Kobe Bryant appeared in six games last season, leading the Lakers to just two wins while failing to reach double-digit scoring numbers three times. At the age of 35 — he turns 36 in a few days — Bryant is no longer the threat we are accustomed to seeing annihilate opposing defenses.
But Kobe is still Kobe. And Kobe is still elite.
Prior to tearing his Achilles in April of 2013, Bryant — per usual — was carrying the Lakers on his back to the playoffs. He was dropping buckets, dishing dimes, and downright demolishing defenses. The guard had tallied at least 40 points eight separate times, adding 10 or more assists in 11 games, showing off his passing ability when he needed to. At the age of 34, Bryant was already defying the odds.
Who says he can’t do it again?
Yes, he is two years older now but he is also two years wiser. As much success as the Black Mamba has achieved throughout his illustrious career — including 16 All-Star appearances, five NBA championships, an MVP award and so much more — he has adapted his game in an attempt to continue that success. Bryant has tied or broken his career-high in assist averages each of the last two seasons. And he is not doing it unwillingly. He enjoys it.
“It’s trying to evolve and figure out what we need as a ballclub,” Bryant said following consecutive 14-assist efforts in January of 2013, via Sam Amick of USA Today. “Instead of me being a finisher, I’m just really facilitating and drawing the defense in and making plays.”
Bryant may be stubborn, but he is that much smarter.
He understands his limitations and appears to have come to terms with them. His new-look Lakers squad will experience a new Kobe. Kobe The Distributor will not lose his aggressive mentality, but will be eager to get his teammates involved. With the summer additions of point guard Jeremy Lin, big men Julius Randle and Carlos Boozer, who is seeking a statement season after struggles last year, along with Nick Young coming off a career-season, and a hope that Steve Nash can hold off his physical limitations just one more time, there is a core assembled that can play basketball and learn to work together.
Although the critics of the Lakers’ offseason moves and their immediate future have enjoyed field days this summer, the players actually do have the potential to mesh extremely well together.
While Lin is labeled as a point guard, a position that traditionally serves to facilitate, the 25-year-old has always been more of a scorer than anything else. In his introductory press conference last month, Lin suggested his approach will be to maintain “attack mode” at all times. If Lin is efficient on the offensive end, defenses will be forced to at least turn some of their attention to him, which will allow Bryant more room to work with.
Aside from Lin, Nick Young can provide instant offense to ease the pressure off Bryant. Although he is often in the spotlight for his style off the court, the 28-year-old continues to develop his game on the floor. He has improved his field goal percentage each of the past three seasons, while shooting 38.6 percent from three-point range last season (above the league average) and scoring 17.9 points per game, a career-high.
A trio of Bryant, Lin, and Young can provide quality production on the offensive end. Although it does not have the makings of a typical Lakers team, it is certainly a group of players who can generate points. Lin and Young may not be the most conventional sidekicks, but can serve as two solid Robins to Bryant’s Batman, helping their superstar — and ultimately the Lakers — thrive next season.
Although whether or not Bryant can maintain his elite status is mostly up to him, the organization’s leader on the bench will also play a large role. Los Angeles hired Byron Scott earlier this offseason as the team’s head coach, replacing Mike D’Antoni in another step to restore order to the once-proud franchise.
Scott and Bryant were teammates in the late 1990s, though the now-coach acted more as his mentor than anything else. Heading into the 2014-2015 campaign, the 53-year-old already has the respect of Bryant and will surely utilize him in successful ways on the floor, more so than D’Antoni or Mike Brown did in recent years.
Due to his age and recent injuries, Kobe Bryant is getting overlooked. While stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant are the league’s headliners, the all-time leading scorer in Los Angeles Lakers history is not done yet. He is growing older, but he is not yet old.
Don’t be surprised if he is out there this season running with the young guns and playing at an elite level. He may be bruised, but Kobe Bryant is still one of the best.
Follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewHochberg