Kobe Bryant is a legend, plain and simple. He is arguably the greatest player to ever wear a Lakers uniform, a scoring phenom, a future Hall of Famer, Olympic gold medalist, a five-time NBA champion, a global icon, MVP. But in his 20th NBA season, it’s time to head to the bench. It sounds ludicrous, but the Lakers need to do this. From memory, the last time we saw Kobe come off the bench on the regular was back in 1997 during his sophomore year. Fast forward to 2015, and Kobe’s career has come full circle. Father time and a rash of debilitating injuries has finally caught up. It is not a knock on the man, but a reality check.
As an elder statesman, Bryant has accepted his role as a mentor to the younger members of his team. He leads by example, through his work ethic, passion and love for the game. This mentorship must now translate on the court by accepting a bench role. No one wants to say it to him, not his diehard fans, not management, not even Coach Byron Scott, nor team owner Jim Buss, but Kobe needs to hear it. If Scott is hoping to avoid a repeat of the last three years, and still be able to conserve Bryant’s energy, change must be made. It starts by allowing Kobe to come in as a substitute.
The LA Lakers have an athletic trio of young stars under the age of 21 that starts alongside the ageing but still serviceable Bryant, with lumbering center Roy Hibbert anchoring the defense. If you allow the trio to run plays in transition without looking over their shoulder, the team could thrive. But by having big brother Kobe in the starting lineup, the team is somewhat held back and the young trio will continue to defer to Bryant, who has failed to respond miserably by his own standards. The result is an atrocious 31.4% field goal percentage, 20.7% from three-point range, a tremendous drop in assists and lackluster defense. The numbers don’t lie.
Secondly, putting Bryant as the starting small forward does not give justice to the man. Kobe is 37 years old and is only a couple of months removed from a torn rotator cuff injury. Now you expect him to go up against some of the best the NBA has in this position. Of course, Kobe is still the main draw in Tinseltown, very highly compensated and well loved. He is excited to play, to win, but those legs might not keep up any longer.
Against the Jurassic Tayshaun Prince, Kobe dropped 24 points on opening night but he took 24 shots to get that. In the next two games, he had to cover the unpredictable Rudy Gay and Chandler Parsons, who just returned from injury. By his own admission, Kobe was getting in the right spots but he’s just not converting his baskets. Soon he will face better players, including Demar DeRozan, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounpo, Trevor Ariza, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler and reigning MVP Khawi Leonard. That is a lot to ask. Metta World Peace could be more suited to play a defensive role, but expecting Kobe to run around chasing these players off that surgically healed Achilles is asking for trouble. You want to see him finish the whole season unscathed.
Kobe seems to have accepted his fate. The playoffs is now a mirage, and the Finals but a memory. He does not have the personnel to help carry this team to the promise land. Everyone from the 2009-2010 championship squad is gone, bar MWP. Gasol, Fisher, Odom, Bynum, Farmar, Vujacic, Walton and Brown.
On the back of his mind, he wants to finish the game injury-free. He will take it one game at a time but he wants to play every game if he can. It’s a long road ahead and this could well be his final swan song.
What Kobe has left is that will to win, that killer instinct. The Lakers can use this in short spurts to maximize his ability. They are already limiting his playing time, but the Lakers could be managing this more wisely by letting him come off the bench.
What could this do? He’ll be a lot fresher, and can take on the scoring cudgels with the second unit. He’ll be in his element, and he could play alongside pass-first Brazilian rookie Marcelo Huertas. An efficient Bryant is better for the team as a whole. You can save his legs and allow him to finish the game with more energy to keep up with his younger teammates.
At present, you have rookie D’Angelo Russell, second year stars Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle in the starting unit. You could potentially replace Kobe with Nick Young or stretch forward Ryan Kelly, or embrace small ball featuring Lou Williams. This new starting five could create plenty of mismatches to opposing teams. The Lakers have youth on their side.
Off the bench, Kobe can check in and take over, giving the Lakers that extra spark that has been missing in the last three games. Pairing him up with Lou Williams will provide a lot more offensive punch to a tiring lineup. Instead of falling short in the fourth, LA could turn back the clock for Kobe and give them more options at crunch time.
Against Dallas and Sacramento, LA fell behind early and the game was pretty much over by the third quarter. The Lakers lost a heart-breaking game against Minnesota despite having a sixteen point cushion. Perhaps a well-rested Kobe could just be the tonic they are looking for. Unleash the Mamba in shorter spurts but in a timely manner. He could dominate and propel the Lakers to a better position early on.
Kobe has never shied away from challenges. He might even embrace the idea of becoming a sixth man and prove to everyone that he can thrive in a new role. It’s for the good of the team and for a chance to win again.
The question is will Kobe and Scott even consider this proposition?
Let’s wait and see next month. Scott put a timeline of 10-15 games before he makes any changes to the starting lineup. Without wins, change is imminent. It’s probably not too cool to sit next to Robert Sacre, but at least he’ll have MWP to keep him company.
Give Kobe a chance to finish strong in his final season; he deserves it. This move could salvage another losing season in LA and save his legacy.