Kobe Bryant returned to the Lakers lineup Sunday against the Phoenix Suns. When the Lakers won their first Kobe-less game against the league-leading Golden State Warriors, some were quick to jump on the narrative that the Lakers were better off without Bryant. While his on-off court splits do suggest this, statistics don't tell the whole story in this case. Yes, the Lakers were probably improved in certain ways without Kobe at such a high usage rate, but that does not mean that the team is better off without him entirely.
The real question was whether Lakers coach Byron Scott would come to such a conclusion? Or would Scott determine that after sitting Kobe, he could go right back to using 35.4 percent of the teams' possessions while playing nearly 36 minutes per game? Before the game, Scott was saying the right things, telling Lakers.com reporter Mike Trudell he would like to limit Kobe to 32 minutes per game:
Scott is now open to limiting Kobe to more like 32 minutes (from his current 35.4). Simply has to take him out earlier in 1st and 3rd Q's.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) December 23, 2014
One game is a incredibly small sample size, but that being said, Scott stayed true to his word. Despite playing almost the entire first quarter, Bryant played exactly 32 minutes on Sunday night. Would he have played more if Nick Young was not unconscious (four-of-four in Bryant's stead in the 2nd quarter) from three-point range? That can't be answered with anything more substantive than speculation at this point.
As important as a reduction in minutes would be for the 36-year old shooting guard's overall effectiveness, arguably more important of a factor would be how high Bryant's usage would be in those minutes. This, too, seemed to be improved. While watching the game, it appeared Kobe was making a very conscious effort to not only directly facilitate for his teammates, but also direct the offense and keep the ball moving, picking his spots to try and do damage himself. He picked 10 such spots (10 shots on the night), and I went back and looked at each of these shots again using NBA.com's video archives in order to see what types of shots Kobe was taking. But first, here's his shot chart for the night:
While 40 percent from the field is not great shooting, it is a marginal improvement upon Kobe's season average of 37.2 percent. But again, the most important thing here is that Kobe only took 10 shots, rather than feeling the need to toss up 22 (his season average) or more. Ideally, one would also want a few more of his shots to come at the rim, but overall this is a pretty varied and even distribution of attempts. Let's look at each of them individually.
The following media are all images. They are screenshots of paused video on NBA.com, which is why they have a play button. They will not play, no matter how many times you click on them.
Kobe got off to a good start on the night, making a pull-up jumper out of a pick-and-roll:
Another pick-and-roll, with Bryant missing a pull-up three on the wing this time out of the action. He didn't convert this look, but it was a decent one with at least some space between himself and his defender:
I really liked this third shot for Bryant with him catching the ball as a secondary attacker on the weakside after the initial action on the opposite side of the court. Look at how open Bryant is on the catch:
Perhaps because his last attempt was from almost this exact spot, Morris closed hard at Bryant, allowing him to pump fake and get into the paint:
While Kobe missed this one, he could have potentially drawn a foul and it was a quality shot. Shouts to Gilbert Arenas.
Bryant's fourth shot was an isolation/post up of Eric Bledsoe late in the shot clock and quarter:
Kobe missed this fadeaway jumper, but given the clock situation it was at least a defensible attempt.
Bryant's fifth look at the basket was again out of a pick-and-roll with Ed Davis, and while PJ Tucker was able to stay right in Kobe's grill, he still knocked down this difficult fadeaway:
Bryant's sixth shot was the kind of look he was indulging far too much in during the season's first 27 contests: A free-throw line isolation. The problem with the Lakers running isolations is the complete lack of spacing:
Unsurprisingly, this did not result in a free look at the basket, and Kobe was blocked by Alex Len:
Bryant's 7th attempt was again as a secondary attacker, this time driving against Phoenix's P.J. Tucker after receiving a kick-out pass:
Good defense by Tucker to force a tough look, which Kobe missed.
A pull-up three in transition, with a defender inside his jersey, to pull the game within one. Not a great shot, but classic Mamba:
A pick-and-roll with Carlos Boozer. Boozer slipped the pick, and Kobe was pretty well covered when launching this shot:
But it didn't matter, he cashed it anyway. Still, this was not a great shot with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, and also the type of exhaust inducing attempt that has been too frequent among Bryant's shots this season.
A contested spot-up three-pointer. There were still 11 seconds left on the shot clock and a fair amount of time left in the game. Kobe probably could have found a better shot for the offense, but in just a discussion of how he is exerting himself this one is fairly benign.
The Lakers cannot wrap Kobe in bubble wrap, but as managing his usage goes, his shot distribution as well as the reduction in attempts during the game against the Suns was at least a decent start/template for how Kobe could and should be used for the rest of the season.
How efficient the Lakers are on offense may not matter when their defense is so abjectly putrid, but whether Kobe is able to make it through the remainder of his contract healthy is something that is of great importance to the team and its many followers. On this front, Kobe's new reduced usage (one game in at least) is much more sensible and likely to enable him to have a better chance at a sustained run of health. We may not know with any certainty whether Kobe is hurting the Lakers, but we know his usage in his first 27 games of the season was hurting him.
More importantly, Kobe and Byron seem to have finally reached this same conclusion and are making the necessary adjustments. Whether these adjustments stick will be one of the most important storylines for the remainder of the '14-15 campaign.