mobile enough to defend wings, and Henry proved a valuable source of instant offense for the Lakers last season (10 points in 21.1 minutes per game) while Johnson resembled a competent shooter, banging in nearly 37 percent of his three-pointers.

Johnson has also been working out regularly with Bryant, according to the Orange County Register‘s Bill Oram. Bryant is the type to pick his workout partners very carefully. If Johnson is someone he’s willing to spend extra time with, something’s there.

Neither Johnson nor Henry are ideal candidates, though. Henry is slightly undersized at 6’6″, and Johnson remains too much of a specialist.

Starting someone else who’s a two-way player or allows the Lakers to experiment with various promising combinations—or both—makes more sense if afforded the opportunity.

Julius Randle, for the record, is not the player.

Even though he’ll tell you he’s that player.

“A lot of the league is going to small ball, but the good thing about me, I’m interchangeable,” he said in June, per Lakers.com’s Mike Trudell. “I can play small ball because I can guard multiple positions because I can really move. But I think it’s going to be an advantage for me to be able to take a smaller guy inside but also take a bigger guy on the outside.”

Watching Randle during the NBA‘s Summer League, it became clear his entire skill set wasn’t advertised adequately. He could be seen running point, taking opponents off the dribble and defending—halfheartedly at times—inside and out. There’s little doubt he could spend time at small forward…in a pinch.

Oversized lineups aren’t common for a reason. Starting Randle alongside, say, Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill would be a floor-spacing nightmare. Not one of them has three-point range. Same goes for Ed Davis. 

Playing Randle at small forward should be a last resort. Ideally it’s something the Lakers won’t even entertain.

Ryan Kelly saw some time at small forward last year, but it didn’t go well. Or even close to well. He notched a 5.8 player efficiency rating there, per 82games.com.

At 6’11″, he’s more of stretch 4 who relies too much on spot-up shooting to play a small forward’s game. That he’s not quick enough to keep pace with traditionally athletic wings hurts as well.

Better alternatives aren’t found in Wayne Ellington or Nick Young. Ellington is too small at 6’4″, and Young doesn’t play enough defense to police shooting guards, let alone the deeper, scorer-stuffed small forward slot.

It’s not that the Lakers don’t have options—they do. It’s that the options they do have don’t justify not looking for something, anything, better.

 

Benefits of Bryant

This is the part of the movie when Bryant rides into Staples Center wearing a just-for-show cape ready to save the day.

Assuming health, and also assuming a lottery-doomed roster doesn’t drive him into abrupt retirement, Bryant can play small forward. Though he stands at only 6’6″, he’s a self-sufficient scorer who can double as a point forward at times.

Sliding into the 3 spot isn’t anything new for him, either. He’s logged at least 18 percent of his minutes there four times since 2000. Nearly a third of his playing time came there during his historical 2012-13 campaign, and he registered a higher PER at small forward (24.5) than shooting guard (23.1).

Most importantly, though, placing Bryant at small forward allows head coach Byron Scott to tinker with his starting five in ways he otherwise couldn’t. 

Not to mention it prevents him from making a massive mistake. 

Speaking with the Los Angeles Daily NewsMark Medina, Scott revealed he already had four of his five starters in mind: Bryant, Boozer, Hill and…Steve Nash.

You read that correctly.

Rolling with the 40-year-old Nash—no matter how healthy he seems now—over the 26-year-old Jeremy Lin reeks of an obsession with yesteryear. It isn’t smart. David Murphy of Bleacher Report recently made it his mission to tell us why: 

The issue of who should start and who should come off the bench is not about who should or should not play. It’s a question of what most benefits the team—both now and moving forward.

Everyone who has ever been a fan of basketball wants to see Nash go out on his own terms and go out successfully.

But wouldn’t helping Lin to be a better player and bolstering an already potent bench be preferable to struggling against time and a bad back to hold onto a starter’s role and minutes?

As someone who openly wants Nash to end his career on a high note, this is difficult, yet not impossible to accept.

Push come to shove, Lin should start over Nash. He’s younger, better fit to defend opposing point men—which is more an insult to Nash than compliment to Lin—and he’s the incisive handler neither Bryant nor Nash can be at this stage of their careers.

But let’s take this one step further.

Why choose?

Plugging Bryant at small forward enables Scott to start both Nash and Lin, deepening a tape-thin positional rotation in the process.

Nash shouldn’t be charged with primary point guard duties anymore. He can still direct an offense—5.7 assists per game last year—but he can be equally effective off the ball as a spot-up assassin who doesn’t move too much. He’s only one year removed (2012-13) from ranking in the top 10 of standstill efficiency, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). 

Using Nash as an undersized 2-guard also allows Bryant and Lin to operate with the ball in their hands more, which is how both are accustomed to playing.

Creating these mismatches makes them harder for opposing defenses to guard, ensuring they’re running with three established scorers rather than two, plus Johnson or Henry. And with the Lakers built to repeat their defensive performance from last season—28th in efficiency—they’ll need to score. A lot.

A whole lot. 

Moving Bryant to small forward puts them in position to concoct the strongest, most potent offense possible, diminishing the likelihood they field a below-average product.

 

Decisions, Decisions

Displacing Bryant from that shooting guard spot isn’t all dandelions and offensive euphoria. 

