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How Lakers Should Juggle Youth With Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant needs no resumé or description. He’s an all-time great, future Hall of Famer, five-time champ, yada yada yada.

What Bryant is also, is a perpetual topic of debate when it comes to efficiency, ego, pushiness, personality and now stubbornness. That last one has developed in recent years as the Lakers have moved from their winning ways into a rebuilding process that now features two top 10 picks over the last two drafts, as well as a promising second-year man in Jordan Clarkson.

Under normal circumstances, most teams would enjoy the foundation of having three young studs to build around, but somehow the presence of Bryant doesn’t put the cherry on top as much as it removes it, mostly out of concern for Bryant’s demand in being the featured player. At age 37, with three season-ending injuries in a row, Bryant is up against severe odds, and he’s determined to beat them, which is both inspiring and devastating at the same time.

Sunday night, the Lakers started Bryant at small forward with Clarkson and rookie D’Angelo Russell. This was an idea that began over the summer internally, as the move to small forward theoretically would move Bryant off-ball more and let the youngsters handle most of the load. The logic behind this decision is sound, even if reality may ultimately paint a different picture.

To suggest that Bryant should no longer be the primary on-ball creator for himself is a huge break in what the Lakers have done with him over the past two decades. This is the life he’s used to, and the only way he knows how to play. Him not being the main man is in a way a thought that Bryant can’t comprehend. Take that away from him, and you concede, to him, that he’s no longer the player he used to be, which is where Bryant draws his confidence. Age? Injuries? Doesn’t matter. He’s the Black Mamba damn it, and how dare anyone forget that?

Bryant’s ideology is so thorough, so intense, so dominating, that the Lakers risk seeing their future being compromised at the hands of their legend, unintentionally of course. Because this is where the true conflict lies; Bryant doesn’t see that his way of doing things as preventing others from doing something. He sees it as a way of helping his team. Russell, Clarkson and Julius Randle, all great talents which he acknowledges, remain young and untested. So, as his logic dictates, why should they be the decision makers?

Starting that particular perimeter trio of Clarkson, Russell and Bryant carries with it some risk. Should Bryant demand the ball and take over, as he’s used to doing, it’ll come at the cost of development. Russell, who projects as the next great Laker scorer, would see less shots, and thus, would experience less scoring opportunities in ways that’d educate him further. In short, his NBA education would be delayed for no other reason than as to appease a soon-to-be retiree.

For Randle, he’ll be used as strictly a screener for Bryant instead of a pick-and-roll threat, also delaying his understanding of how to play one of the most vital sets in all of basketball.

Bryant has already made it clear that he’s not going to be the set-up guy. That option, while obvious given his passing moxie, has been taken off the table. Whatever passes he will make will go to the players he believes can help the Lakers win, which we know won’t be the kids.

Obviously, this is painting a worst-case scenario. I realize that. But the scary thing here are that these are elements that are downright likely, and for the Lakers, they really can’t afford to cost their rookies development opportunities just to support the mindset of an old man, even one who’s won them five championships.

And this, at the heart of it, is how Bryant differs from other legends of his generation, who adapt and adjust to their new circumstances. Tim Duncan has continuously adjusted for the past 10 years, allowing for the rise of both Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now LaMarcus Aldridge. Dirk Nowitzki won a title by changing his game to suit the cast around him, and has in later years taken on a lesser scoring role to allow others shots and opportunities. For them, it’s common nature to change as to allow others a chance.

For Kobe, his entire identity is wrapped up in a legacy that’s no longer valid. Teams still plan for him, but not on the same level as a decade ago. Today, teams are more worried about corner threes and open layups than someone spending eight-to-10 seconds in manufacturing a contested mid-range fadeaway. Hell, at this point teams would even prefer to have Bryant launch outside shots, as he’s hit just 31.6 percent from downtown over his last six seasons.

In this age, where mid-range players have come to die, Bryant is persistent in his way, which directly trickles down through the roster in a manner that makes it difficult to survive in this adapt-or-die evolution.

So here’s what I propose.

At age 37, you could get away with playing Bryant around 28 minutes a night. He’ll complain initially, but his body will likely feel the benefits pretty quickly. And in those 28 minutes, only eight or 10 should be spent alongside D’Angelo Russell.

Not starting Russell won’t limit his development. Playing with Kobe might. Using Russell as a super-sub who comes in to play close to 30 minutes a night, most of which with Bryant on the bench, would give him ample opportunity to develop on his own merits, while still experiencing the on-court lecture of Kobe himself.

It’s unfortunate that you have to split up the two most talented players on the team, but it’s for the greater good for both parties. Bryant would instead play with Lou Williams and Nick Young for the most part, fellow vets, and the kids will get a chance to play their games without much interference.

Is it an optimal solution? Probably not. But the Lakers aren’t going to be a playoff team anyway. They’re stuck with a coach who’s yet to accept analytics, which will forever limit his potential in such a role, and a flawed roster that lacks depth up front and carries too many shot-takers on the perimeter.

At this point, the best solution between the conflicting parties is separation and trying to do two things at once.

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