How will Kobe Bryant's game change?
Part of Kobe Bryant's Tuesday routine will go beyond any usual basketball training. He'll probably cut a birthday cake. He'll likely open up plenty of birthday cards. He'll presumably receive plenty of birthday wishes from a family members, friends and fans.
All these daily activities will provide another reminder of Bryant's age.
With Bryant turning 33 on Tuesday, that only naturally springboards into more analysis on his shelf life as an NBA player. He has three years remaining on his $83.5-million contract. It's possible that could then mark the end of Bryant's storied NBA career. Between now and then, it's also conceivable we'll see a different Bryant than the previous 15 seasons. That time period enguls him racking up five NBA championships, two Finals MVP awards, four All-Star MVP awards and a sixth-place ranking on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Call it the never-ending quest of wondering whether Bryant can prove to the general public outside of hardcore Laker fans that he still has what it takes. After all, he's done this plenty of times already.
"It's been fun, though," Bryant acknowledged during his 2010 exit interview shortly after the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in an exhausting seven-game championship series. "It really has. It's like, 'Oh cool.' Before, I was too young, you know what I mean? It was. 'I was too young and then, 'He can't lead a team.' Now it's, 'He's too old.' There's always something. But they can't get it through their thick skulls that I'm going to figure this out one way or another. There's always that kind of excitement that gets me going."
There's surely valid concern on his aching injuries in his right knee, left ankle and right index fingers. The basketball odometer rating already remains high at 1,311 total games and 48,310 total minutes, Yet, Bryant has shown time and again that his work ethic and competitive appetite have allowed him to maintain such dominance when many others would have already shut down.
Reality is reality, though. Bryant has three years remaining on his contract. It's conceivable he could extend his career after that, but an unresolved collective bargaining agreement and ongoing concern about his long-term health makes that a little uncertain. The Lakers are also strapped financially so it's likely they'll have to make due with a veteran-laden roster that, as talented as may be, are all mostly facing the decline of their careers.
Bryant doesn't like reading various publications explaining why he's no longer the NBA's best player. He also admitted during his 2011 exit interview that his only personal reflection involves this activity: "what I think about is shutting up those [people] saying that I'm done." But he'll also concede that proving the public wrong involves being mindful of the adjustments he needs to make in his game to remain effective.
"It's really about taking care of your body, making sure you're strong and making sure you're ready to go and compromising in areas that you might be weak at when they were strong when you were 21 or 22," Bryant said during the 2010-2011 season. "You have to do a lot of self-assessing. You have to be honest with yourself with where you are physically. From that standpoint, you can make adjustments."
Below the jump are a few adjustments Bryant may need to make.
Maintaining aggressiveness without compromising his health. One of Bryant's personal regrets during the 2010-11 season entailed his inability to build leg strength. He just came off arthroscopic knee surgery, and on the advice of the Lakers' training staff, Phil Jackson and his own choosing, Bryant sat out of most practices during the regular season. Players remained split on whether this strategy backfired, with Andrew Bynum proving to be the most vocal in arguing that the lack of intensity in practice ultimately doomed the team.
The Lakers would have benefitted from that type of practice, but there remains an unavoidable truth. The Lakers succeeded in the 2009-10 postseason by resting Bryant and, incidentally enough, Bynum, when both nursed knee injuries. The Lakers could've flamed out even earlier in the playoffs had their practices been more intense because it would have increased the likelihood of someone suffering a serious injury and everyone feeling more fatigued.
In Bryant's case next season (if there is one, of course), it appears he'll be much healthier. He underwent a derivation of platelet-rich plasma therapy, a controversial procedure that involves drawing a small amount of blood from an injured patient, spinning it in a centrifuge for about 20 minutes to isolate platelets and then injecting the platelets into the injured area to try to stimulate tissue repair. Even though many are overstating the significance of this procedure, Bryant has looked livelier in various stints this summer, including a series of exhibition games in the Philippines and appearing in a Drew League game. If Bryant feels healthier, he should play with more aggressiveness and intensity to set the tone. But he'll also need to master the art of dialing his intensity back should he experience any setbacks.
Bryant should continue to play limited minutes during the regular season. His regular-season averages last season of 25.3 points in 33.9 minutes per game marked his lowest statistical output since the 2003-04 season. The output proved more efficient, however, when you consider his point total in the previous three seasons. That includes Bryant's 28.3 points in 38.9 minutes in 2007-08, 26.8 points in 36.1 minutes in 2008-09 and 27 points in 38.8 minutes in 2009-10.The strategy in lowering his minutes may not have translated in the 2011 postseason, but that could be due to his left ankle becoming worse during that time.
