Kobe Bryant's worth to the team doesn't fit context of regular-season MVP race
Summoning Kobe Bryant over for a one-on-one conversation, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson sat down with the Lakers' star and went over something three years ago that would help define how Bryant would approach the regular season.
The dialogue entailed Jackson's want for both of them to outline a plan with which they could find the right balance for Bryant to limit his practice time and regular-season playing time. That way Bryant could provide the proper maintenance on an aging body while still providing the irreplaceable skill set on the court. On the surface, it sounds like a weird concept to ponder, considering very few can match Bryant's competitiveness. But the context behind this conversation pointed to an ingredient that could very well determine the number of championship rings Bryant ultimately wears.
At that point, Bryant was just about to enter his 12th season, had experienced frustration over two consecutive first-round losses to Phoenix in 2006 and 2007 and even made prolonged trade demands because the Lakers lacked a championship roster. He had also logged 40 minutes per game for three consecutive seasons. Since that point, Bryant has played under 40 minutes for four consecutive seasons, including 33.39 minutes in the 2010-11 campaign, the lowest since the 2003-04 season. With that decreased playing time, Bryant has also seen a drop in his scoring. He hasn't averaged above 30 points since playing under 40 minutes beginning in the 2007-08 season, including his 25.1-points-per-game average this season, coincidentally his lowest total also since the 2003-04 campaign.
That's why it shouldn't be surprising that Bryant will be passed over next week when the regular-season most valuable player is determined at the end of the season. Bryant ranks sixth in scoring overall, behind Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Miami's LeBron James, Miami's Dwyane Wade, New York's Carmelo Anthony and New York's Amare Stoudemire. Another MVP candidate, Chicago's Derrick Rose, has a team that's played more consistently than the Lakers. And there's another in Orlando's Dwight Howard. The Magic's championship hopes would completely collapse without his presence.
This isn't really an indictment of Bryant, though. He's been playing this season for solely one reason.
"We've had the biggest award that you can get, which is winning a championship," Bryant said at a recent practice. "I think everything after that, if it comes, great, if it doesn't, great.
Interestingly enough, Bryant earned a regular-season MVP in the 2007-08 season, but that fit in with a nice storyline about how he became a better teammate as he worked with the talent around him in the Lakers' return to the NBA Finals. He picked up his fourth All-Star MVP this season, but that award went beyond sending a message to the rest of the league that he's not finished yet. It also came on the heels of the Lakers' three-game losing streak just before the All-Star break and the performance sent a strong message to the rest of his team that he was ready to dial up the intensity, an ingredient that has helped their 17-4 resurgence since the All-Star break. But Bryant posting the kind of minutes and statistics necessary for a regular-season MVP wouldn't have helped him long-term in the effort to secure his sixth championship.
This isn't making excuses for him. After all, Bryant's chances would've been greater had the Lakers not underachieved at the beginning of the season. But it goes back to the plan Jackson and Bryant talked about in pacing his progression. With a litany of injuries, including a surgically repaired right knee, a sprained left ankle and arthritis in his index finger, Bryant needs to follow that plan even more so that he's at his best for the postseason. Of course, things got more complicated considering his preference for playing through a sprained left ankle that resulted in him going 13 of 36 from the field in the two games after suffering that injury.
It hasn't been an easy task, with Bryant and Jackson balancing at certain points this season when Bryant should practice. But Bryant has shown a good record this season in knowing when to dial up the intensity. He largely sat out most practices with the exception of shooting drills and weight training, but the Lakers' embarrassing Christmas Day loss to Miami sparked Bryant to return to practice so the Lakers wouldn't fall further and further into the standings. He has since returned to keeping practice time at a minimum, but lately his on-court aggressiveness has increased. In the last 10 games, Bryant has averaged 27.1 points per game on 43% shooting, a stretch that still ranks fifth overall in scoring but shows that his elevation comes gradually.
"I'm just cranking it up," Bryant said after the Lakers' 112-104 victory March 26 against the Clippers, in which he scored 37 points on 11-of-21 shooting with a team-high six assists. "I'm starting to get into playoff mode, playoff form and being more aggressive."
Bryant followed a similar path last season when he scored at least 30 points in 12 of 13 playoff games after getting his knee drained. Clearly, Bryant's pacing has absolutely nothing to do with taking it easy, but instead is about proper maintenance for the long race ahead. His pacing also has nothing to do with his diminished skill set either. His limited minutes and increased facilitating of the talent around him speak more to working appropriately with the injuries he's handling. That doesn't coincide with the regular-season MVP award because it's after the award is given that Bryant's going to show his full capabilities. But it's safe to say Bryant will respond with the same indifference when the award is handed out as he did as to whether his willingness to help out other All-Stars would come back to bite him.
"I don't give a ...." Bryant said a day after the 2010 All-Star game. "It doesn't matter to me. You can't beat me in June. It doesn't matter. All of the other stuff, it doesn't matter."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Warriors guard Monta Ellis tries to strip the ball from Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who is driving for a layup in the first half Wednesday night in Oakland. Credit: Ben Margot / Associated Press / April 7, 2011.