Below is the first in a series previewing the story lines surrounding each player on the Lakers’ roster for the 2014-15 season. This post focuses on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
1. How will Bryant play following two major injuries? Whether they continue their fall toward mediocrity or quickly climb back to championship prominence, the Lakers’ 2014-15 season will still become a must-see event for partly one significant reason. Seeing how Bryant charts his comeback will become intriguing regardless of what scenario happens. If he becomes the elite player that once won five NBA championships and climbed up to fourth place on the league’s all-time scoring list, Bryant will further cement his legacy in overcoming injuries and finding ways to innovate his game. If he become a shell of himself, frustration could emerge out of Bryant’s inability to figure things out as strongly as he once could.
So what scenario will play out? A huge variable, of course, depends on if Bryant can still healthy. But the other variable also hinges on how well Bryant adjusts his game. The overriding consensus suggests Bryant’s strong fundamentals with his footwork and post play can offset any diminished athleticism, enough for Lakers coach Byron Scott to believe Bryant will average 20-something points per game. Yet, to what degree will that be enough in ensuring Bryant stays an elite player?
Even though Bryant has had a full 10 months thus far to recover from a knee injury, how much time of on-court play will he need to shed off any rust? Though Bryant has other tools in his offensive repertoire, how much will any diminished athleticism reduce his threat against a defender? Even if he has taken his time healing his left Achilles and left knee and traveled to Germany for another innovative procedure, how much more vulnerable will Bryant become in his 36-year-old body further breaking down? To make things more complicated, how will this all play out through a grinding 82-game NBA season?
No one truly knows the answer. Hence, why Bryant’s comeback season will remain compelling to watch.
2. Can the Lakers limit Bryant’s minutes? Scott insists he will stay firm on staying strict with Bryant’s playing time, a significant tool that could both make Bryant’s game more efficient and reduce the aches on his body. Scott would not disclose the exact amount of minutes Bryant will play, but numerous scenarios seem possible. Bryant will likely sit out of the second session of two-a-day practices during training camp. He will take off certain practices during the season in favor of more rest and treatment. Bryant could miss the second night of a back-to-back game, or face reduced minutes the first night to ensure staying in the following game.
Yet, how disciplined will Scott stick to this plan and how much will Bryant accept it? Scott stressed last week he will take the big-picture view even if it comes at the expense of the Lakers winning some regular season games. But one only has to look at recent history to know how challenging that can become. Before averaging 29.5 minutes through six games last season, Bryant averaged 38 minutes the previous two seasons under Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown.
Both coaches wanted to reduce Bryant’s playing time, but went against that plan for different reasons. A fluctuating roster stemmed from the aborted Chris Paul deal and a lock-out shortened training camp led Brown to lean on Bryant to carry his offense. Endless injuries and slim playoff chances prompted D’Antoni to depend on Bryant until he suffered his season-ending Achilles injury on April 13, 2013. Bryant also played a large part in having such a heavy workload for the same reasons.
Could something alter Scott’s plan on Bryant’s minutes? Injuries to other teammates? A significant losing streak? Bryant’s strong will? Scott insists no even if he anticipates butting heads with Bryant. But how the season plays out will provide more clarity on this issue.
3. Bryant’s partnership with Scott will be key. This relationship could largely determine how successful Scott becomes in managing Bryant’s playing time. Scott at least has strong equity built with Bryant after mentoring him during his rookie season in the 1996-97 campaign, and maintaining a strong relationship ever since.
That has already led toward Scott saying he will seek Bryant’s heavy input in game strategy, while Bryant strongly endorsed Scott before the Lakers hired him as head coach. The partnership will also have to extend toward Bryant influencing his teammates to buy into Scott’s vision, ranging from roles assigned to each player as well as offensive and defensive philosophies. Yet, both Bryant and Scott may experience some inevitable clashes. Scott may feel the need to hold Bryant accountable if he roams on defense or does not pass the ball enough on offense. Bryant may feel the need to go against Scott’s wishes on his minute limitation.
As long as both parties do not take any clashes personally, the Bryant-Scott partnership should flourish even greater partly because of their past experience together.
4. How well will the Lakers ease Bryant’s workload? The Lakers’ success in managing Bryant’s minutes could also depend on how much his teammates elevate their game. That appears an uncertain proposition considering the health concerns of Steve Nash (back) and a cast whose potential seems filled with question marks. Can Jeremy Lin restore any of “Linsanity?” Will Nick Young become a complete player? Will Wesley Johnson play consistently? Will Jordan Hill’s energy stay constant? How well will rookie Julius Randle adapt to the NBA? Will NBA veterans Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis find a stronger role here than in past seasons? Do the Lakers even have enough talent to compete in the Western Conference?
However these unanswered questions play out, it appears clear that Bryant will need three things from his teammates to ensure all the work does not fall on him. Teammates cannot “Kobe Watch,” ditching their off-ball movement while seeing how Bryant works in isolation. The Lakers’ perimeter players need to shoot consistently from three-point range so that it becomes easier for Bryant to navigate through double teams. The Lakers’ post players will have to dominate inside and on the glass for the same reasons. The Lakers will also have to hustle on defense so that Bryant can save some energy. It seem like a heavy task to take, but the Lakers must somehow master those facets both to make themselves and Bryant more dangerous.
5. How will Bryant lead the team? Bryant’s leadership style in recent seasons have become nuanced, a mix of his demanding expectations, increased patience and calculated behavior all wrapped up in one. In the past three seasons, Bryant has shown more of a light touch, both in his interactions with the media and teammates. Yet, he has also faced frustration that went beyond clashing with Dwight Howard. Last season, various accounts suggest Bryant provided a tough albeit fair leadership presence on emerging players, such as Young, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson. Yet, Bryant was rarely around the team, accounts said, for reasons including his ongoing rehab and disgust with a team that finished with the worst record in L.A. franchise history. Though many understood Bryant’s recovery demands, his persistent absence rubbed some the wrong way since it left the team without its star trying to support a roster riddled with injuries and fluctuating roles.
Bryant will provide more of a presence and mentor role partly by default since he should play in more game this season. But it will also become critical that Bryant captures the right balance in having strong expectations for his teammates, while also understanding some of those players lack the talent and experience Bryant’s teammates had on his championship teams. So far, Bryant has offered encouraging signs. Scott reported Bryant has frequently organized informal workouts with teammates and have stayed in constant communication. But that approach will have to stay constant even through possible persisting losing.