Bryant avoiding burn out during the regular season will ensure his best play during the playoffs. That doesn't mean Bryant should consider just going through the motions. That's not in his DNA. But there are various ways for Bryant to treat himself like a sleek classic car that requires attentive maintenance.
It might be in his interest to increase his effort on defense to set the example that he's willing to buy into Mike Brown's defensive system. It would serve Bryant best, however, that he soon delegates those defensive responsibilities. After all, Ron Artest often defends the best player, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol can shut down drivers in the lane. And everyone should communicate so that their unit defense can offset any declining athleticism the Lakers have.
Like in previous seasons, the Lakers should feel motivated to put away sub.-500 teams early so that veterans such as Bryant can enjoy the fourth-quarter rest and save his energy for games that matter. Brown will also need to limit Bryant's minutes during the first three quarters so he can close out in appropriate fashion.
Bryant will need to adjust how he scores. HoopData shows that, with his fractured right index finger, sprained right knee and sprained left ankle two seasons ago, a greater percentage of Bryant's shots were blocked, he finished with fewer and-ones and made fewer shots at the rim, dropping from 66% in the 2008-09 season to 58.6% in the 2009-10 season. The site shows that last season, with a healthier and surgically repaired right knee, a sprained left ankle and an arthritic right index finger, he made more shots at the rim, had more and-ones, had equal amount of shots blocked, proved more efficient from shots within 10-15 feet (49.7% in 2009-10 to 51.5% in 2010-11, but proved less efficient from shots within 16-23 feet (38% in 2009-10 to 33% in 2010-11).
This shows that Bryant is willing to make the necessary adjustments so that he can still score at a prolific rate despite the increasing limitations in his athleticism and quickness. In the last six seasons, according to Synergy, most of Bryant’s offense came on isolation plays, ranging from 29.4% to 38%. But last season, Bryant's areas of scoring came in isolation (29.4%), post-ups (16.3%), pick-and-rolls (15.1%) and transition baskets (9.9%). His work with Hakeem Olajuwon prior to the 2009-10 season also propelled him to operate more in the post than by driving to the basket, an approach that minimizes both his movement and his vulnerability to injury.
Bryant will need his teammates' support. This isn't a debate about whether Bryant took too many shots. It's not a good thing, as Sports Illustrrated's Zach Lowe recently pointed out, that Bryant used up 35.1% of the possessions last year. So it's indisputable there were times that Bryant was a ball hog. Sometimes it was warranted when his other teammates weren't contributing. Sometimes it wasn't as Bryant showed impatience.
The Lakers showed a healthy mix of inconsistency among how Bryant, Bynum and Pau Gasol operated on offense.
Bryant rightfully took a larger amount of shots when the Lakers' front line either didn't play aggressively enough or teammates seemed too passive to create their own shots. He wrongfully took a larger share of a shots even when the rest of the offense clicked. Bryant rightfully facilitated when the Lakers' front line needed a confidence boost or when he wanted to better manage his injuries. He wrongfully facilitated when the Lakers' front line didn't establish proper post positioning.
Gasol often said that the Lakers should view feeding the front line as the team's priority. That concept was never wrong in theory but he was often wrong in reality. He deserved more touches than Bryant when the latter's shooting was off. He deserved more touches when Bynum took large ownership of the Lakers' defense. But Gasol deserved fewer touches when Bryant went on a scoring spree or when Bynum proved more efficient inside than Gasol.
And though Bynum hid his frustrations about a limited offensive role by taking pride on the defensive end, he too often criticized the Lakers for not getting the ball inside enough. Bynum warranted more looks when Gasol clearly lacked aggression. Bynum warranted fewer opportunities when Gasol played efficiently. He warranted more looks when he grabbed offensive rebounds. And he warranted fewer looks when the Lakers' inconsistent outside shooters occasionally hit their stride.
Ensuring the right balance in playing to one another's strengths won't just make the offense more dangerous. It'll also allow Bryant to delegate without having to worry about whether his reduced involvement will prove detrimental to the team. Should Ron Artest prove more consistent on defense, the Lakers improve their outside shooting, Derek Fisher begin making clutch shots again and the bench proving more reliable in holding leads, Bryant also will remain more difficult to guard.
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Photos, from top: Kobe Bryant walks off the court after the Lakers' season-ending loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals; Bryan reacts to an official's call in Game 4; Bryant launches the final shot of Game 1 against Dallas, a miss that let the Mavs escape with a 96-94 victory. Credits: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times