There are warts to worry about.

Expecting Bryant to defend opposing small forwards is ambitious.

Regardless of how healthy and spry he’s feeling, guarding the Kevin Durants and Carmelo Anthonys of the world pushes the boundaries of logic. Someone his age (36) shouldn’t defend the opposition’s best wing scorer daily. That, in part, is why Johnson calls Los Angeles home.

Seeing Nash or Lin match up against shooting guards would be just as painful. Neither player is a strong defender, and both stand at 6’3″ tall. They’ll be at severe size disadvantages nightly, waiting to be exploited off the dribble, their sheer lack of height begging opponents to shoot over them.

Under normal circumstances, teams should try to avoid such defensive detriments. 

For the Lakers, this must be viewed as a necessary evil.

Enough concerns and questions plague this team that some must be overlooked, defensive demerits being one of them. It doesn’t matter whether they install a dual-point guard lineup. The Lakers don’t have the luxury of a true, reliable small forward. If they wish to be competitive immediately, sticking with what they know is the only course of action.

And Bryant, when healthy, is someone they know can create options and offer solutions—no matter where or how he plays—that otherwise wouldn‘t exist. 

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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Beck/Bucher Season Forecast: ‘I’m Afraid That Kobe Bryant Is Going to Implode’

The 2014-15 NBA season is almost upon us, and there’s no shortage of storylines to be both optimistic about and afraid of. What should fans have faith in seeing this season, and what should they be most afraid of?

Howard Beck and Ric Bucher give their picks when they join Adam Lefkoe in the video above.

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Lakers Injury Update: Kobe Bryant to be on minute restriction

NBA superstar Kobe Bryant has logged 18 seasons and made 15 playoff appearances through his storied career with the Los Angeles Lakers. After logging only six games last season before succumbing to injury, Bryant will start the 2014-15 season with restrictions in his playing time. In an interview with the Byron Scott, the Lakers new head coach, Southern California Public Radio 89.3 KPCC’s A Martinez brought up a scenario:Say there’s a game on the East Coast, went into double-overtime, and Kobe played a lot of those minutes. And then you’ve got a game the very next night. You notice that maybe he’s not moving around so good, is it going to be easy for you to tell Kobe Bryant, ‘We’re going to have to limit your minutes tonight. Maybe you take a night off?’  Yeah it’s going to be easy, but it’s going to be hard to probably have that happen! [Laughs] But again, he’s so competitive, he wants to win, and I do too. But I don’t want to win at the expense of having my one of my guys g…

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New York Knicks: Trading For Kobe Bryant

New York Knicks: Trading For Kobe Bryant
By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…
Knicks Trade: Amar’e Stoudemire
Lakers Trade: Kobe Bryant
Yes I assure you that I am a professional and that this is my job so please just read the article and then if you would still like to call me some type of name email me at mkelworth@gmail.com, I love hate mail. All I ask is that you please just consider that this trade works for the Knicks and Lakers. Thanks.
Yes, this trade may seem like an incredible bargain for the Knicks, but there are a couple of points that would make it someone difficult to stomach, but it makes perfect sense for the Knicks. The Lakers tried to sign Carmelo Anthony, because the pairing of Carmelo and Kobe could make them one of the best teams in the NBA and there is zero doubt that this trade would make the Knicks contenders. They would be trading a player they would love to have playing for a different team for one of the 10 best in NBA history and the 2nd best sh…

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Los Angeles Lakers: Trading Kobe Bryant To The Knicks

Los Angeles Lakers: Trading Kobe Bryant To The Knicks
By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…
Lakers Trade: Kobe Bryant
Knicks Trade: Amar’e Stoudemire
Dear readers, I would like to tell you that I am coherent and although this trade was thought of at 3:30 in the morning this is a trade that can make the Lakers a contender in 2 seasons… If you would like to call me names for even thinking about trading the best player in the Lakers’ incredible history, you can email me at mkelworth@gmail.com, but please read this article and actually consider that this is a smart trade…
Kobe Bryant would like to win his 6th title, but it won’t be the Lakers. Because of poor management and Kobe’s ridiculous contract, they just lack the pieces to build a contender while Kobe is still a functional player, is still in the NBA and isn’t a decrepit skeleton like Steve Nash. Ironically if they were able to trade Kobe, even just for cap space, they could be a contender in 2 seasons. They would have …

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What Does Kobe Bryant Have Left to Prove to Rest of the NBA?

Long the poster boy for defiance, determination and self-scissored destiny, Kobe Bryant‘s to-do list shouldn’t include the burden of proof. Nearly two decades of accolades—both collective and individual—should stand alone, speaking for themselves, saying all there is to say.

But Kobe Bryant is Kobe Bryant. Real or make-believe, there would always be something left for him to prove to the Los Angeles Lakers, to his peers and to the NBA at large.

Similar careers are winding down in dissimilar fashion. Tim Duncan has nothing left to prove five championships and 17 years in. Not even the harshest critics are looking for Kevin Garnett to use his 20th season as a clock-contemning renaissance. 

Like always, Bryant remains different.

With the end swiftly approaching, and with almost 18 months of atypical hardship in his rearview mirror, Bryant enters the final phase of his career on a different mission, facing a new opponent: the gap between who he once was and who he is now. 

