Kobe Bryant: In Full Decline? Not So Fast…

Darius Soriano —  October 14, 2010

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant (L) takes the ball past Minnesota Timberwolves' Wesley Johnson during their NBA Europe Live basketball game at the O2 Arena in London October 4, 2010.  REUTERS/Dylan Martinez   (BRITAIN - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Right now, Kobe Bryant is struggling with his game.  Attempting to play quality minutes while recovering from a knee injury is never going to be easy and #24 is certainly having his difficulties with all eyes watching.  As Jeff said in his recap to last night’s game, Kobe is looking better than he did in the Lakers’ European games, but his shooting is still not there even if his legs do look to be getting stronger.  However, despite what our eyes are telling us (that he is physically improving) this is still a results oriented business and right now Kobe isn’t producing very good ones. 

Through three games, Kobe is shooting 4-28 from the field (14%) and his jumper looks out of sync and erratic.  Similar to a wayward drive from Tiger Woods, Kobe is missing long, short, left, and right.  Sometimes his jumper looks flat, other times the arc is there but the accuracy is nowhere to be found.  Essentially, he looks bad.  So, it’s panic time right?  Over at Pro Basketball Talk, an old friend who knows something about the Lakers says not quite:

Should Lakers fans be worried? No. Not yet.

True, without Kobe, the Lakers are like all the teams chasing them in the West have felt for the past three years — good but not quite good enough. The Lakers are not intimidating anyone without Kobe.

But this is still the preseason. Too early for even Lakers fans to hit the panic button.

Kobe did look a little bit better Wednesday night, he seemed to move a little more smoothly even if that movement is not up to his own standards. Phil Jackson held Kobe down to 19 minutes in the game, you can expect that or less in future games. Followed by rehab on his days off. Come Oct. 26, Kobe will be better, capable of taking on a bigger role in the offense.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some concern about Kobe as he rehabs and recovers from off-season knee surgery.  Despite Kobe’s young-ish age (just turning 32 in August) Kobe has compiled a lot of mileage on his legs in 14 seasons.  He’s only missed the playoffs once and has made countless deep post-season runs, going to the Finals 7 times.  And while I couldn’t agree more with Kurt’s analysis above, I do wonder when Kobe will prove to be more human and less the immortal that has donned a Lakers’ jersey while gracing the hardwood and providing onlookers with some of this era’s unforgettable moments.

I just don’t believe that moment is here yet.  Remember, Kobe is a notorious gym rat that looks to improve his game every year through countless hours of practice and refinement behind closed doors.  However, this year he really didn’t get that chance.  Rather than working to further strengthen his low post game he was strengthening a knee that was under the knife.  Rather than spending countless hours making jumper after jumper, he was on a treadmill making his legs get used to weight bearing activities.  Basically, Kobe is behind where he normally would be not only from a physical ability standpoint, but from a skill building and basketball rhythm standpoint as well.  So, taking too much from his recent performances is a mistake.  As Brian Kamenetzky said in his recap of the Kings game:

It doesn’t really matter if his shots fall in mid-October, as long as Kobe moves freely, unencumbered by his surgically repaired right knee. He did. That said, the shots didn’t fall. On his two-of-10 shooting night, only one of the two was a jumper, and overall he ran his preseason mark, for those keeping score, to four-of-28. Sometime next month, I suspect we’ll look back at this stretch as a curiosity at best, if we bother looking back at all, but those are the numbers.

All of this begs the question, though: what is Kobe’s best role in the immediate time period, during this season, and beyond?  And ultimately, I think that question is layered and complex.  As commenter VOR states, it may be time for Kobe to take a step back within the Lakers offense and pass the reigns to the big men that populate the paint:

I think Kobe is going to (need to) reduce his shot attempts per game significantly this year (if the team is healthy). I know this sounds cliche, but if they maintain their spacing and move the ball (Please don’t forget the bigs for quarters at a stretch), they will be basically unstoppable.

However, the other side of that coin is that Kobe is and will continue to be an integral part of what makes the Lakers successful.  So while I agree that striking a better balance in his shot attempts vs. those of his teammates is a recipe for success, I think it’s also key to understand that Kobe must continue to be a forceful threat for the Laker machine to really hum.  This isn’t to say that I’m happy seeing forced jumpers or off-balance leaners come off Kobe’s fingertips.  But, I do understand and accept that as an offensive weapon at least part of Kobe’s (and in turn) the Lakers success is dependent on the aggressive nature that is inherent in #24′s game.  It is a tough balance to strike on a nightly basis and as most humans, Kobe is not perfect and will not succeed in achieving it every single game.  But it would behoove the team and Kobe if while he’s still not 100% that he try a bit harder and then pick up more of the scoring load when he’s fully healthy. (On a side note, I also think that with Bynum out to start the season that Kobe will be on the low block and pinch post much more than he would be if ‘Drew was in the line up.  This will put Kobe in better positions to score the ball while also limiting the number of long jumpers he takes or how often he’s forced to attack off the dribble from 25 feet out.)

