[Author's Note: Of course news dropped that Kobe would sit out tonight's contest just prior to this being published ... Oh well. Enjoy the delightful thought exercise anyways.]
As has been documented the world over, Kobe Bryant is as complex a figure as exists in the NBA's history. Five time champion, one time MVP. One of the best ever? Or one of the most overrated? Dynamic playmaker or selfish ballhog? The only truth that exists in the argument surrounding Kobe Bryant is that its litigants are often far too passionate to hear each other make their case. Of central importance to the argument is the concept of whether Kobe Bryant shoots too much. He certainly does shoot a lot. He leads the league in usage by a landslide 3 percentage points over 2nd place Russel Westbrook. He leads the league in field goal attempts despite having missed 7 games on the season. He does all of this despite being on a team with two of the most talented post players in the NBA.
Is Kobe Bryant a player who takes what the defense gives him and makes the right basketball play nine times out of ten? Or is Kobe Bryant a gunner who loves to shoot, loves to score, and is willing to attempt both even in the face of far too much defensive attention? There is no right answer to that question, in part because he's not 100% consistent in his approach to the game. There are times when he's more or less aggressive, times when his aggression seems costly and times when it seems the only viable strategy based on the opponent and his teammates. The argument itself has been played over so many different times that its become tiresome. My answer to all of these questions, at this point in Kobe Bryant's career, is usually the same. I don't care one way or the other.
But not tonight. Tonight, I want Kobe Bryant in full-fledged Mamba mode. I want him to embrace the way of the gun.
Can you feel it? There is a perfect storm brewing, a combination of elements fitting together seamlessly to create the perfect conditions for entertainment. The first, and most important, is that the Los Angeles Lakers will be playing in a regular season basketball contest tonight that carries no weight whatsoever. The Lakers place in the final standings has been determined. Their opponent is unknown, but nothing they do tonight will make a lick of difference. Tonight is a throw away, a glorified exhibition.
Coach Brown knows this, and is acting accordingly. Word on the street is that the Lakers starters are likely going to be finding themselves in street clothes. Pau Gasol will probably be in a suit. Andrew Bynum, too. Ramon Sessions will also likely not play. Metta World Peace is suspended. But Kobe will probably start, probably play. There are a ton of possible reasons for this. Kobe has gone on record, many times, as saying that he owes it to the fans who pay to see grown men play basketball to suit up and do his job every single night. If he's hurt, he won't play, but otherwise, he's not sitting out. Kobe has also missed quite a bit of time recently, meaning there's less of a need to get him rest as there is for the other starters. Kobe didn't shoot particularly well in his last contest (though that changed in the late game) and could still need time to work out the rust. The Lakers won't play their first playoff game until Sunday, and they haven't played since last Sunday, and Kobe needs time to get that muscle memory firing just right before the playoffs.
Then there's the other reason: with 38 or more points tonight, Kobe Bryant will surpass Kevin Durant for the NBA Scoring Title. 38 points is a fairly high number, but if Kobe Bryant puts his mind to it, 38 is in the bank. Before we continue, let's get one thing straight. Do I care whether Kobe Bryant wins the NBA scoring title? Absolutely not. Should Kobe care whether he wins the NBA scoring title? Absolutely not. Does he care? I'm not a mind reader, go ask him (he'll say he doesn't, or more likely, say absolutely he does with a huge smirk on his face). Nobody, not Kobe, not Durant, not any single Lakers or NBA fan should care whether Kobe wins the scoring title. And every Lakers and NBA fan should be hoping against hope that Kobe goes for it anyway.
Why? Because its fun. Because watching Kobe Bryant hit impossible shots is every bit as entertaining, and often far more, as watching him pass out of double teams to the open man. Because there is a long history of scoring title pursuits in situations such as this, and they often provide awesome entertainment in games that might otherwise provide little. Because I enjoy watching the best athletes in the world do impossible things. Because I would have enjoyed watching David Robinson score 71 points in a game. Because Kobe already has the two most impressive scoring performances in the modern era (81, and the 62 in three quarters game when he outscored the Dallas team single handed).
Because the question of what would happen if Kobe Bryant gave in completely to his gunning ways is an intriguing question that should never be answered under normal basketball conditions, and yet we are being presented with a perfect alignment of planets that gets past all the defenses for why he shouldn't. The Lakers are playing in a basketball contest that means nothing, Kobe Bryant will be the only regular starter playing. He needs reps to get his shooting stroke back in working order for the playoffs. He's playing against a terrible team that needs to lose in order to maintain hope in the Anthony Davis Sweepstakes. He needs points to win a meaningless award that nobody cares about, but since when has not caring about something been a firm reason not to seek it out anyways. Don't you ever just do something just because you can?
Tonight, Kobe Bryant can win the NBA scoring title, can be the ultimate gunner, can try to score as many points as he possibly can with no possible ramifications to his team, no questions as to whether his play can be labeled as smart strategy. If he does it, there won't be any questions of selfishness, or effectiveness. There will only be entertainment. Massive, massive amounts of entertainment.
Give in to the urge, Kobe. Embrace the way of the gun.