Kobe Bryant is as complex a player as exists in the NBA. The man, well, he has layers. There's the layer of ability, which Kobe has more of than just about anybody, despite having already lost enough of what he had to be considered declining. There's the layer of determination, which gives him as much or more drive than anybody who has ever played the game. There's a layer of hubris, which sometimes allows him to think keeping the ball in his hands is in the best interests of his team, even if it means dribbling into double teams and launching insanely difficult shots. The entitlement layer, the vulgar layer, the experience layer, the oblivious to pain layer, the work ethic layer, the frustration with teammates layer, all these layers may no longer add up to the best player in the league, but Kobe Bryant remains the most compelling figure to don an NBA uniform in the present day.
Compelling, like when he scores 40+ in 4 straight games when the basketball world is writing his (and his team's) eulogy. Compelling, like when he scuttled his own team's chances to win a game in Denver earlier this season, shooting 6-28 on a variety of terrible shots, leading one scribe to call it "the most selfish game you will ever see anybody play in the NBA". Compelling, like when he blows a chance to close out a game against one of the best teams in the league because of his need to have the ball in his hands during the final moments. Compelling, like when that same need has been (at least partially) justified by a large number of game winning shots he's hit over the years. People talk about Kobe all the time. They talk about the 40 streak. They talk about the Denver game. They talk about when he wins his team games by playing the right way. They talk about how he loses his team games by playing the wrong way. They talk about everything.
Well, almost everything. Last night's game against the Orlando Magic, and Kobe Bryant's performance in it, is the type of game no one ever talks about.
Kobe Bryant was masterful in last night's contest. Perfect, not in his actual performance (because he did miss shots), but in his approach to the game. Attack when the opportunity is there, move off the ball in an attempt to create good opportunities, pass out of double teams to open shooters, Kobe played exactly the way that all the experts might want him to. Nothing forced, everything within the flow of the game (except for a bad three point attempt after a bad technical foul in the 4th quarter, that is). The end result of this mastery was a fine shooting night (11-22 from the field, 30 points), a fantastic night of distributing (8 assists) and a game in which his team was not remotely competitive.
A GAME IN WHICH HIS TEAM WAS NOT REMOTELY COMPETITIVE.
Last night, Kobe Bryant played the game the way I want him to play it. He played the game the way pundits across the blogosphere would want him to play it. And it didn't matter. It didn't come close to mattering. Kobe had 8 assists ... he could have had 20. So many times he made complicated, perfect skip passes across the court, right on target for his teammates to catch and shoot a wide open jumper. And nobody could drain a thing. Pau Gasol couldn't hit his open shots. Derek Fisher couldn't hit his open shots. Matt Barnes couldn't hit his open shots. Kobe made all the "right" decisions, made all the "right" plays, and it was a complete and utter waste.
Does a game like that justify the performances at the opposite end of the spectrum? Absolutely not. Just because Kobe's teammates couldn't deliver when he put them in position to do so last night doesn't mean they will never be able to. It means those teammates had a bad game, nothing more. It doesn't mean that Kobe should try to do it by himself in the next contest, or that the Lakers will be a better team if and when he takes more shots. One game doesn't mean anything, about anything.
What last night's contest does show, however, is that Kobe Bryant playing the perfect style, involving his teammates, operating within the flow of the offense and striking the perfect balance between score and distributor, Kobe playing the way that so many experts want him to play is NOT a cure-all for what ails the Lakers. Whether Kobe plays like he did last night, or plays like he did in scoring 40 points in all those games last week, neither strategy is guaranteed to bring him or his team a victory. He can trust his teammates to the nth degree, and they can reward him or fail him. He can take the more single minded approach, and either be successful or detrimental. He can mix and match between the two and be and be subject to the benefits and pratfalls of each approach equally. There is no one set style for Kobe to play to ensure the greatest success for his team.
Kobe knows this, and tries, in his own way, to plan accordingly. Sometimes, he gets it right. Sometimes he plays like he played last night, and his teammates reward his efforts. Sometimes, he reads his team's need for the Mamba correctly, and leads his team to victory by scoring a ton of points. Sometimes, he reads his team's need for the Mamba correctly, but can't live up to the title, and his team loses a game they would have lost otherwise. Other times, he tries to do too much and ends up costing his team the game. Sometimes, the wrong Kobe for the wrong game shows up. And here's the important part ... last night might have been one of those games. Last night might have been one of those games when only the Mamba could have rescued victory for the Lakers. Hell, even if Kobe had gone for 40 or 50, it still might not have been enough, such was the low quality provided by his teammates. But maybe the Mamba strategy was the one that would have been most conducive to a win last night. The strategy he chose certainly didn't seem to do much good, even if its a strategy that most of us pine for.
In Kobe's mind, there is only one objective, and that is to win. To win games, to win championships. Everything he does is towards one of those goals. If Kobe plays the role of consummate teammate, distributes when it's the "right" basketball play, and attacks only within the flow of the offense, it's because he thinks that's the best way to win games. If Kobe plays the role of the single minded scorer, taking on double teams and launching shots that would be impossible for just about any other player, it's because he thinks that's the best way to win games. He doesn't always get it right, and we've seen a fair number of contests in which it seems he got it wrong by trying to take on too much. But nobody ever talks about when Kobe gets it wrong the other way around.
Last night, Kobe Bryant played the perfect game in the perfect style and his team never had a chance. Would an appearance from the Mamba have turned the tide? Who knows, but it sure as hell couldn't have made anything worse.