 

Doing More (or the Same) with Less

Physical limits aren’t a concept Bryant has ever accepted or acknowledged. Minutes caps have been foreign. Injuries are annoyances that can be swatted away like gnats. Weaknesses only exist if you admit to them.

Bryant is the same player who ruptured his Achilles, tried to walk it off and then sank two free throws before beginning this long, winding, uncertain road he’s still on. The day he copped to being human—and was serious—would be the day basketball was played on the moon.

That day has come and gone, and the Intergalactic Basketball Association (IBA) still hasn’t been formed.

Battling injury has forced Bryant to prepare for the end; preparing for the end has left him pensive and candid—a process that began prior to 2012-13 but accelerated in the wake of abrupt strife. Where Bryant once wouldn’t be caught visiting reality, he now dwells there exclusively.

“I can say I want to be able to jump as high as I used to. I want to be as fast as I used to,” he said in August, per the Los Angeles Daily NewsMark Medina. ”But no; I don’t jump as high as I used to,” Bryant said. “That’s okay. I’m not as fast as I used to be. That’s okay, too. I’ll figure out another way to do it.”

Nary a person associated with the Lakers seems to believe Bryant’s proposed reinvention is far-fetched. The team has been assembled to meet both the demands of its dollars-dependent future and the notion that Bryant can still transcend mediocrity.

New head coach Byron Scott told Medina that he expects Bryant to average 20 points per game next season. He also hinted at minutes restrictions. Bryant himself has been studying Paul Pierce and the way in which he’s dominated without all-world athleticism and excessive explosion, according to Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Ballard.

The ground beneath Bryant is corroding. What he’s done for so long, he’s now trying to do differently. He’s trying—whether he admits it or not—to validate his two-year, $48.5 million extension, trying to ensure his twilight is more than lottery berths and injury stints. 

Continued relevancy is the mission, and it’s one Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding says Bryant will not lose sight of:

In a broader sense, Bryant is very much determined not to become McGrady…or anything close to him.

First of all, Bryant is resolute about maximizing and relishing the latter years of his career. Anything less would taint the bar he has set for himself so far.

McGrady doesn’t motivate Bryant, per se, yet his presence a year after retiring at age 34 can’t help remind what disappointment could await if Bryant doesn’t adhere to his same standards now that his body and game have changed.

Michael Jordan is another name worth mentioning here. After years off—the second time—he returned to the hardwood, noticeably older, unmistakably worse but still fit to stand alongside the best. 

Can Bryant do all this—adjust, adapt, thrive—at 36 years old? Can he score 20 points a night? And, most importantly, can he do that in accordance with minutes restrictions?

Averaging under 30 minutes a night remains possible, especially early on. Playing at a superstar level when being constrained by availability is difficult, and it’s something Bryant has never done nor had to do. 

Only nine times since 1983 has a player 36 or older eclipsed the 20-point mark, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Only five qualified players in league history have pumped in 20 points per game while logging under 30 minutes. That is the individual standard Bryant will be held to. 

Because he’s so sure of himself, and his team is so sure of him, his new reality bears a striking resemblance to the old one. Bryant is different, as are the circumstances, but he’s still out to prove his star hasn’t yet gone supernova.

 

Finding Purpose

Not to be overlooked is the symbolism behind Bryant’s immediate future.

This isn’t just the end of a career. It’s the (hopefully) slow, gradual death of an era. Bryant has always been more than a player. He is a brand by himself.

Built into his brand is an unrivaled complex.

Winning has mattered more than anything to Bryant. Some might find solace and strength in his 2014-15 crusade if he stays healthy and productive. Bryant won’t.

Even as the Lakers have devolved into an incomplete puzzle without any sense as to when they’ll be whole again, Bryant is ever the optimist, fostering hope and belief. On paper the Lakers aren’t constructed to win anything next season, not even their own draft pick, which is top-five protected and owed to the Phoenix Suns.

Care to venture a guess as to how much stock Bryant places in bleak and bulldozed outlooks? 

Of course not. He has no vested interest in outside perception.

“But Boozer does this, Jordan Hill does that, Lin adds that,” Bryant told Ballard of his teammates. “If we can figure out that puzzle, we’re going to shock a lot of people.”

And so the quest for a sixth championship continues.

Individual performance won’t mean anything to Bryant if it’s not accompanied by something more. Knowing him, and given all he’s said, he’ll want additional purpose out of his final days. He’ll look to carry the Lakers like has so many times before.

Finding those who are sure that he can won’t be hard. That’s the power of his brand. But now that brand—which will change as Bryant changes—is being tested against a different NBA.

One-man shows aren’t the crux of contenders. Superteams are everywhere. The Western Conference is a powerhouse gauntlet and haven for superstar unions. Bryant is charging forward, basically on his own, facing those he once called—and hopes to still legitimately call—peers, many of whom are now playing together.

Already out to prove his time near the top isn’t over, Bryant’s looking to show his standing can promise the Lakers are fighting for more than a new era that isn’t yet here.

 

Understanding the Stakes

If Bryant retired today, he could walk away proud of the legacy he’s leaving behind—the 31,700 points..the five championships…the two Finals MVPs…the lone league MVP.

