It seems I've gotten a little bit of site heat for being a "Kobe hater", someone who unfairly points out aspects of Kobe's game and competitive psyche that could be problematic for the team's ultimate success going forward. My general view that superstars - and Kobe is a superstar of the first order - are very difficult to handle on the downside of their careers, and downsides inevitably occur as much as we don't want them to. The tremendous drive that made them supremely dominant is seldom if ever tempered by their diminishing skills, and at the very least Kobe facing his own mortality at some point is going to a challenge for this team.
But Kobe-fans say "Hey, maybe so, but we are a LONG way away from that. Kobe is still in his prime!" The question of prime is an interesting one. I think that we have to take a closer look and see that Kobe game has gradually become, transformed partly by personnel, partly by design, and also partly by game. If we look at the long view we will see that he steadily has become less efficient while increasingly anchoring more and more of the offense. And not insignificantly he is currently 19th in All Time minutes played in the NBA at 42,377. Only Garnett and Kidd are active players above him, players well past their physical glory. This being said we still are expecting top tier major "Kobe" production from him with this new super team that Mitch has assembled.
Below is a breakdown of Kobe's performance over the last 5 years beginning in 2007-2008 when we reacquired Fisher and began the Kobe and Gasol, Bynum Era. If we are going to think about what challenges the Kobe and Dwight Era faces we at least have to look at how his game has been changed the last 5 seasons.
What is most important here is that in almost every category the transformation is progressive. Again, this could be due to several factors (team construct, coach design, personal psychology, need and of course age as well). But we can see what is happening. The two dotted lines perhaps indicate it most succinctly. His Usage has gradually gone up while his True Shooting % has gone down. He has taken more and more of the offense on his shoulders and each year become more inefficient.
The other trends also suggest what is happening. The % of his shots that are qualified as jumpers by 82 games has steadily risen, as has the percentage of shots in "crunch" situations and with 4 seconds or less left on the shot clock, while his Assist rate has decline. One does not have to make this his fault, but one does have to recognize that for 5 years this has been happening. This is not an aberrant year or two.
One can look at this a few ways in the light of the Laker team roster rebuild. Kobe has unfairly had to carry the burden of this offense, bravely through injury and tired legs and of course his efficiency suffered. He took more jumpers because the lane was stuffed with twin towers, and become there was no dependable finisher he kept having to take low percentage shots with only a few seconds left. Now with playmakers and scoring everywhere Kobe will finally be relieved of this burden and will flourish like a guy on vacation.
There is another take. When players start settling for jumpers it is because their legs are going, something that happens with age and injury. Kobe's minutes are historic and while he definitely has spurts of spring in his step the developmental arc in his game suggests he will continue to shoot more jumpers and his TS%, 3pt% and FG% will continue to degrade. Because of Kobe's fierce determination you are probably not going to see a steep drop off, but the trend in this direction has been holding for 5 years. While it once may have been a result of team design, age is likely starting to taking its effect.
An additional factor is psychology. We can't really tell if Kobe has taken on more and more of his hero-ball role because had to, or because he wants to, but in either case this is a pattern that has developed for 5 seasons, and deep patterns of play that last half a decade are hard to change. It may very well be that Dwight dunking and Nash dishing will really provide a relief for Kobe, but when losses start coming, or the playoffs tighten the throat, usually one reverts to what is most ingrained. And for Kobe it is the firm and unrivaled belief: "I can hit that shot"...and usually he can.
...But at a rate less efficient each year.
People misunderstand perhaps my desire to look starkly at Kobe. Kobe is great. How different it would have been if he had come up with a "Kareem" and not a Shaq. He has had to carve out his greatness beginning as a very young man one tight jawed moment after another, one heroic fall away at a time. And it isn't as if he can't grow and have a terrific final act to his career. But we have to see this as his final act. He has been lifting and carrying this team for 5 years now, more and more despite his minutes and age. You don't just plug in a great ball dominant PG (older) and the most explosive two-way big man since The Dream, and assume the guy who has been holding the team on his shoulders is going to just meld into a new offense, even if he has the greatest desire to do so.
With two bright passers in Gasol and Nash, two intimating defensive forces in Metta World Peace and Howard, two league MVPs thirsting for historic rings, and a stocked bench, it would seem that all the pieces are here for something special. As has been the case for some time now, this team will go only as far as Kobe can take them, Kobe the leader, Kobe the team maker.