With Kobe Bryant set to remain as a member of the Lakers for at least one more year, Los Angeles’ young core of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are fortunate to share the same locker room with an all-time great this upcoming season. Many basketball fans and pundits, however, understandably believe Bryant’s ball-dominant ways will impede the growth of the Lakers’ prospects.
Last season, Bryant shot an inordinate amount of shots amidst a turbulent season for LA. The Black Mamba’s pitiful 37 percent mark from the field didn’t deter him from attempting 20 shots per game, which was widely considered to be a retrograde contribution to the Lakers’ worst season since moving to Los Angeles.
However, Bryant’s performance last season (before he went out with an injured shoulder) left fans with reason for optimism. In his last seven games of the season, Bryant’s assists per game spiked to 8.1, and his exorbitant shot attempts dropped to 13.5. Although he’s been plagued with criticism for being a greedy shooter, it isn’t outlandish to believe that Bryant can evolve into more of a facilitator and carry this distributing-trend into next season, aiding his developing young teammates. After all, Bryant has proven his ability to metamorphose throughout the course of his enitre career.
As a meticulous student of the game, Bryant constantly works to evolve his style – and basketball pundits follow suit with their sharp criticisms. As Bryant’s game has adapted, so has his uncanny knack for subverting the criticism he’s received over the course of his illustrious career.
Previously, although he was once perceived as a selfish ball hog, Bryant learned to sublimate his isolated self-reliant tendencies for a triangular team approach during the Lakers’ championship runs with Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal.
Bryant unsurprisingly wouldn’t conform to being O’Neal’s sidekick for long, and the big man was traded to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2004 despite the big man’s request to remain a Laker. The pundits’ once slight criticism then mutated into zealous tirades about Bryant’s inability to win a championship as the leader of the team.
With great serendipity in 2008, the Lakers landed Pau Gasol, whose nuanced game added extra flair to Bryant’s explosive athleticism and competitive fire. Needless to say, Bryant went on to capture two more NBA championships.
Fast-forwarding to his 20th season: Bryant is 37, has won five championships, earned two Finals MVPs and garnered a regular-season MVP award, but the critics have yet to cease. They’ve only transformed.
In May, Amin Elhassan of ESPN joined the NBA Lockdown Podcast where he conveyed critical (and mostly untrue) comments against the Lakers’ superstar.
“Kobe 100 percent healthy ain’t that good anymore. He shoots a hundred times, he makes like five of those shots. He complains. He doesn’t know any other way,” Elhassan said.
To an extent, Elhassan is correct. As aforementioned, Bryant did shoot voraciously on the outset of this past season on feeble shooting percentages. Many people were under the impression that Bryant was carelessly gunning his way past Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. However, even if that was the case, it’s silly to protest against Bryant for putting on a show for the Los Angeles crowd; the Lakers weren’t going to have a successful season anyway. If nothing else, the fans wanted to see the Lakers legend one-up the greatest player of all-time on the scoring list – and he did.
Elhassan was also incorrect in his sentiment that Bryant “doesn’t know any other way” except chucking an inordinate amount of shots. Kobe has proven his ability to switch gears and morph into a savvy facilitator. The Mamba put his passing dexterity on full display near the second half of the 2012-13 season when the Lakers finished the year on a 28-12 run and crept into the playoffs.
During that stretch, Bryant portrayed a layer of his game that the fans had never witnessed before. His decision-making had revolutionized as he found the perfect balance between passing and shooting, and the team benefited tremendously. Kobe’s field goal attempts decreased from a league-leading 24.6 to a reasonable 18.5 per game and his assists increased to 7.5 as he dragged an injury-riddled team into the playoffs. The artful passing display that Bryant exhibited proved that when he’s willing to pass, he’s one of the premier passers in the league.
Bryant channeled his inner Magic Johnson again shortly after surpassing Jordan in points. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times reported that after Bryant’s second triple-double of the season in a win against the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 30, he said this:
“I’m more of a natural scorer, but it doesn’t mean I can’t evolve.”
Very few players are more skilled than Bryant when it pertains to passing:
Bryant’s facilitating prowess could mitigate the role of the young players. Rather than exclusively creating plays for themselves, Bryant’s teammates should find more uncontested shots due to Bryant’s ability to shift defenses in subtle ways to create passing lanes.
Bryant aiding the team for one season may not seem like a long-term solution, but the Lakers’ young core can build off the success and chemistry they may find with the help of Bryant beyond next season.
Bryant’s insatiable eagerness to learn and master the technicalities of the game is conveyed all throughout his career. His obsessive perfectionism allows him to continually transform, improving every facet of his craft so that there are nearly no holes. Not only did Kobe call the quintessential back-to-the-basket center, Hakeem Olajuwon, to tutor him in post moves, but he also perfected his fadeaway jumper by studying the movements of a cheetah, which he further expounded on in a New York Times interview in September.
During his Basketball Academy earlier this month, Bryant held a Q&A session in which he was asked what he would change about his game. While he went on to express his desire for bigger hands like MJ, Bryant dropped this golden quote:
“About 2003, I felt like I had every aspect of the game,” Bryant said. “From that point it became about getting better at every single aspect.”
What distinguishes Bryant from other great players is his assiduous work ethic that not only enables him to incorporate every facet of the game into his own, but to elevate and perfect them.
Through his refusal to remain stagnant, Bryant has also excelled in eluding the grasp of vitriol generalizing critics with his ever-evolving game. Pundits should know by now that it’s a precarious task to try and put a voracious learner of the game in a box. The Black Mamba is adept at sinuously slithering his way out.