By any measure, Bryant has done enough to secure his place in history. So strong is his standing that anything he doesn’t do can neither taints nor bruises his remarkable on-court reputation. Consistent detractors—both past and present—can even find appreciation for what he’s already done.

Yet once again, because he’s Bryant, there’s still something to be desired. And while many will paint this final fight as Bryant vs. Time, Bryant vs. Conventional Wisdom or Bryant vs. Himself, it’s really Bryant vs. Everyone. 

Further shoring up his reputation as one of the most pleasantly illogical stars ever will pit Bryant against players a decade or more younger than him. It pits him against the top talent he’s no longer supposed to be; it places the Lakers—a team that, in theory, he should no longer have to carry—on his shoulders.

Endings are supposed to be sweet. Bryant’s, more so than most, will be a challenge—one in which he must prove the player he is now, differences and all, is fit to rival the one he once was. 

 

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5-Star SG Tyus ‘Kid Mamba’ Battle, Next Kobe Bryant?

Tyus Battle, a 5-star shooting guard, is one of the biggest recruits in the 2016 class. This New Jersey native took some time to talk with Bleacher Report about everything from his nickname to who he models his game after. 

How well do you think he will do in college?

Check out the video and let us know!

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Kobe Bryant Finds Inspiration to Change, Prepare for Future, in Tracy McGrady

LOS ANGELES — It happens all the time with all sorts of people. On occasion it can be as graphic as what has happened to Donald Sterling and Ray Rice with their livelihoods. At other times it happens gradually, when an athlete faces the march of time or the struggle to bounce back from the wear of thousands of games played at an elite level.   

Only when the enjoyment of something those in sports, or those in every walk of life, have grown accustomed to is taken away does the real cherishing and coveting sink in.   

Take Tracy McGrady, who popped back on the radar last month when he told Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski that McGrady, with an eye toward another run at the NBA, had been working out last month with Kobe Bryant.

It was difficult not to feel a little pity and sympathy for McGrady, 35. Poor T-Mac, desperate to take advantage of Kobe’s ongoing relevance. It’s a shame the guy can’t let go and keeps trying to recapture the past.

Inspiration can be found in McGrady’s determination, but it’s hard to take too seriously someone who earlier this year had dabbled in independent league baseball and was quoted there as saying: “It feels good to be celebrated again.”

Bryant and McGrady, preps-to-pros jumpers who joined the NBA a year apart, are longtime friends, so it’s not shocking to hear of them working out together. What Bryant might be able to get out of it, though, is what’s really interesting.

Bryant needs more work than usual this offseason, which is why, besides his usual early morning workouts at the Los Angeles Lakers‘ training facility in El Segundo, he has been hosting sessions near his Orange County home—some with Lakers teammates Jeremy Lin, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Ed Davis.

Bryant played only six games all last season between his Achilles and knee injuries, and although he is viewed as completely healthy now, he needs extra work.

But it’s not that simple.

In a broader sense, Bryant is very much determined not to become McGrady…or anything close to McGrady.

First of all, Bryant is resolute about maximizing and relishing the latter years of his career. Anything less would taint the bar he has set for himself so far.

McGrady doesn’t motivate Bryant, per se, yet his presence a year after retiring at age 34 can’t help remind what disappointment could await if Bryant doesn’t adhere to his same standards now that his body and game have changed.

Allow Bryant’s trusted longtime physical therapist Judy Seto to explain.

“What’s the secret? What’s the inside scoop?” Seto said. “It’s not something fancy. He works at it. He works at it consistently. He works at it religiously.

“Some people work hard because someone’s watching or someone’s pushing. His motivation isn’t someone else. It’s within him. It’s this internal drive that he has.

“And he’s smarter now. He’s not one to sugarcoat things. I think he has a very good handle on what his abilities are and what he’s able to accomplish and what he’s not. He realizes that there is a certain amount of mileage; he’s not the same person—no one is—from when he was 10 years ago.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t other attributes that he can’t tap in to. He’s got 10 more years of basketball knowledge and experience. His basketball IQ is 10 years better. He’s not saying, ‘This is all I can give. Oh, my gosh, I’m approaching the end! What will I do?’”

There is no doubt that McGrady failed to bring Bryant’s level of attentiveness, both mental and physical, to a career that infamously lacked postseason success and ended with him bouncing to five different NBA teams down his stretch, going to China and then missing a coattails ring in 2013 with the San Antonio Spurs.

McGrady didn’t score in a handful of playoff appearances as the Spurs fell just short against the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals series so close that McGrady could rightly imagine being a champion if he could have given the Spurs just a little help.

The Spurs redeemed that without him this year, while McGrady tried his hand at pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters, a team name straight out of a screenwriter’s imagination and a place close enough to McGrady’s former Rockets fans in Houston for the Skeeters to derive some publicity out of the stunt.

When McGrady retired from baseball right on the spot upon finally recording his first strikeout, the small-time sideshow could be summed up in the fact that the radio reporter who got the quotes about it was the father of the Little Leaguer who partnered with McGrady in a home-run derby competition that night.

One of those quotes, it’s worth noting, started this way: “Not having my basketball career end the way I wanted…”

So McGrady, more than a year younger than Bryant, is back entertaining thoughts of the one thing he has been able to trust in his life: playing basketball.

