Below is the first in a series looking at five things surrounding each notable player on the Lakers’ roster for the 2014-15 season. This post focuses on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
1. Can Kobe Bryant stay healthy?
For nearly his entire career, Kobe Bryant proved time after time that he could overcome any injury. For the past three years, he has not. His 2012-13 campaign ended in ugly fashion after shattering his left Achilles tendon in mid-April. Though he returned eight months later, Bryant lasted only six games before fracturing his left knee. He spent the next 10 more months healing his left knee before reporting for the 2014-15 season fully healthy. But then he lasted only 35 games before tearing a rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
So even if the Lakers expect Bryant to enter this year’s training camp recovered from his latest injury, nothing can guarantee he will stay that way throughout the 2015-16 campaign. Bryant is a year older (37). He started shooting the ball only about three weeks ago. And no amount of rest, stretching and treatment can guarantee Father Time will not hit Bryant again with a lethal punch. All of those variables make this storyline captivating considering Bryant’s unyielding determination to overcome the odds.
2. How will the Lakers and Bryant manage his workload?
Of course, the likelihood of Bryant lasting for the entire season increases if both the Lakers and their star player excel in this area. Yet, that became a dicey issue despite both the Lakers and coach Byron Scott talking during before training camp last year about limiting Bryant’s on-court duties. Instead, Scott played Bryant between 30 and 40 minutes per game, and even exceeded that threshold three times. Scott admitted that Bryant complained of minor soreness in his right shoulder weeks before his season-ending injury in mid-Jan. And Scott faulted himself for overestimating Bryant’s ability to handle everything.
The Lakers’ current plans are not entirely concrete. But Scott has said he thought about playing Bryant in the low-to-mid 20-minute range and resting him on back-to-back contests. It also seems likely Bryant will sit out certain portions of practice, if not all of them, during different parts of training camp and the regular season. But how disciplined can both the Lakers and Bryant stay with a conservative game plan amid a potentially steep learning curve for an otherwise young and inexperienced roster?
3. Will Bryant score at an efficient rate?
Even with his season cut short, Bryant believes he still proved he has plenty left in his aging body. Scott does, too. After all, Bryant eclipsed Michael Jordan for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Bryant posted two triple doubles. He also recorded a career-high 17 assists in a regular-season game against Cleveland.
Yet, Bryant’s play also revealed some concerns. He averaged 22.3 points, which marked his second lowest scoring output in his last 16 seasons (his worst entailed averaging 13.8 points through six games in the 2013-14 season before suffering his season-ending left knee injury). Bryant shot a career-low 37.3 percent from the field, including 39 percent from shots in the mid-post. And the Lakers played almost as awful with Bryant (10-25) in the lineup as they did without him (11-36).
So how does Bryant improve his efficiency?
Well, the Lakers appear inclined to play Bryant at a mix of shooting guard and small forward. The latter move make things easier for Bryant in a number of ways. D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson will share the backcourt, allowing them to expedite their development. Bryant can move more off the ball, which could reduce the amount of triple and double teams he faces. He can also still operate heavily in the mid-post area, which remains his sweet spot despite his inefficiency there last season. There, he can depend on his footwork, post play and facilitating.
Still, Bryant will likely play at his most efficient if he is not asked or inclined to do everything.
4. Will Bryant trust his younger teammates?
He cast his legend by both winning five NBA championships and seemingly scoring at will. But throughout his NBA career, that has often coincided with Bryant taking ridiculously tough shots even if a teammate remained wide open. It’s far too simplistic to call Bryant a ball hog. Instead, it speaks to Bryant’s confidence in his shot remaining drastically higher than a teammate doing the same thing.
But will Bryant grant a longer leash to a youthful and inexperienced roster? The Lakers hope so, both to conserve Bryant’s energy and to expedite the team’s young players in Russell, Clarkson and Julius Randle. Nick Young and Lou Williams are also high-volume scorers capable of creating their own shot, which could free up Bryant for even more open looks.
But how long will Bryant maintain his presence if the Lakers experience early-season struggles in both continuous losses and player learning curves? Does Bryant take matters into his own hands to bail his team out with a win? Or does Bryant take the long view and allow his teammates time to figure out how to ride a bike without steering wheels? If last season’s results are of any indication, it appears the Lakers will become better off if Bryant shares the wealth. But that also requires Bryant’s teammates to assert themselves and become prepared for any opportunity thrown their way.
5. Is this Bryant’s last year?
Of all the question marks surrounding Bryant’s 20th NBA season, this will become one that will not be fully answered until perhaps seven months from now. Will Bryant retire after his contract worth $25 million expires after this season? Or will Bryant squeeze out one or a few more years before handing in his retirement papers?
All of the variables likely hinge on what is covered in this post. Bryant will have to complete the next season without suffering a major injury. He will also still have to play at an elite level that somewhat mirrors his career output. But it also hinges on to what degree both Bryant and the Lakers are interested in retaining him at a discounted price and a reduced role. Part of that sentiment could depend on how well the Lakers perform this season, and whether Bryant feels any progress in the team’s rebuilding will put them in championship contention in the near future.