LOS ANGELES — There’s a new sweet spot out there somewhere, even if it’s only coming together for now in a 36-year-old dreamer’s imagination and not on the court. It’s a little John Stockton passing, a little Michael Jordan in the post.
But it’ll take a lot of Kobe Bryant‘s basketball savvy, if he can still muster it.
Because this is not easy for him.
Bryant is used to punching the clock for work every day and manning his station for whatever extended business hours it takes to meet customer demand.
Now he has been reduced to rest days and off hours that amazingly—per Byron Scott’s inflexible, now-at-the-other-end-of-the-spectrum edict—will preclude Bryant from ever playing overtime again because it will push him beyond 32 minutes on any given night.
His lack of rhythm Tuesday in the Lakers‘ 78-75 loss to Miami after sitting out three of the Lakers’ past four games was obvious: He tried to set up teammates for shots when the Heat trapped him with double-teams from the jump, but the Lakers missed 15 of their first 17 attempts. That meant Miami’s defense wasn’t forced to scale back its load on Bryant, who remained fenced on the outside, struggling for rhythm, as he shot 3-of-19 from the field in 31 minutes.
Bryant took only one shot in nine minutes and 32 seconds of play after halftime, then sat for the next nine minutes and five seconds. He returned with 5:03 left in the game and immediately missed a shot and threw a ball out of bounds.
“The hard part is sitting down for stretches and then trying to get back in,” Bryant said. “I feel like the Tin Man.”
The era of the Tin Mamba sounds like a bad Wizard of Oz sequel—and an even more regrettable final chapter of Bryant’s illustrious career.
Yet a squeaky Bryant wasn’t altogether dour despite how discouraging things appeared Tuesday. He has had a vision for his latter years, if he had to resort to it, for a long time.
With Shaquille O’Neal as a teammate, Kobe Bryant, albeit reluctantly, assumed much of the responsibility for directing the Lakers offense.
He toned down his burgeoning game when Phil Jackson first arrived to coach the Lakers in 1999 and reluctantly was the facilitator from the perimeter while Shaquille was the first option.
After proving all he could do as a scorer, Bryant, in the 84 games he played the two seasons before this one, hiked his assist average to six per game. It was a level reached only once before, 10 years ago in his first post-Shaq season of 2004-05, when defenses double-teamed him incessantly on a talent-poor Lakers team.
Bryant has more points than any perimeter player in NBA history. But he knows he can pass, no matter what his reputation (and preference) is.
When his body precluded him from scoring both big and efficiently early this season as the Lakers’ everything, Bryant stepped back and decided it was time to reinvent himself into more of a passer. Now he believes he can thrive anew, and stay healthy in the future, by making those easier plays instead of forcing the action.
“I’m comfortable with how I’m playing,” Bryant said late Sunday night. “I see how to pick my spots. The game will look a lot different. I’m comfortable with where I am.”
At the moment, Bryant’s body isn’t built back up from the early-season overuse to where he can be confident about executing that vision yet, though.
What he has realized is he can’t keep settling for jumpers, so many of which will be contested. He took nine three-pointers Tuesday, making two and coming up short on one at the buzzer that would’ve forced an overtime he would’ve had to sit out. Bryant is down to shooting 28.9 percent on threes this season.
“I’ve got to get to the post a lot more,” he said.
Right now, he’s dribbling around as the point guard, so it’s going to require another adjustment toward scoring from the big adjustment he just made toward passing after his Christmas break. But on that point, you know Scott is willing to shift.
Even when Bryant was nearing triple-double numbers and running the show well in recent games, Scott would say that he still wanted Bryant to shoot more.
All season, the Lakers have been a team, above all else, built around what Bryant might be able to do. So just when there was some stability established with Bryant running the offense as mostly a distributor, he’s going to change it so he can score better.
The challenge will be for Bryant and Scott to limit the tweaks—and not have this devolve into Bryant diving into the post a lot just to get his rhythm when he’s tired of playing point guard.
What everyone forgets is that when Bryant decides to wear different hats, everyone around him is forced to operate in varying styles, too.
But from Bryant’s perch, he envisions a sweet spot where he sets guys up for easy shots, the game opens up some for them all and he seizes the right moments to get to his favorite attack positions on the floor for tide-turning buckets.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Koeb Bryant is averaging seven assists per game in January, the highest number for any month this season.
He is a basketball savant. He has perhaps the most versatile yet fundamentally sound game the sport has ever seen. He can definitely come up with basketball answers.
And he’d better, because he knows his body isn’t helping anymore.
Asked about balancing the pressure to avoid disappointing fans who pay hard-earned money for tickets to see him with the clear need to give his body ample rest, Bryant said, “It’s a no-win situation. It’s really just trying to pick the lesser of two evils.”
The legend who could be counted on to persevere, surmount and so often triumph is now in the past.
But he does still know how to play this game.
It’s a harsh real world of new limitations.
However, it’s not a lost cause to Kobe Bryant yet.