The concern made Kobe Bryant roll his eyes.
The Lakers’ 37-year-old star posted only 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting, five assists and four rebounds in the Lakers’ 102-91 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday at Staples Center. But the most glaring number involved his 37 minutes.
It marked the second consecutive game he played above last year’s season’s average of 34.5 minutes. It marked the second consecutive season Bryant became shrouded in controversy surrounding the minutes he played. So after lasting only 35 games last season before needing season-ending right shoulder surgery, what implications could Bryant’s heavier workload bring to his 37-year-old body?
“That’s the silliest question of the night,” Bryant said. “This is literally my second game where I played 35 minutes or more, so it’s premature to ask about it.”
The concern made Byron Scott raise his voice.
The Lakers’ coach had faulted himself last season for granting Bryant such a heavy workload. Scott even rested Bryant for eight of the next 16 games before his season ended in late January. Yet, Scott sounded more and more irritated when pressed on his contradictions on how he would manage Bryant.
“Look at what he’s averaging,” Scott said. “He’s still at the limit. When he gets over the limit, we’ll talk more about it. But right now, it’s still at the limit.”
The numbers actually say Bryant has played over the limit. Scott pointed out that Bryant has averaged 31.1 minutes through nine games this season, which marks a decrease from the 34.5 minutes he averaged last season. But Scott said before the 2015-16 season began that he would not play above Bryant’s season average last season in every game that he plays. Yet, Bryant has logged 36 minutes and 37 minutes within a five-day span. Scott also said following Sunday’s win against Detroit that Bryant would never exceed 36 minutes per night.
“It’s still at the limit,” Scott said in defiance. “When it gets over that limit, we’ll discuss it again.”
Scott defended both incidents in different ways.
He justified Bryant’s 36 minute appearance against Detroit since he decided to sit out of Monday’s loss in Phoenix. Bryant then spent each day of practice completing only shooting drills. Scott justified Bryant’s 37-minute appearance against Toronto since he can rest during Saturday’s practice and play on Sunday against Portland. Bryant can then rest Monday before Tuesday’s game in Golden State. He can then rest Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before Saturday’s game in Portland.
“I know the minutes were big for him tonight. But I’m not worried about it,” Scott said. “At the time we’re trying to win the basketball game, you try not to worry about it. But obviously after the game, you worry about it.”
After the game, Bryant did not worry about it.
He repeatedly said he “felt great,” a stark contrast to when Bryant feared he would have trouble walking to his car following Sunday’s win over Detroit. Bryant credited that changed mindset to the increased time to rest and lift weights between games. Bryant also did not fret when Metta World Peace entered the game for Brandon Bass over himself as the Lakers trailed 92-79 with 6:25 left. Scott admitted, “we didn’t even talk about it” beforehand.
“I thought I was coming out,” Bryant said. “That’s what we normally do. So I didn’t and I stayed and felt fine.”
Bryant showed the same confidence before he suffered season-ending injuries to his left Achilles tendon (April 2013), left knee (Dec. 2013) and right shoulder (Jan. 2015). But Bryant strongly dismissed any parallels between those ailments and his workload.
“The injuries I had were traumatic injuries,” Bryant said. “They don’t come from that season. They’re traumatic injuries. The Achilles, the knee, the shoulder, the wear and tear has been there forever. It just happened to go.”
Bryant has not suffered any traumatic injuries since. But he has nursed a bruise in his lower left calf that kept him out for two weeks during training camp. Bryant also sat out of back-to-back games last week in Miami and Orlando because of back soreness.
But since Bryant’s return, Scott has increased his workload for reasons beyond wanting to squeeze out victories. After initially sitting Bryant out at the beginning of the second quarter, Scott has played Bryant to prevent him from feeling tight because of prolonged time on the bench. Would Scott trim Bryant’s minutes elsewhere so he could play more in the fourth quarter?
“Maybe,” Scott said.
Scott sounded more affirmative based on only one condition.
“If he misses Sunday, then I’ll think about it,” Scott said. “The minutes from an average standpoint, they’re right where I want them to be.”
Even if that benchmark differs from his original plan.