With an aging supporting cast that couldn’t consistently knock down perimeter jumpers or stay in front of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s trio of perimeter stars, the Los Angeles Lakers were a heavy underdog coming into their second-round series. But while their lack of perimeter athleticism ended up costing them for the second straight year, Kobe Bryant is, as always, the big story out of Los Angeles.
After disappointing fourth quarter performances in Games 2 and 4, Kobe came into Game 5 on a mission. He was dialed in on every possession, fighting for offensive position on the low block and repeatedly taking the ball to the rim. He did everything in his power to will his team to victory, but it wasn’t even close to enough.
At the age of 33, with over 1,300 NBA regular season and playoff games under his belt, there’s only so much he can do on the court. Bryant scored 42 points in Game 5, but he needed 33 shots to do it. Even more revealing were the rest of his numbers: 5 rebounds, 0 assists and 2 turnovers. That’s what happens when a volume scorer who can’t impact the paint on either side of the ball tries to take over a playoff game.
As Kobe himself admitted afterwards, at this point in his career, the end is a lot closer than the beginning. He cited the Spurs continued relevance as a reason why the Lakers shouldn’t be written off, but San Antonio wouldn’t be where they are today if Tim Duncan insisted on having the offense run through him and not Tony Parker. For the Lakers to get back to the Western Conference Finals, Kobe is going to have to make a similar transition.
Mike Brown called the Lakers offense an “equal opportunity system”, but even a cursory glance at the stat sheet and game film would show that’s not the case. Kobe took a prodigious amount of shots this season, leading the league with a 35.67 usage rating. One player hoisting up that many shots isn’t just bad for team chemistry off-the-court, it makes it hard for the rest of the roster to stay in a rhythm offensively.
While Andrew Bynum’s immature behavior has drawn most of the headlines this season, the root cause is fairly obvious. In the regular season, Bynum took 13 shots a game and shot 56% from the floor; Kobe took 23 and shot 43%. Just like Kobe in 2004, he sees an older player holding him back from how good he could be and he’s tired of waiting.
It would be hard for Kobe to cede control to a big man whose effort level and intensity is noticeably inconsistent, but that’s where he needs to mentor and support Bynum and not use his struggles as an excuse to fire up fade-away jumpers.
There’s no shame in a future Hall of Famer becoming a role player. Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Kidd have made that transition work on elite teams, and it’s one Dirk Nowitzki wishes he could make in Dallas. No player, no matter his accomplishments, is bigger than the game and no amount of hard work, dedication and willpower can defeat Father Time.
The cupboard certainly isn’t bare for the Lakers: in a league getting smaller by the year, they have two of the last seven-footers who can score with their back to the basket. There isn’t a frontline in the NBA as big or as talented as Bynum and Gasol, something Scott Brooks and Kevin Durant were quick to mention in their post-game comments.
If Kobe were surrounded by a cast of athletic shooters, he could seamlessly fit into the role of a playmaker with a powerful left and right 7’0 punch at the front of the rim. And even if he took a step back in the first 46 minutes, the last two would still be his. It’s hard to run offense through the low post in crunch time, as teams can double from all over the floor and dictate who they want shooting the ball.
But while Michael Jordan’s six championships are still in range, they aren’t the only mark Kobe, a consummate student of the game, is chasing. He is 9,000 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring list, which would be four more seasons at 25 points a game. But with his shooting percentages continuing to slip, the number of shots he would need to reach that mark would doom the Lakers to four more years of first and second-round exits, regardless of what other pieces they might acquire.
With the final stretch of his career in front of him, Kobe can chase either Jordan or Kareem, but not both.