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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