This is the last in our series of Player Previews, in which we discuss what to expect in the coming season from each of the 2010-11 Los Angeles Lakers. Up today? You'll never guess.
For those of us in the business of writing about the Lakers, one of the hardest tasks we face is finding something new to say about Kobe Bryant.
It's like finding something new to say about air, or water, or the sun. Kobe isn't merely a name on the Lakers' roster. He's more than just one of 12 players we watch and root for over the course of a season. Kobe is a basic condition of our existence. His presence and greatness have become accepted facts by which we organize our view of the world. As the years tick by and the championships pile up and his trade from the Charlotte Hornets recedes further into the past, it becomes harder and harder to imagine a Laker organization sans Kobe Bryant. There are kids in junior high who weren't born the last time the Lakers began a season without him.
Certain aspects of Kobe's identity are fixed. He will always prepare himself - for a season, for an opponent - more thoroughly and thoughtfully than anyone in the game. He will work to extract all that he can from his body. He will expect the same from his teammates and, for better or worse, won't hesitate to dress them down them publicly if they fall short. Sometimes he'll shoot when he should pass. Sometimes he'll roam off his guy on defense when he should stay home. He's not a perfect player, but at his best he's awfully close to it. And even when he's not at his best, he damn near kills himself, and sometimes us, trying to find a way.
These are things about Kobe that won't ever change. What will change, however, is his health. We saw the beginning of this process last season, played by Kobe at age 31. After he got off to a rocking, MVP-caliber start, Kobe's body decided to spit parts. Both his right knee and right hand got knocked around a bit, and although he still managed to perform at a high level, the injuries took an impossible-to-ignore toll. His turnovers jumped and his outside shooting fell off. He remained an awesome force on offense and a superlative defender, but there were some ugly shooting games along the way. The decline in his personal offensive efficiency was one of several factors contributing to the team's struggles on offense. (In 2008-09, the Lakers scored 114.5 points per 100 possessions, good for third in the league. Last season that mark dropped to 110.4, only 11th in the league.)
I have to confess, there was a moment last season when I nearly lost faith in the man. It was after Game Four of the Lakers' first-round playoff series against Oklahoma City. The Thunder had just blasted the Lakers by 21 to even the series at two games apiece, and Kobe was looking mucho shaky. He was averaging 24 points a game but using a lot of possessions to get there. He was turning the ball over almost four times a night, and his True Shooting Percentage for the series was barely 50%.
After Game Four, in which Kobe had scored only 12 points in the blowout loss, I was interviewed on a sports-talk show and asked about the Mamba's performance. My response was something like: "This is all he has to give right now. His knee's killing him, he needs the offseason to get well, and until then the Lakers have to figure out how to win with this very diminished version of Kobe Bryant." How wrong I was. How beautifully, joyously wrong.
Before the fifth game, Kobe had his knee drained. Also, he volunteered to take over defensive duties on Russell Westbrook, who'd been incinerating Derek Fisher. In the Lakers' Game Five rout, Westbrook shot 4-for-13 and committed eight turnovers. In the series-clinching Game Six win, Kobe scored 32 points, and from then on it was like Vintage Kobe had joined the party. He blew apart Utah's and Phoenix's defenses and led the Lakers through their vicious hammer-fight against the Celtics.
Yes, his 6-for-24 shooting in Game Seven was unsightly. But Bill Simmons, take note: those who watched the game and are willing to discuss it honestly have to admit a couple things. First, the contest was as nasty a defensive battle as we're ever likely to see. Everyone on the court was struggling to get and convert clean looks. Second, despite his misfiring jumpshot, Kobe found ways to sway the outcome. He played manic defense all night long, was an absolute hellhound on the glass, and made some key scores in the fourth quarter. In light of his overall, series-long contributions, Kobe deserved to be named Finals MVP.
As we head into his 15th season, the critical question involves his vulnerability to injury. Were the dings he suffered last year just a run of bad luck, or do they reflect a new normal? If it's the latter, we should come to terms with the idea that Kobe will start to miss more games each season and be less effective on the whole. If it's the former, we can reasonably hope for a bounceback to his more efficient 2006-09 numbers.
Role on the Team: Volume scorer, conductor of the Triangle offense, crunch-time point guard, emergency defensive stopper, on-court taskmaster and spiritual engine.
Best-Case Scenario for His Season: His summer of rest proves rejuvenating, his surgically repaired right knee quickly gets back to full strength, and he steers clear of the injuries that sapped his game last season. Hale and hearty once more, he cuts down on his turnovers, hits 36% of his threes and resumes terrorizing the league. The perimeter depth the Lakers added in the offseason allows Phil Jackson to keep Kobe under 2,900 minutes, leaving him rested and ready for the playoffs. Twenty games later, the Mamba collects his sixth career championship and again is named Finals MVP after averaging 33 a night in a five-game series victory over the Miami Heat.
Worst-Case Scenario for His Season: The knee takes forever to heal. An inability to get lift on his jumpshots leads to further deterioration in Kobe's outside game. The little injuries keep piling up, and instead of taking time off to recuperate, he misguidedly tries to play through the pain. The possessions he uses become increasingly unproductive, and the Laker offense as a whole continues a slide toward mediocrity. Never having let his body get well, Kobe can't carry the team in the playoffs, which end with an upset loss in the Western Conference Finals.
What We Expect: A season at least as productive as the last one. At the moment, Kobe isn't at anything close to full strength - Phil says that he's "decidedly not yet ready to play" - and the days of him appearing in 82 games a year are probably over. But a summer spent away from basketball should pay dividends come May and June. One hopes Kobe's learned that sitting out a game here and there won't sink the team in the short run and will strengthen it in the long run. I don't expect him to win the regular-season MVP award, but I do think we'll see him recover some of the efficiency he lost last season and treat us to yet another sterling, first-team All-NBA campaign.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.