So really, where we’re at is simple.  Kobe isn’t necessarily declining (and surely not rapidly), but he’s definitely still recovering.  His role should be slightly reduced in the immediate lead up to the season and even for a couple weeks to start the campaign, but once he’s healthy he’ll need to go back to being as aggressive as he’s always been (while still trying to strike that proper balance with his mates in how much load to carry).  I truly believe that we’ll see an effective-as-ever Kobe by the first part of November and whatever struggles we’re seeing right now will be a distant memory.  And if that’s not the case, the Lakers really will have a reason to panic.

Darius Soriano

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12 responses to Kobe Bryant: In Full Decline? Not So Fast…

  1. it should be noted that hiding in the shadows of the Kobe story, Gasol is missing a lot of easy layups… I don’t remember him doing that quite as often in the past few years, even in pre-season

    Also, Sasha should be forbidden to bring the ball to the offensive side. He’s often the culprit when someone does a bonehead decision while bringing the ball over(the end of the game yesterday was a mix of sad and comical)

  2. I’m not particularly hopeful that Kobe will be able to find that balance. Remember, last year he played for a bit while clearly hurt, and was unable to step back his offense. When he finally went down, the team did a lot better without him.

  3. I agree with you Darius, although it’s also possible that i’m just too biased.

    But,

    if kobe could play with broken fingers in his shooting hand and still play like he was last year, i would say he’s someone who Darwin will have no problem to conclude that he will survive no matter what.

    i think one of the best traits of kobe is his ability to adapt his game which is only possible because he prepares himself like mad.

    I understand that eventually he will not be able to play competitively anymore (at NBA level, no matter how weak he is, i think we would still kick my butt), but it’s just hard for me to think that he will decline without so much of an effort to adjust to it.

  4. I don’t think I’ll ever see Kobe deferring when he feels he can pull it off.

    But, he is smart enough to recognize better options and better opportunities, and talented enough to make his presence felt not just on the offensive end.

    Worst case scenario, he turns to Ron Artest of last regular season. Not in the lost-in-the-offense kind of a way, but ‘no-not-again’ kind of way, which, to be honest, he is sometimes even in his best days.

    Best case scenario, he becomes the Beijing Olympic presence, playing his part and rising to the occasion if there is a need.

    Realistically, I’m tempted to say he’s going to be like Odom while he recovers… unpredictable and inconsistent part due to injury and part due to his own frustrations.

  5. I think that Kobe’s consistency continues to fall off with age this season. Injuries obviously exacerbate this.

    It is unfair to judge how he will be later in the season, based on his play now, since he is recovering.

    If that knee of his has swelling throughout the season, then it could greatly diminish his impact.

  6. I think “recovering” is the best way to put it. Wasn’t it just last week when he was asked how he felt…better but around 60% was the answer if I’m not mistaken. He’s coming off a knee surgery, and like mentioned above, Kobe doesn’t usually come off of anything except more practice and more training. I think you can assume not playing ball for two months allowed him to get out of sync. Factor in a less than 100% below the belt, and you have an unpolished product.

    I expect (because of the finger and knee being better this year, and they will be) a better Kobe in ’10-’11 than we saw last year.

  7. I do not think once the season starts that his percentages would be as low as they are now, remember the Lakers have not had anytime to practice really this pre-season. Bynum being out for a while does not help the team, our big men are our advantage against the other teams.

    “Nothing endures but change.” – Heraclitus

  8. He will be OK once the season starts,he is the pillar,no KB no banner..

  9. My main concern is how he’ll play while recovering. Kobe is not exactly known to scale back his efforts when shots don’t fall for him… rather he tries harder. Pushing himself harder than the recovering knee can handle will obviously slow down the recovery at best, and aggravate/re-injure the knee at worst.

    So I think that how Kobe approaches the first weeks of the season is going to make a big difference in how the last few weeks end.

    Other than that, what was it he said when everyone marveled at how well he played once he drained that fluid out of his swollen knee? “Old? I’m not old. I was injured!”

    Once Kobe has healed, he’ll be fine. I can wait. :)

  10. I agree with the sentiment that it will be difficult to convince Kobe to defer a bit to his teammates. I’m sure Phil and the coaching staff have tried this approach before. I mean, you be the one to tell Kobe this.

    But I totally agree with the concept. Gasol’s usage rate in 2009-10 was 20%, while he shot a solid 54%. Bynum’s usage rate was 19%, while he shot 57%.
    Kobe’s usage rate was 30%, while he shot 46%. I know this is rather simplistic, and we always chant the “feed the bigs” mantra here, but for the first time with this team, our captain of the ship is truly hurting and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be taking “easier” shots with our bigs. For comparison’s sake, Elton Brand had a comparable usage rate with Pau, and we all know that is just not right.

    Now is a good season to let Pau, Bynum, Odom, and Artest assume more of the scoring role. I really hope to see a more balanced attack this year.

  11. Kobe is such a student of the game, I wonder if anyone has ever broached his transition from that angle. Ask him how he would not fall into the trap of past stars and recognize when his abilities start to decline and how he would adapt to maximize his and the team’s effectiveness while still using the skills that haven’t eroded as much.

  12. I always wondered if Kobe, when he’s 34-35, will transition to the “point guard” position in the triangle ala Ron Harper (former scoring guard, albeit nowhere near Kobe’s skill level). Don’t know if Kobe would sublimate his scoring acumen for that kind of role, but obviously, it’ll depend on personnel moves down the road.