Lakers Report Cards: Kobe Bryant
One day removed from his scintillating All-Star performance where he collected his fourth All-Star MVP, threw down a thunderous slam over LeBron James, and showcased his superiority among the league's best, Kobe Bryant stood outside the Lakers' training room relishing the "elder statesmen" role the eager and idolizing 20-something-year-old All-Stars bestowed on him.
He embraced giving them advice over unspecified parts of their game. He admitted feeling humbled to seeing Russell Westbrook mimic a pull-up jumper that Bryant had imitated from Michael Jordan. And he expressed sentiments that the state of the NBA will be in good hands with the likes of Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love running the show. But since when has the uber-competitive Bryant allowed any opponent any sort of an edge?
"I don't give a ....," Bryant said matter-of-factly. "You can't beat me in June."
Obviously, Bryant couldn't prove that this year with the Lakers falling to the Dallas Mavericks in an embarrassing Western Conference semifinal sweep. But in the Lakers' 2010 NBA championship, Bryant didn't exactly prove that he's invincible in June, either. His six of 24 Game 7 shooting performance proved he's vulnerable with his energy and assorted injuries, but with the combination of a strong supporting cast and his endless determination, he'd find a way.
There's no argument that Bryant's play isn't as dominant as it once was. Bryant's regular-season averages of 25.3 points in 33.9 minutes per game marked his lowest statistical output since the 2003-04 season. His playoff averages of 22.9 points in 35.4 minutes marked his lowest mark since the 1999-2000 season. And his missed potential game winner in the series opener against Dallas preceded a 19 points per game average in the final three games.
Even with those numbers, Bryant proved to be the team's best player, will still be relied on to close games and will still earn plaudits from opposing players and coaches as the league's best player. But with the standard remaining high for Bryant, his grade drops to a B + because of ongoing complications managing his injuries and his mixed leadership approach.
Aside from the occasional games where he took a high volume of shots even when they didn't fall and ran out of the triangle, Bryant simply didn't have a better alternative with how he played. He entered this season fresh off arthroscopic knee surgery and faced a balance between needing to build strength during the season and sustaining it so his knee could last for the whole season. So with Phil Jackson's encouragement, Bryant largely stayed out of most practices, spending that time weight training, getting treatment on his knee and participating in shooting drills. He stayed out of most conditioning and full-court scrimmages, resulting in an inevitable dropoff in team chemistry. But with the possibility that Bryant's knee could worsen with more mileage, the Lakers didn't have easy answers.
"It played a part in the fact guys felt like they can take days off because I’m not there," Bryant said. "It’s like your big brother not being around, you feel like you can go around the house and do all these things with the toys and that kind of stuff because I’m not on the court with you. It’s upsetting to me."
"They knew going in with my knee situation was. We communicated that with them and me not being able to practice and them taking the responsibility with the intensity in nature because of my knee. It’s upsetting and disappointing to me because I wasn’t able to get out with them every day. But at the same time, you can’t use that as a crutch or excuse because I wasn’t out there."
The Lakers' poor play reached a tipping point after their embarrassing Christmas Day loss, prompting Bryant to publicly criticize the team and vow to "kick ... in practice," a message that deviated from both him abstaining from practice and his insistence on staying even-keel through the ups-and-downs throughout the season. This isn't so much a commentary on Bryant being a "good teammate" He's evolved since the 2007-08 season into a player more trusting of his teammates and the talent around him no longer makes him feel as impatient and compelled to do everything on his own. But what's became an ongoing adjustment this season for Bryant entailed knowing where to pick his spots.
Bryant remained even-keeled through November, maintaining the same stoic and hungry demeanor after a win or loss. But that all went out the window following the Lakers' Christmas Day loss against Miami. He then retreated into a more subtle approach, during which he encouraged the media to criticize the team. His wish was granted, with the usual analysis along with reports on Ron Artest confronting Phil Jackson and ones that revealed a few Lakers, including Pau Gasol, showed up late to a shootaround. The ongoing adjustment clearly showed Bryant wanted to ratchet up the intensity to spur better performances and then dial the pressure back so he didn't derail his teammates' confidence level.
"I have to focus on the challenge in getting us to win another championship," Bryant said. "To do that, I have to take the temperature of the guys and realize what they need at that particular moment. Sometimes it requires patience. Sometimes it requires understanding. I have to keep my finger on the pulse of this team. As a result, sometimes we go on a few stretches where we're not playing well, but I don't lose these guys and scare them to death."
Credit Bryant for making adjustments and finding other ways to reach his teammates. As much as his teammates deserve blame for not following his lead and relying too much on his heroics, however, that disconnect also falls on Bryant. The same applies to his injuries. No doubt, Bryant has historically shown he knows his body well and will thrive in moments when he pushes the envelope, such as his Game 5 performance against New Orleans where he posterized Emeka Okafor despite nursing a sprained left ankle/foot. But all the around the clock treatment and injury prevention proved not enough in making him have enough energy to close out games late in the season in typical Bryant fashion.
That's why Bryant's offseason will prove critical in temporarily resting from the basketball mileage and then working on his leg strength so he no longer has to pace himself during the season. Bryant surely won't concede anything, but next season will show whether his performance in the 2010-2011 season was simply an aberration or a continued mark of decline.
"This offseason gives me a chance to really go to another level," Bryant said. "There’s a difference between feeling healthy and as strong as I can be. I feel like I could do everything I wanted to do. But there’s another level I can get to."
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Top photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant continuously took a measured approach during the 2010-2011 season because of his injuries. Credit: Mark D. Smith / US Presswire / February 27, 2011
Middle photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant reacts after a foul was called on a teammate during Game 4 against the Mavericks on last week in Dallas. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times / May 8, 2011.
Bottom photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has a look of determination as he prepares to play defense against Dallas on Wednesday night during Game 2 at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / May 4, 2011