Which brings us to the second key point in comparing and contrasting Bryant and McGrady.

When it does end, Bryant will not live in or for the past.

He prides himself on having delivered a consistency that Michael Jordan and his two failed retirements never could, never needing or seeking any breaks. And even though it is a veritable certainty that Bryant’s obsession with competition will give him some trouble without that basketball fix, he’s not nearly as single-minded as is often portrayed.

Bryant has been plotting this out for years and years, determined to maintain his relevance in a real, different and earned way.

Now that the Kobe Inc., office building is a reality in Newport Beach and he has invested to own 10 percent of BodyArmor sports drink, the vision he has been reluctant to discuss sans any accomplishment is taking shape.

“There’s so much more to him than just being a basketball player,” Seto said. “He’s not the same person that he was when he entered the league. What people don’t realize about him is he’s already put in motion the things in his life that he wants to pursue and move into.

“It’s not like suddenly it’s over and then there’s nothing. He’s already made preparations for what he wants to do with his life. It’s a natural continuum.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve seen behind the curtain, but I already see that his life is just going to keep on going and evolving. He’s not going to go back and try to relive it.

“You’ve got to realize one thing: When basketball ends, his competitive drive doesn’t end. It’s just going to shift to other things. He’s competitive as a basketball player. He’s focused.

“Wait till you see him in the business world.”

 

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

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Can the NBA Ever Replace Kobe Bryant?

Few jerseys are as recognizable as the purple-and-black No. 24 (or No. 8, if you go back far enough), donned by a current player who will be elected to the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. Few players are as respected as the man whose name has become virtually synonymous with a poisonous species of snake from sub-Saharan Africa.  

Few names are as recognizable as Kobe Bryant‘s, whose presence in the NBA has been as ubiquitous as any over the last decade-and-a-half. 

But what led to the Los Angeles Lakers All-Star shooting guard turning into the legend he is today? 

For starters, how about everything? 

Everyone’s definitions of stars and superstars seems to vary, but you’d find precious few people who would dispute No. 24′s status as a superstar. Though I’m one of them, that’s only because he falls more into the realm of superduperstars, a classification occupied by only a few players throughout the course of NBA history. 

Bryant simply transcends the game.

Even now that he’s 36 years old and fighting to come back from two major injuries while carrying a mediocre Lakers squad, there’s still a widespread belief that he won’t skip a beat. No one has ever done what he’s trying to achieve, but there’s still this underlying assumption that Bryant is a superhuman, basketball-playing entity who is somehow beyond the reach of laws that apply to mere mortals. 

Isaac Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants while furthering the pursuits of physics and mathematics, but Bryant somehow looms even larger, unaffected by all those laws Newton helped quantify and explain. 

Why? 

Seriously, go out, and ask a few basketball fans why they believe in Kobe Bryant. Chances are, you’ll hear a few different answers of the same iteration: Because he’s Kobe Bryant. Some might even include an expletive as Bryant’s fake middle name. 

It’s a silly argument. Tautological as it gets, it’s supplying no form of rhetoric other than an unsubstantiated opinion.

Yet somehow, it still makes sense. 

Again, simply because this is Kobe Bryant we’re talking about. 

It was a ridiculous convergence of factors—some controllable and others uncontrollable—that got us to this point, and that’s saying nothing of Bryant’s immense popularity, both domestically and internationally. Just think all the way back to the beginning of his career, when a precocious teenager was drafted out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets and almost immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. 

Whatever involvement Kobe had in that process, it happened. And it allowed him to play for what’s arguably the sport’s No. 1 attraction. Though the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls would all disagree for various reasons, the Lakers are the league’s marquee franchise, enjoying gargantuan levels of support from virtually all areas of the globe. 

Anytime you combine a captivating athlete with a franchise that’s always in the global microscope, sparks are going to fly. And Kobe promoted them by being so damn good early in his career, even if his first All-Star appearance was a little bit ridiculous. Plus, the titles flowed in during the afro-bearing, No. 8-wearing portion of his career, setting the stage for a widely viewed prime and twilight to his NBA tenure.

Let’s not overlook how rare it is for a superstar to spend his entire career in one uniform.

There have been negative aspects to Bryant’s life with the Lakers—the time he spent in Colorado early in his career, as well as the summers in which he was no longer satisfied with the direction and success of the organization—but he’s worn purple and gold throughout his entire time as an NBA player. From brash teenager to sage, unfiltered veteran, Kobe has gone through every stage of an NBA life without changing colors.

Kevin Garnett can’t say that. Paul Pierce can’t either.

Nor can Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Allen, LeBron James or virtually any other star of the modern era. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are the exceptions, though neither has risen to the level of worldwide popularity and unmitigated scrutiny that Bryant has both enjoyed and put up with throughout his time playing professional basketball. 

 

Ridiculous Popularity 

How many people truly fit the definition of a household name? 

If you walked into the home of a family that had as little interest in the NBA as possible, which players could they name? Due to how much they dominate the news cycle, James and Bryant would likely be mentioned. But beyond that? Even Kevin Durant hasn’t spent enough time making headlines, and the rest of the big guns—O’Neal and Michael Jordan, above all else—are long retired. 

