“I won’t lie, man. They’re really f—— with my s—.”
– Kobe on his teammates and the sun and the moon and the universe right now (0:31).
Chances are, you know what this figure means. The Lakers are 1-10 when Kobe Bryant scores 30 points or more. It’s one of those stats that obscure context for dramatic effect, but given the state of the team, figures like have at least some merit. If it doesn’t explain why the Lakers are losing when Kobe’s playing his most efficient season ever (it doesn’t), it should shed some light on the present condition of Kobe himself – or at least the mythos that defines and directs his career path.
The stat itself is incongruous to the notions that are affixed to Kobe’s greatness. Of course, it falls into the idea that a particularly tunnel-visioned Kobe is detrimental to the team’s success, which is probably true. But he’s playing really, really well. And in past seasons, one of his torrential downpours would have netted them more than one win out of 10. Part of the myth-building around Bryant revolves around his ability to carry a team with nothing more than will. Equipped with an incendiary glare, a snarl, and a jutted row of teeth, he’d singlehandedly right the ship, all the while elevating the dreaded sense of inevitability in the opposition. This often wasn’t the case with elite running mates in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, but neither player is above disappearing for stretches. And so, to the rescue, Kobe would appear, making miracles out of the failure that the rest of the team had scraped on to his plate. That just hasn’t happened this season.
Eight of the Lakers’ nine wins came with double-digit margins, and in those games Kobe has looked like a consummate all-around player. In these games, he is still a force of nature, but he is no longer nature itself; no longer does the team orbit around the gravitational pull of his shot attempts. As depicted in Bill Simmons’ interview with Bill Russell, Kobe’s trying hard to figure out his teammates. It shows in his assist numbers and in his assist percentage, which is at the highest it’s been in almost a decade. This is partially to fill a void left by the prolonged absence of Steve Nash, but he’s also laying the groundwork for his unavoidable departure. The team will go on without him at some point, and simply commandeering the shots as he’s done in the past leaves the future of the team in dubious territory. In wins against Dallas and Denver, the Lakers demonstrated the historically rare ability to dominate games despite quiet efforts from Bryant. It’s a bizarre notion to believe this generation’s most potent (and willing) scorer can take a backseat as the team flattens opponents, and indeed, it’s only happened in fleeting instances. It’s the idyllic dream that comes by to torment you every other week, each time seducing you with its pseudo-reality. As the case has continually been, the next game leaves you awake in a ditch.
This isn’t exactly rocket science. In good times, sharing the wealth is the sensible thing to do. There just haven’t been many good times. And so Kobe’s Altered Beast manifestations are, game after game, lured out of their rattling cages from frustration and anger. The results? Absolutely staggering. He’s averaging almost 11 more points a game in losses with spikes in makes, attempts, and percentages across the board. Tom Haberstroh wrote a great ESPN Insider piece in November on Kobe’s shift in priority and (as a result) efficiency on the floor. Chief among Kobe’s adjustment this season has been leaving the bread and butter off the table. Kobe’s favorite shooting distance on the court last season was from 15-19 feet, a zone that almost begs of Bryant to give into his most self-destructive vice: toying with the improbable. Last season, according to the NBA.com stats tool, almost a quarter of his shots (23 percent) came from that distance. This season, it’s down to 12 percent. Where’d the shots go? Mostly to the painted area, where 45 percent of his shots are coming from; a huge bump from 33.8 percent of last year. Bryant’s recommitment to the most effective spaces on the floor—around the rim and behind the arc—has given the mythical beast that is Kobe’s career a new shiny coat. Maybe Kobe’s staggering efficiency levels off a bit soon – that doesn’t really matter. He’s changed his approach in a way that invites efficient numbers; he’s not fighting against it in hopes of the same result. This latest battle in the ongoing war against age has been as inspiring as Tim Duncan’s over in San Antonio. If only it came with the same number of wins. Kobe’s always been the savior, but despite his best efforts, precious little is working. And that’s a very confusing, very humbling, thing to think about. Even kings are mortals.
Trapped in all these losses is a version of Kobe that we may very well remember decades down the line, but a version sullied by the crushing weight of expectations and a truly horrid start. Kobe’s undeniable 30,000-point milestone has given fans something to celebrate as a standalone. Since Kobe’s emergence as a star, he’s proven himself exceptional; as a part, he’s always been greater than the whole. Maybe in a different context, Kobe could be celebrated for what he’s been able to accomplish this year without an asterisk. In a vacuum, without the expectations of a proud and perpetually contending franchise, Kobe’s remarkable turn toward efficiency might be held with the same isolated reverence as Blake Griffin’s rookie season, when he mattered more than the Clippers franchise itself. Griffin was the beautiful diversion, a spectacle that expanded far beyond the team he played for. He was also shielded by the complete and utter lack of expectations then. It’s impossible to pull Kobe’s body from the burning wreckage when he’s melded to the rest of it.