I want to see Kobe Bryant play well. I want this not as much for me, as a fan with rooting interests in the player and the team he plays for, but for him. As a person and a player.
I want it for him because as one of the best players who I have ever seen play basketball I want him to go out on terms somewhat relatable to the player he has been throughout his career. I want it for him because, after coming back from three season ending injuries and spending an inordinate amount of time simply rehabbing to prepare to play, I want that work to have meant something. I want it for him because, well, on some levels I think he’s earned it.
You can understand my disappointment, then, that I am coming to the conclusion that Kobe will not play well this year. He will not approximate the player he was. He will not depart the game at a status befitting his contributions to it. The hope to avoid the “Willie Mays as a Met/Patrick Ewing on the Magic/Hakeem on the Raptors” comparisons will, very likely, go unfulfilled.
This isn’t to say Kobe cannot have games where he plays well. He may not have shot well against the Pistons, but he played well by racking up assists and using an attack style game to enhance his gravity on the court. His commitment to put himself in positions which threatened the defense opened up the game for his teammates and for himself. His boxscore impact was strong, but his game impact was stronger.
Through 13 games, however, this type of performance has been infrequent. Too infrequent. But Kobe can talk a good game.
After the loss to the Raptors Kobe talked about being the voice of reason regarding ball movement. He said he’s a player who could still score 25 points, but that approach didn’t help anyone (specifically, the young players). But he followed up those post game words by taking 22 shots a game later against the Blazers, 10 of which were in the 1st quarter. He said he was trying to get the team off to a good start, but it also looked like a guy who might have forgotten he’d just said two days earlier trying to score 25 a night wasn’t going to help anyone.
What you see above is Kobe’s shot chart for the year. Now, if you look to the title of this post, you could argue there are “easy” ways to fix Kobe’s struggles. For one, he could cut out the three point shots from his game. I mean, over 40% of his shot attempts are from distance and he’s only making 20% of them. Taking a page from Dwyane Wade or Monta Ellis’ playbook of turning down that shot could be a meaningful shift.
Second, he could cut down his shot attempts in general. Kobe’s 166 FGA’s are only 3 behind Jordan Clarkson’s for the team lead, but Kobe has played 3 less games. Kobe leads the team in usage rate at 29.2 and a lot of that is based on his high shot volume. So, cut down the shots, especially from behind the arc, and we are making progress. Right?
Well, sorta. If we remove every 3 point attempt from Kobe’s statistics, he is still only shooting 42.7% from the field. Kobe has only shot below 45% on two point FGA’s two other times in his career besides this season. One was last year, the other was his rookie season. These would otherwise be known as two of the years of his career we do not want to replicate.
It is also important to remember who Kobe is as a player. I have always believed Kobe is much more than the “gunner” he has been made out to be. Yes he has embraced that moniker in recent seasons, but you do not win championships in this league if you do not capitalize on the extra attention defenses pay you with smart, effective passing. While Kobe’s best games will always be associated with his scoring binges, some of his best individual plays in the biggest moments of his career have actually been passes.
The issue, though, is that Kobe is not the same feared scorer he once was. So he is not drawing nearly the extra attention he did when he was at the top of the league. Historically, Kobe is used to roasting single coverage and then making (mostly? somewhat?) appropriate pass/shot decisions once the help comes. This year that help is not coming so Kobe is shooting. Those shots are not falling.
So, again, what is the easy solution here? If you have one, I’d love to hear it. But if it involves a guy who has been at the pinnacle of his sport for nearly two decades to suddenly look in the mirror and see a different reflection, I’m going to tell you that’s probably not realistic.
I wish this was different, of course. I wish it for him. Not just because I want the Lakers to be better than they are (and I mean more than just win/loss records), but because on some levels I think he deserves it. If only it were that easy.