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The Imperative: Kobe Bryant and the variance of injury

Jan 7, 2012, 4:30 PM EDT

Los Angeles Lakers' Bryant chews on his jersey during NBA game in Los Angeles Reuters

The imperative is an element of urgency based off of observation with some evidence to back it up. But like most anything in the NBA, the imperative is rarely black and white, cut and dried. Basically I’m hedging in case Bryant averages 35 points per game over the next seven games. 

Kobe Bryant scored 39 points on 28 shots Friday night, with 7 assists and 4 rebounds in 41 minutes. He had the entire arsenal going. Jab-step three. Spin to the elbow pull-up jumper. It was as impressive a display of basketball playing as you will see in your lifetime and he did it on the second night of a back-to-back against a much-improved Warriors team.

And it was the worst thing that could have happened to Bryant and Lakers fans.

Last year, there were signs. Games where he would shoot a high volume and the efficiency wasn’t just off, it was bad. It wasn’t because the offense wasn’t working or because he defense was stout. It was very clearly about proving a point. Every player has bad games. Bryant’s had some in his long and brilliant career. But last season was the first time when you could really point to decisions Bryant made in the flow of the offense and say “That cost the Lakers.” Bryant would rise up from 35 to 40 feet for pull-up threes with time on the clock because “he was feeling it” regardless of how his night was going. There’s no way to say that his teammates were in need of a shot like that, that the team needed a boost and that was the way to do it, that that’s the kind of shot that gets him going (it’s not, his one-spin elbow pull-up does that like nothing else; he hits that and you can see the blood flowing through his skin). It was just a mistake.

But it wasn’t just shooting. I started noticing an odd element. Half-court traps started working on Bryant when he would allow them to snare him, which was more often than you’d think. At the time, I believed it had to do with his finger injury, and it doesn’t seem to be a product of age. But the result is the same. It’s carried over.

This year, consider the following.

Bryant is averaging 23 FGA per game. That’s going to fluctuate, but given the kind of role he’s tried to take with the Lakers this season and with Lamar Odom gone, it’s a decent barometer. After last night’s game against the Warriors, the Lakers are 2-4 when he shoots 23 times or more. They are undefeated (3-0) when he shoots less, but that point isn’t really salient; if Kobe’s not involved in the offense, the Lakers will start losing all the same. Also consider that after last night, Bryant has been tied or lead the game in turnovers for either team in five of the Lakers’ nine games. Now, some of that’s expected when he handles the ball as much as he does, his usage rate is ridiculously high as he handles the load for the Lakers’ offense. His turnover ratio is right at the league average. But the cumulative effect is damaging for the Lakers who don’t have possessions to spare.

So what’s the point of all this? Is Kobe Bryant over the hill? Is his effectiveness over? Is he selfish ball-hog that needs to stop hogging the ball and being selfish with his selfish ball-hogging?

Don’t be ridiculous.

He dropped 39 points last night!

But Bryant needs to rein it in. Not because of the damage he’s causing the Lakers’ efforts to win, but because that wrist needs to heal.

It’s clearly bothering him. There have been jokes about Bryant holding it when he gets dunked on, has the ball stolen, or misses. But he has a torn ligament in his wrist. I’ve never torn a ligament in my wrist. But I know enough of medical science to know THAT HURTS REALLY REALLY BADLY. And when the diagnosis was released, everyone said the same thing “If he’s not going to have surgery, he’s got to get it some rest.” Bryant could still play basketball while not putting unnecessary strain on it. But he’s not. He’s shooting more. Let me restate that.

With an injured wrist that is clearly affecting his shot and ability to handle the ball, Kobe Bryant is shooting more.

It’s his body, he gets to do what he wants with it, and Lord knows his rings give him a certain amount of leeway in decision making. But the results have spoken for themselves. Despite Friday night’s barrage, he’s struggled, and the team struggled with them. What’s worse is that this approach to Bryant’s game actually works counter to what the Lakers want to do.

With this assembly of players, guys like Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Matt Barnes, you don’t want to try and overwhelm the opponent with talent. You want to play smart, crafty offense designed to confuse and get the opponent rotating to create open looks. When the Lakers have played their best, this is what they’ve done. Bryant can shoot 20 times in the flow of an offense off catch-and-shoot and high post opportunities without going to the dribble ISO.

According to Synergy Sports, Bryant scored 1.02 points per possession in ISO last season, in the 91st percentile of the entire league. He turned the ball over in ISO just 8.3% of the time. In short, he was Kobe freaking Bryant one-on-one.

This year? He’s scoring .763 points per possession in ISO and turning it over 11.3 percent of the time. And that’s accounting for 35% of all his possessions. That’s a huge number.

Is Bryant going to get better as the wrist heals? Yes. But that process is exacerbated with every shot he takes, with every foul he gets on the wrist off jumpers and layups, with the more strain he puts on it. Bryant won’t sit, he can’t sit, it’s not in his DNA. And there are going to be plenty of games like Friday night for the second best shooting guard in NBA history.

But for the Lakers to be the best they’re going to be, Bryant needs to look his game and his wrist in the mirror and understand that he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. There are so many ways he can be great, and no one will take his adapting his game to an injury and a new offense as he gets older as anything but another sign of his basketball cerebral greatness. Kobe’s trying to be Kobe, but he’s not Kobe the scoring shooting guard right now. He just needs to be Kobe Bryant, one of the best basketball players in the NBA.

