The concept caused Kobe Bryant to laugh loudly. The Lakers’ star went on a monologue stressing the importance of ball movement and developing the team’s young players. Then the irony hit him.
Isn’t Bryant the same player who cemented a reputation as a high-volume shooter with little regard for team play?
“Can you believe I’m saying this [stuff]? Are you kidding? I’m a kid that grows up and suddenly sounds like his parents,” Bryant said with a loud chuckle following the Lakers’ 102-91 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Friday at Staples Center. “I never thought I’d see the day where I become the voice of ball movement-reason. I never thought I’d see the day where I’m preaching that stuff. That’s crazy.”
But Bryant was preaching that stuff.
After posting only 10 points on 5-of-13 shooting, five assists and four rebounds in 37 minutes, Bryant argued that his low-volume scoring reflected a concerted effort in involving others. After all, Lakers second-year forward Julius Randle posted his third double double with a team-leading 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting and 12 rebounds. Lakers rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell had a career-high 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting, five rebounds and two assists. Lakers second-year Jordan Clarkson added his 10th double-digit effort with 13 points on a 6-of-13 mark and four rebounds.
“I must keep trying to help these young guys honestly,” Bryant said. “I feel good when I’m out there. I can go out there and score 25 points or something like that. But what in the hell is that going to do for these guys? It’s not going to do a damn thing. If we’re going to win games in succession, we have to get better. We have to get better at playing together. We have to get better at spacing. We have to get better with ball movement.”
Despite Bryant’s lofty ideals, he still leads the Lakers in field-goal attempts with (16) while Clarkson (12.9) and Russell trail considerably behind (10.3). Bryant also logged the most points (six), shots (3 of 5) and playing time (11:35) in the fourth quarter. He made a seven-foot turnaround jumper to cut the Raptors’ lead to 93-84 with 4:42 left. Bryant also sank a 21-foot jumper on the fast break to reduce the Lakers’ deficit to 97-91 with 1:48 remaining.
But Lakers coach Byron Scott placed most of the blame beforehand on Bryant’s teammates than Bryant himself in figuring out that dynamic.
“They still have to be patient,” Scott said. “They have to keep their spacing. At times we get too bunched up. Our guys are running toward the ball instead of staying where they need to be. He’s one of those guys who can get them the ball right when they need it.”
Bryant proved that at times against Toronto. At the top of the key, Bryant drew a stretched Toronto defense before connecting with Russell on an open 3-point shot. Bryant threw a behind-the-back pass later on to Russell, who sank an open jumper. Before taking one of his pull-up jumpers on a fast break, Bryant scanned the court for trailers before sinking the open look.
Bryant had also adopted a less-is-more approach in Sunday’s win over Detroit where he posted 17 points on 6-of-19 shooting, nine assists and eight rebounds.
“I know what I can do. I can do a lot more,” Bryant said. “But the most important thing right now is understanding how collectively we can play. If I go off on tangents individually, this whole thing is going to collapse more than it is. You’re seeing signs of improvement in the course of the game. I can’t go off on my own. I have to continue to teach and talk to these guys and pull them along.”
Bryant rarely showed that mindset last season where he averaged 22.3 points on a previous-low 37 percent shooting on an average of 20.4 field-goal attempts. After posting 44 points on 15-of-34 shooting in a double-digit loss to Golden State last year, Bryant argued, “I’d rather not have to do that, but you can’t sit back and watch a crime happen right in front of you.”
But on Friday?
“If you get into that habit, you’re never going to win. I know. I had to break those habits myself. I’m just trying to help them figure that out,” Bryant said. “When I first came into the league, it was the same way. They grew up handling the ball the majority of their life and they grew up attacking with the ball.”
In fairness to Bryant, he has delegated at times throughout his career, most notably to Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol. He also leaned on Derek Fisher and the former Ron Artest in key playoff moments. Yet, Bryant rarely considered his ultimate end game is “to teach” and “to get these plays to play the right way and play championship style basketball.”
What happened to Bryant’s quest to prove the general public wrong that he can still dominate and stay healthy following three season-ending injuries in consecutive seasons?
“I never focused on proving you guys wrong,” Bryant said. “I proved you guys wrong from the beginning.”
And apparently, Bryant will try to prove everyone wrong again by his willingness to do less offensively for the sake of the team’s common good.
“It’s part of the maturation process,” Bryant said. “It’s one of the habits I had to break in orchestrating the team and leading the team.”