If you walked into a sports bar instead, you could gauge how much conversation just saying a name sparked. People always seem interested in arguing about Bryant, whether discussing the strength of his career resume, his ability to excel upon his return from injury or whether he or O’Neal was the leader of those early-2000 L.A. teams that were so successful. 

Who else passes the bar-fight test? James again. Maybe Derrick Rose. But beyond that, you’ll be met with some indifference by at least some portion of the otherwise-interested crowd. 

Everyone seems to care about Bryant, and that’s not a statement that’s limited to the United States. China, above any other country, has a torrid love affair with the future Hall of Famer, as Chris Ballard carefully detailed for Sports Illustrated in one of the best sports articles of 2014: 

As for Kobe, here in China he really is, as the sign reads, “forever young.” Here the local media dotes. The fans not only adore him but arrive with no expectations beyond glimpsing the icon. Hang around a Lakers’ road hotel in the U.S., and you’ll see groupies and autograph hounds awaiting the bus, and if the players don’t acknowledge them, angry 40-year-old men will berate them. In Shanghai, I saw one group of nearly a dozen teenagers outside the Shangri-La hotel at 10 in the morning one day; at 11:30 p.m. they were still there, waiting, hopeful, asking any Westerner who entered if they knew when Kobe might return. They carried a succession of handwritten placards, in English, that, one holding each, read “kobe can we take photo with u [heart sign]?”

This kind of unconditional love is rare. Growing up, Kobe received it, like most kids, from his parents. Now he gets it from 17-year-old Chinese kids. 

There’s no telling why exactly this popularity sprang out of nothingness, though Ballard speculates it happened organically, with a hardworking people respecting and admiring the unmatched dedication that Bryant has shown to his craft. 

Regardless of the reason, it exists. 

In fact, ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell reported during the 2013 offseason that Bryant was the most popular player in the NBA from 2008-09 until last summer, when James surpassed him.

Think about that. It took four MVPs and two titles for the best basketball player in the world to move past a star who should be aging. 

A summer later, Rovell wrote that James had become the most popular male athlete in America, but let’s not overlook where Bryant ranked. 

Keep in mind that the Lakers superstar was coming off a season in which he’d played only a handful of games, limited by an Achilles injury during the early portion of the ill-fated campaign and a major knee injury after his brief return. Despite being largely out of the public eye for the vast majority of the year, Bryant remained the fifth-most popular male athlete in the country, trailing only James, Jordan, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning. 

This isn’t the result of a normal career. 

 

An Abnormal Career

It’s a testimony to everything Bryant has done in his NBA life.

He’s stayed with the same franchise, which again just happens to be the most popular one in the Association, and excelled throughout his career. He’s won titles, consciously—and convincingly—imitated the greatest player of all time and displayed a near-psychopathic ability to avoid distractions and believe in himself unfailingly. 

Armed with unequaled self-confidence and an insatiable desire to prevail over opponents—both literal and figurative—on his own terms, ferrying Los Angeles’ hopes has become Bryant’s preferred way of life,” Dan Favale writes for Bleacher Report. “He wouldn’t have the Lakers entrusting their fate to anyone else. He wouldn’t share the strain of expectations even if he could.”

Bryant has drilled countless game-winning shots, shaking off the misses so vigorously but simultaneously with so much ease, that everyone in the arena believes the ball is finding the bottom of the net when it next leaves his fingertips while the last seconds of a game tick off the clock. He’s posterized what seems like every great big man during his era of NBA history. He’s crossed over myriad opponents, leaving them clutching their ankles as he rises for another successfully converted jumper. 

In his prime, he was even a lockdown defender, capable of impacting a game immensely on that end of the floor. Though he’s devolved into a ball-watching, opportunistic defender who thrives on his previously earned reputation, he remains capable of serving as a shut-down one-on-one player to this day. 

It was probably the best defense somebody’s ever played on me since I’ve been in the league,” Brandon Jennings said about the 2-guard, via The Associated Press’ Greg Beacham, after a January contest during the 2012-13 season. 

He wasn’t the first to feel the wrath of a jilted Bryant on that end of the court, and he certainly won’t be the last. 

Bryant’s game has constantly evolved, as he’s developed some of the best footwork in NBA history to counteract his falling athleticism. When the need arises, he’s served as a de facto point guard, piling up assists and eschewing those volume-shooting outings for the better of his team. 

He’s by no means a perfect player, but he’s always going to do his darnedest to ensure he comes as close as possible to that descriptor. Well, as close as possible to his version of that descriptor, as Bryant’s idea of a perfect player doesn’t always show a perfect correlation with everyone else’s.

What he’s done in the NBA is irrelevant here. There will be players who match his number of titles as a key player. There will be stars who put together similar statistical resumes. Someday, another standout will score more points than Bryant has to his credit when he’s done lacing up his sneakers for a final time. 

That much feels inevitable, even if it’s hard to fathom in the present. 

More important is how Bryant has risen to such prominence. That’s where the tireless work ethic, nonstop improvements and tinkering, willingness to play out his career with a single franchise and knack for handling the spotlight all come into play. 

And that’s why there won’t be another Bryant. 