  1. akismet-9bfac212a93c64c2c1abe56138b8286a - Jan 7, 2012 at 9:34 PM

    I’m gonna start this off by saying Bryant is arguably the best shooting guard in NBA history. Not second, but best. At the same time, the caliber of basketball he’s playing is above and beyond where anyone else is at the moment, even with the injury to his wrist.

    At any rate, I can agree that he needs to reign in his shot numbers. Basketball is just not a one-on-one sport. If he can get the rest of the team involved, he won’t need to take 24+ shots a game and rest his body. That said, I’m really not sure what Brown’s been doing with the offense. Every time I’ve heard someone ask him about it, he brushes it off and deflects to defense. Well, I can understand that defense wins games, but I haven’t seen much of that either in comparison to last season.

    One thing’s for sure, if the Lakers bench can’t score consistently, they won’t get far anyway.

    • tlegg6 - Jan 8, 2012 at 1:15 AM

      Uh, hold on there “akismet”…

      Michael Jordan… second to none… the Best shooting guard/player in NBA history, period… nuf said!

    • jizzojames - Jan 8, 2012 at 2:57 AM

      You must be a Kobe, or a Laker fan.

    • berto55 - Jan 8, 2012 at 9:29 AM

      Sure, and arguably the world is flat. Seriously? I like Kobe and think he’s underrated by a lot of people, but I’m not sure he’s even the third best shooting guard in NBA history.

  2. larsonjs - Jan 8, 2012 at 1:52 AM

    I completely agree with the article. It seems that Kobe learns for a while and then he goes back to being 1 against 5. The lakers need to win or lose as a team. Kobe needs to rest. If the Lakers lost a few while he rested, it’s no big deal because the season (even truncated) doesn’t mean that much anyway. At the end, the Lakers will be in the playoffs and I’d rather have Kobe healthy than home court all the way through. While I’m at it, who put this ridiculous season schedule together. It seems designed to wear players out.

  3. hungrybear22 - Jan 8, 2012 at 1:59 AM

    Kobe is the only guy that can create off the perimeter on the whole team. Without the triangle, the Lakers are more reliant than ever on dribble penetration, thus he has to handle the ball a lot more, that coupled with the wrist means that turnovers are going to go up.

    It’s not his fault Mike Brown’s other offensive sets have Kobe setting a screen for Steve Blake (wtf?) and Andrew Bynum receiving the ball at the top of the three point line.

  4. davidly - Jan 8, 2012 at 6:17 AM

    Not that it matters to Bryant; he’s had his career, but the players got punk’d and repunk’d by the owners. First, locked out, then forced into an unhealthy grind with back to backs and five-game weeks. We’re talking about the players’ careers here. Make no mistake, this season will cost somebody his longevity. This ridiculously condensed schedule suits no one but the owners; they aren’t the ones who will suffer because their bodies can’t take anymore.

    • berto55 - Jan 8, 2012 at 9:34 AM

      The schedule is good for fans I think. While I do agree with what you are saying, I really enjoy having a game on every night or every other night.
      I’m sure it is more difficult than I think, but it seems weird to me that these guys can’t play everyday all the time. They are professional athletes. I can play back to back and obviously my stupid games aren’t near that level (anywhere near), but I’m not a professional athlete either. Plus, we play defense too so we don’t get a break after every possession.

  5. omniusprime - Jan 8, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    Unlike Phil Jackson, Mike Brown can’t rein in Kobe’s shooting. Kobe has a great competitive heart but that’s not what the Laker’s team needs right now. The Lakers need to get the team involved in offense or Kobe’s one-on-five act will get old and stale real quick. If Kobe hogs the shooting too much the rest of the team just starts watching the Kobe show with their thumbs up their behinds and then they have less interest in playing defense. The point Matt Moore makes isn’t something new to this season, it has always been the same throughout Kobe’s carer.

    Mike Brown is no Phil Jackson, his whole coaching philosophy has been to let the star player go wild on offense. Mike Brown needs to get Kobe to buy into pounding the ball into the paint to Bynum and Gasol to open things up for Kobe. Kobe needs to learn to share the ball on offense, become more of a passer. Yeah it is ironic that many times when Kobe goes off on a shooting spree the team loses.

    I’ve written off the Lakers this season because they have no chance of winning a championship. Cupcake made bad trade moves and hired the wrong coach. If the Lakers limp into the playoffs it will be as an #8 seed and Kobe won’t get away with so much shooting. Basketball is a team game and Kobe needs to understand that and work to share the ball on offense more while the rest of the team learns to trust themselves.

  6. jimsjam33 - Jan 8, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    The Lakers are boring . How could this organization think they could win without a point guard . They did nothing in the off season to help the situation . Kobe is a hog , Gasol is the glue that keeps this team together Bynum is a huge question mark . If Gasol or Bynum go out for a duration or season GAME Over. Kobe is on the down swing no matter how much hype he gets .

    • davidly - Jan 9, 2012 at 6:45 AM

      They did nothing in the off season to help the situation .
      Technically, it was the off-season when they tried to trade for Paul.

  7. lakerluver - Jan 8, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    Berto55, if you don’t recognize Kobe as the second greatest sg of all time you simply don’t have a clue about basketball. I’d even argue he’s the second best perimeter player ever not just sg. The only thing that separates Kobe and MJ is the fact that MJ played 3 years under one of college basketballs greatest teachers.

  8. lakerluver - Jan 8, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    Jimsjams33, without Kobe, Pau would be an above average player without any rings still toiling away in Memphis, or some other also-ran franchise. Kobe’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Pau’s a good player who needs a great player like Kobe. Not the other way around.

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