On May 11, three days after the Dallas Mavericks got done wiping the Lakers off the map, Kobe Bryant characterized the team's failed three-peat bid as "a wasted year" of his life. With those words he pithily codified the binary worldview that pretty much everyone in Lakerdom holds these days. This team, with more than its share of stars but slipping down the wrong side of the aging curve, exists to win championships now. All outcomes that fall short of that goal amount to waste of a precious resource, that resource being the time left in Kobe's career. Tick-tock, Clarice.
But whatever went wrong for the Lakers this past season, little of it can be laid at Kobe's feet. By any objective standard, his performance was outstanding. And for a 32-year-old perimeter slasher, a role reliant on the fast-twitch musculature that begins to desert most people in their late twenties, his performance was extraordinary. In certain respects, his form was even better than it was in the 2009-10 season, which ended with his second straight Finals MVP award. That the 2010-11 campaign concluded more bitterly for the team shouldn't stop us from appreciating another splendid season from the franchise warrior-god.
Start with his durability. Heading into this season, Kobe had played over 45,000 minutes (regular season and playoffs combined) in his NBA career. The little and not-so-little owies have piled up. Nonetheless he started all 92 games and at no point seemed to wear down from the workload. Despite chronic soreness in his right thumb and right knee, there was never a time when Kobe did the Lakers a disservice by staying on the court. This is a testament both to his superb conditioning and to the fine work of Gary Vitti, the Laker trainer responsible for keeping Kobe match-fit.
It also helped that the team signed Matt Barnes last offseason. His arrival meant that Phil Jackson had suitable reinforcements at the small-forward position, unlike in 2009-10, when the petrifying thought of having to rely on Luke Walton led Phil to play Kobe significant minutes as the backup three. Kobe played 34 minutes a night this past season, down about five from 2009-10 and the fewest since his second year in the league.
His legs recovered some of their explosiveness. We shouldn't overstate this point: it's not like we were suddenly watching Number 8 all over again. But there was a bit more speed and lift to his movements. There were more than a few dunks that early-period Kobe would've been proud to author. And there were more free throws, as Kobe succeeded in partially reversing a four-year slide in his FTA rate.
On offense he remained an impressive, occasionally awesome, force. He used more of his team's offensive possessions than anyone in the league but maintained a True Shooting Percentage above league average. His assist rate was the third highest of his career while his turnovers held steady. In the way of all things Kobe, he had games when he should've routed the ball to the big men more than he did, but those happened less frequently than in the past. For the most part his offensive approach was controlled, thoughtful and measured. Oh, and he was also one of the better rebounding SG's in the league and one of the few Lakers who pulled his weight on the defensive glass.
Now for some constructive criticism. Three aspects of Kobe's season were, shall we say, less than totally righteous.
One was his shooting from behind the arc. His three-point accuracy fell to 32 percent in the regular season and 29 percent in the playoffs. And this isn't a short-term dip, as his three-point shooting has declined three years in a row now. I'm confident he can get back to, say, 35 or 36 percent from behind the arc if he becomes more judicious with his attempts. Four or five per game is too many. Curbing his sweet tooth for "mad heat checks" would be a good place to start.
Second, his effort wasn't always there on defense. In fact, he pretty much played zero defense the first half of the regular season, which was a big reason (though granted, merely one among several) the Lakers' perimeter D was an occasional wreck. When he wants to guard he's still among the best, but for a few months last winter he would literally just quit on a play when his man ran him into a screen. Nobody wants him going all out on defense all the time, but for a while he was truly bad at that end of the court, and his being named First Team All-Defense doesn't reflect well on the people who vote for that award.
Third, Kobe had a rough season when it came to end-game offensive sets. In 2009-10 he was marvelous, hitting one game-winner after the next. But last year it was like he'd lost the cheat code. Way too many games ended with Kobe dribbling the clock down before launching and missing a challenged 18-foot turnaround.
I'm hopeful the new coaching regime will bring with it a fresh redesign of the team's late-game approach. It's not about who's shooting the ball, exactly. It's about not making the opponents' job easy by giving them only one guy to guard. There needs to be more motion, more passing and more creativity. Put Kobe in a better position to succeed by making him an off-the-ball threat. I don't find it encouraging that Mike Brown, the man famous for letting LeBron James iso 40 times a game, is the man in charge of figuring this out, but I hope he'll surprise me.
So what's next for the Mamba Noir? The more I think about it, the more it seems plausible that he'll join a foreign club for the duration of the lockout. I mean, to begin with, the guy lives to play basketball. How long can he really spend working out privately before his psychotic competitive demons force him to seek out/destroy real opponents? As for injury risk, has there been an athlete who felt a greater command of his own health?
And I have to think he's anxious to strike a blow against the owners on behalf of the players' union. Kobe's closest friend in the league is Derek Fisher. Fish is the union president. You don't think Kobe has Derek's back in this fight, 100 percent?
The owners' grand strategy is to make the players admit they have nowhere else to go, nowhere to ply their trade, and thus accede to a coercive deal. What better way to cut the owners off at the knees than for the league's biggest star to jump across the pond and summon his fellow players to do the same? It would be an epic "fuck you" to the owners, retribution for their shutdown of the great league that Kobe has helped to build. I very much hope he does it.
Season Grade: A-.
Sasha Vujacic.... F
Trey Johnson.... C
Joe Smith.... D+
Theo Ratliff.... D-
Devin Ebanks.... C-
Derrick Caracter.... D+
Luke Walton.... F
Shannon Brown.... C
Steve Blake.... C-
Matt Barnes.... coming soon, we promise
Lamar Odom.... A-
Derek Fisher.... C-
Ron Artest.... C+
Andrew Bynum.... B+
Pau Gasol.... B-