 

No Potential Replacement in the Current Landscape

There are plenty of superstars in the current iteration of the NBA. In fact, James seems awfully close to superduperstar status, if he hasn’t reached that popularity nirvana already, and Kevin Durant won’t be far behind if he keeps improving each and every season of his already impressive career. 

But no one has been mythologized like Bryant. Plus, each star has a notable flaw in the resume he’s submitting while trying to walk in the shooting guard’s size-14 footsteps.

James has already changed teams multiple times, alienating the Cleveland Cavaliers fanbase before returning to his hometown team after winning two championships with the Miami Heat. Even though he’s the most popular athlete in the sport now—objectively speaking, based on those earlier popularity reports from Rovell—his career has been filled with too many twists to enjoy the unbridled adoration so many project upon Bryant. 

As for Durant, he simply hasn’t been as successful.

Now gearing up for his eighth professional season, he’s ringless and has yet to develop the following that Bryant enjoyed at such a young age. He’s widely viewed—whether it’s fair or not—as the league’s second fiddle, a status that might be different if he’d already three-peated, as Bryant had already done at Durant’s age, young as that may be.

Who else is going to get there? 

Anthony Davis is the next big thing, but he’s playing for the small-market New Orleans Pelicans. Ditto for Andrew Wiggins, who’s now set to toil away in relative obscurity for the nondescript Minnesota Timberwolves.

Poking holes in the candidacy of the league’s other young up-and-comers is a similarly easy process. 

Plus, the way we view the NBA has changed. 

The role of analytics has risen rather dramatically, shaping the way the game is played and viewed by fans. Though some remain stubbornly opposed to the impact of numbers, they’re doing so at their own peril, passing up a chance to glean valuable information and become more intelligent consumers of an incredibly complicated, ever-evolving and often awe-inspiring product. 

Bryant had the luxury of playing in the era just before everything was scrutinized. Basketball was quite popular in the early-2000s, but the sport wasn’t a 24/7 entity in which each move was broken down. Allen Iverson was allowed to loft up 25 shots per game while shooting low percentages from the field, and hero ball pervaded late-game situations. 

That doesn’t fly anymore. Well, it doesn’t fly to the same extent. 

But that offensive freedom—the ability to operate in a one-on-however-many situation—allowed Bryant to start his career in soaring fashion, then continue on his merry way as the game changed around him. It’s hard to fathom any player in this day and age recording an 81-point game, for example, despite this particular 2-guard doing so only eight years ago.

Still, the thought of anyone so much as scoring 70 points in a single game—in a league that’s gone to great lengths to encourage ball movement and spacing and de-emphasize isolation play—is a fleeting one, at best,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Josh Martin while looking back at what has arguably become the most famous game of Bryant’s incredible carer.

So, regardless of whether anyone touches that 81-point milestone, will the NBA be able to replace Bryant? 

Absolutely not. 

Just as Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and the rest of the stars from the post-Jordan era helped the Association move past the absence of the greatest player the sport has ever seen, remaining ever-popular all the while, Davis, Wiggins and the new breed of basketball superstars will help the league fill the void left by this particular shooting guard.

However, that in no way means the Association will replace the man, the myth and the legend named Kobe Bryant. 

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Can Kobe Bryant Really Still Carry the Los Angeles Lakers?

Carrying the Los Angeles Lakers is a familiar task for Kobe Bryant.

Armed with unequaled self-confidence and an insatiable desire to prevail over opponents—both literal and figurative—on his own terms, ferrying Los Angeles’ hopes has become Bryant’s preferred way of life. He wouldn’t have the Lakers entrusting their fate to anyone else. He wouldn’t share the strain of expectations even if he could.

Nothing has changed.

Almost two decades into his reign as Hollywood’s king, the Lakers are still very much Bryant’s team, the roster reflective of their dollars-dependent future and—most importantly—a patent pledge to continue building around No. 24 until the bitter end.

But where such conduct once engendered hope and teamwide tenacity befitting of Bryant’s own aplomb, time has turned the tables. 

Certainty has given way to confusion. Age and injuries have created doubt. Bryant’s burden-bearing, hope-hauling capabilities have come under siege.

Can he still carry his team? 

For the first time, the answer is less about Bryant’s bionic mystique and more about where the Lakers intend to go.

 

Charting Expectations

Talk of summer 2015 and all the promise it holds has been temporarily suspended.

New head coach Byron Scott refuses to accept that the mountain ahead is too steep to scale now. References to patience and process have come few and far between, their existence secondary to seemingly ungovernable optimism.

“I think it would be unfair for us to put any expectation on those guys, but the bottom line with me is winning. That’s the bottom line, so I’m not putting any limitations on our guys as well,” he said on Fox Sports Live, per NBA.com’s Joey Ramirez. ”I’m gonna go in there the first day of training camp and say, ‘Guys, we’ve gotta shoot for winning a championship.’”

Title talk can be interpreted as any number of things. 

Is Scott being serious? Using boundless bluster as a motivational tool? Selling something the Lakers don’t—and won’t—stock anytime soon?

This year’s Lakers will stumble into 2014-15 following a 27-win, injury-infested debacle. They’re barely recognizable from last year, though not in ways that guarantee they’ll win more games, play more defense or move forward at all.

Through it all, Scott constantly cites Bryant.

Sometimes he focuses on Bryant’s limitations and the balance between reality and stardom he must find. Other times he can be heard adding weight to Bryant’s two-ton crown.

“I’ve got a lot of guys that I don’t really know,” Scott admitted in August, via the Los Angeles Times‘s Eric Pincus. ”I’ve got to get to know these guys and see what makes them tick—but I’ve got one guy that I do know what makes him tick and that’s a great piece to have.”

Judging by those words, Scott is no different than any other Lakers coach, and this team no different from any other Lakers team. 

Winning—impractical or not—remains the standard, and it’s Bryant who must lug the bar to which they hold themselves.

 

Bryant’s New Reality

Current expectations would have seemed tame not two years ago. 

Neither time nor age had bested Bryant. Serious injuries weren’t holding him back. His game was his game, his production and reliability timeless.

Circumstances have since changed, even if Bryant’s career-long role hasn’t.

At 36, his basketball mortality obvious, Bryant must adapt. And though adjustment isn’t exact science, specific lines—those which Bryant, Scott and the Lakers are forbidden to cross—must be drawn. 

That may involve him settling for even more jumpers or playing point guard and ceding the most physically demanding responsibilities to Nick Young, Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer and Julius Randle.

It most certainly entails him playing less.

Scott has already stressed the importance of conservation, hinting at a minutes limit for his shooting guard, according to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. Yet a potential minutes cap has done little to curb his enthusiasm.

“I see a guy who’s going to average 20 something points a game, will have a great year and have a lot of people eating crow,” he told Medina. “I’m glad people are saying [otherwise]. Keep adding it. It motivates him that much more. It makes my job easier.”

Averaging 20 points is a tall order by itself. Forget collective wishes, wins and losses and every other aspect of the game. Twenty points, on its own, is ambitious.

Players aged 36 or older have averaged 20 points per game only nine times since 1983. More complicated still, three players—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (three times), Michael Jordan (twice) and Karl Malone (four times)—make up all nine occurrences.

Not once did any of those players log fewer than 30 minutes per contest. Jordan and Malone—who make up the last six instances—each needed at least 34.9 minutes to complete the feat. 

Bryant, meanwhile, is supposed to eclipse similar numbers on a minutes cap. 

Only five qualified players in NBA history have ever averaged 20 points in under 30 minutes per game. It hasn’t been done since 1990-91 (Ricky Pierce), and the oldest player to do it was 32 (George Gervin).

Last season saw a 35-year-old Bryant muster 13.8 points a night in 29.5 minutes. Six-game sample sizes don’t offer windows into Bryant’s basketball soul, but if he’s to score as much as Scott and the Lakers want, stringent playing restrictions are the enemy.

And even if he does that, even if he stays healthy and makes history while playing at a familiarly high level, there’s still the matter of having to carry everyone else.

The Lakers ranked 28th in defensive efficiency last season, according to NBA.com, and aren’t built to be much better this year. They ranked 21st in offensive efficiency, playing a fast-paced brand of basketball Bryant isn’t fit to exist within and Scott won’t run.

Single cures aren’t out there for what ails this Lakers team. Not even a statistically magnificent Bryant would be enough to revive Los Angeles’ winning ways. Not if he stands as the Lakers’ lone star.

 

Different Reality, Same Old Misconceptions

Mentions of the Lakers and “winning” and “playoffs” in the same breath casts a cloud over Bryant’s impending return.

These (mostly) self-delivered forecasts—borne out of design or blind belief—are, as Bleacher Report’s Jim Cavan implies, a double-edged sword:

On the other hand, the Lakers are coming off their worst season in almost 60 years, play in a perpetually loaded Western Conference and are poised to pay their best player—the 36-year-old Kobe Bryant—a whopping $48.5 million over the next two years, despite recent injuries to the aging star’s Achilles and knee.

Meanwhile, L.A.’s second-best player, Carlos Boozer, was grabbed off waivers after being released by the Chicago Bulls via the NBA’s amnesty provision.

If this doesn’t sound like the blueprint for a championship-caliber team, congratulations: You are firmly grounded in this dimension.

Multistar powerhouses make up the Western Conference. Kevin Durant isn’t on his own in Oklahoma City. Chris Paul has Blake Griffin. Damian Lillard has LaMarcus Aldridge. James Harden has Dwight Howard. Tony Parker has the rest of San Antonio‘s roster. 

Old and fragile as ever, Bryant is all alone, surrounded only by bit role players acquired to appease his unbending faith and protect Los Angeles’ books. 

Teams built on this whim—however well-intentioned—don’t make the playoffs out west, let alone contend for championships. Contenders aren’t founded upon one 36-year-old superstar who has appeared in just six games since April 2013. 

No NBA player of Bryant’s age has ever racked up more than 18.2 win shares. Under the most ideal circumstances—Bryant has never amassed more than 15.3 wins in a single season—if the Lakers actually wish to flirt with a playoff berth, where are the other 30-35 victories coming from? 

Some combination of Boozer, Lin, Young, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Steve Nash, who totaled 17.4 victories between them for their respective teams last year?

Hope of Bryant’s return resembling a miracle runs amiss here, where he’s being asked to carry the Lakers further than reason allows, acting as something more than an encouraging bridge between this era and the one in which lofty expectations belong.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise cited.


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