For the Los Angeles Lakers, there's no doubt that the 2014-2015 season is already lost. With the fourth-worst record in the NBA, the Lake Show is looking towards next year with a healthy Julius Randle and presumably another top-5 draft pick. All that, we know nearly for certain. But one of the only dramatic threads left is just how much longer Kobe Bean Bryant will continue to suit up.
When do you see the Lakers shutting down Kobe? Why? Do you feel conflicted at all about wanting to shelve him considering all of the team's paying customers and Bryant's $23 million price tag?
I'm not sure there is really a right answer to these questions. On one hand, yeah, the Lakers would benefit from resting Kobe along with trading Jordan Hill and perhaps embrace that the season is lost and the best possible outcome is a high draft pick.
On the other hand, is there much of a point? Who knows how many more games of Kobe we have left? And does he really make enough of an impact that it would hurt L.A.'s draft stock? I don't really have the answers to these questions.
If I had to guess, the Lakers will probably look at shutting down Kobe sometime in March. The season will be inarguably over by then, Kobe's 17th All-Star Game will already have happened, and hopefully the Lakers will have traded Jordan Hill.
In terms of paying customers, it sucks for people that want to see Kobe again before he retires, and there might be limited chances for that. However, I wouldn't worry about Kobe's salary for this consideration. You very easily could look at it the other way of that if he plays, you're paying him $23 million to hurt L.A.'s draft position, which isn't ideal either.
If Byron Scott is saying that "If we're nowhere near playoff contention in March...then we might [shut Kobe down]", then honestly I do not see it happening any earlier than that barring an unfortunate injury. If this season has demonstrated anything about Scott the coach, it is that he can be awfully set in his ways until forced to make an adjustment.
And who is going to force him to cage the Mamba? Bryant is certainly not going to ask to miss the rest of the season. I cannot see the front office stepping in and telling Byron to shut him down either because of the perception problem that would create among the aforementioned paying customers. No, Kobe will probably play out this meaningless season until around March or maybe a little earlier.
Is that even that much of a problem? Yes, it puts more potentially dangerous miles on the 36-year-old's odometer, but after sitting out over a year with injuries, this playing time could also potentially help Bryant shake off whatever rust, if any, he is being adversely affected by. I wrote last week that I believed Kobe should be shut down for the year, but if he is kept on his current rest and usage schedule, it may not be all that harmful. If Bryant stays on his current usage of around 32 minutes a night, 14-16 shots per game at most, and keeps looking to move the ball and be a part of the offense rather than the entire offense, then he will probably make it out of this season unscathed.
As far as paying customers and Bryant's large salary go, I do empathize with people not getting what they paid for, but in the end, one would hope that they can have foresight and understanding that shutting Kobe down for these ultimately pointless games is the best long-term decision for the team. If I feel bad about people paying for anything, it is having plunked down cash to watch Ronnie Price and Carlos Boozer more so than missing out on Kobe.
The Great Mambino
At this point, Kobe Bryant is playing for two reasons: his love of the game and it's his (very well paying) job. The Lakers obviously aren't making the playoffs and at his age, he's got nothing to prove by being on the court.
To me, there's no doubt that there's a little more to this story than just old age when it comes to Kobe's physical state. He's missed nearly half the games the Lakers have played over the past month, sitting out with seemingly everything either "sore" or "tight". Whether it's his outrageous early season workload finally taking its toll or his severe injuries over the past couple years seeing their effects linger, it's clear that Kobe isn't making it through the entire season.
I see the Lakers and Kobe coming to a mutual understanding in early to mid-March. It seems like a logical point in the season--at that point, I suspect that the Lakers would be as much as 25 games under .500. Bryant will have played a ton of minutes with many teammates that could be on the team next year, giving valuable experience to guys like Tarik Black, Ed Davis, Ryan Kelly, Jordan Clarkson and Nick Young by simply being on the court with him. However, at the same time, LA is going to need to cede more time and shots to these players, which will mean sitting Kobe more and more. With the All-Star Weekend over and all these factors in mind, I suspect that in two month's time we won't be seeing any more Black Mamba for the season.
I've been very conflicted over whether or not Kobe should just play out the season. On one hand, he's paid handsomely to do so. On the other hand, he's got a $25 million contract for next season, the value of which actually increases if it's his lucrative farewell campaign (see Jeter, Derek). As a paying customer, I want to see Kobe any chance I get. On the other hand, I want to see him play again next season, a situation that may not occur if he keeps building on the pounding his body has taken early on this year. In the end, I'd choose to preserve him for next season rather than see him this year, but it's not an easy decision in my mind.
Honestly, I don't see the Lakers shutting down Kobe for a couple more months. For me, it's hard to assess what the "right" decision is because there are so many variables to consider here. As a fan, I absolutely want to keep watching Kobe as long as possible - who knows how many more of these vintage, "turn back the clock" moments he has left? Kobe has been far from elite this year, but he's also provided enough flashes for me to selfishly want to hold on as long as possible. The Mamba is a rapidly depreciating asset at this point and it's hard not to think about how much we'll miss him when he's gone.
On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to the idea of shutting him down for a number of basketball reasons. First of all, I don't know if Kobe is actually healthy at this point. I'm used to the idea of older players missing the second half of back-to-backs, but he also just sat out 3 games in a row. Some of that probably is exhaustion from Byron Scott riding him into the ground to start the season; however, if Kobe has injuries here it changes the equation considerably. This is a situation where I would wholeheartedly endorse the Mamba taking a seat to get his body right. Additionally, injured or not, at some point it just makes sense to shut him down. While Kobe will want to play no matter what, he has a lot of miles on those tires. The Lakers probably won't be title contenders next year, but if Randle is healthy, they add a top 5 pick, and pick up a real free agent or two, this is a much different team. There's a world where they could be contending for a playoff spot, a place where you would want to save as much of the Mamba's gas tank as possible.
The decision on whether or not to shut Kobe Bryant down for the season will likely come about 30 days or so from now, but what's going to change between then and now? The Lakers might pull off a small trade to land assets for next season, but that won't move the needle at all right now. It seems the only difference will be the number of games left to play, which means whatever logic they balance when making this decision will be mostly the same then and now.
It makes sense to shut Kobe down, too. Try to keep the mileage limited, put in some work during free agency to make the team more competitive, and bring back Julius Randle (plus the possibility of a top-five draft pick). The Lakers aren't going to surge up the Western Conference with or without Kobe, so why not set him up for as much success as possible for what could be his last NBA season?
The thing is, if we take Kobe's expiring contract seriously, he has such a short amount of time left to play the game of basketball. Two seasons is nothing relative to the time he's poured into the sport, and it'll pass by in the blink of an eye. It's depressing thinking his final years will be spent with huge chunks of DNP-Rest. Yes, he needs it, but to throw up a white flag mid-season without any "serious" injury? That's hard to swallow.
Ultimately, though, I think the decision should be left to one man: Kobe Bryant. If he wants to play, and is OK with taking nights off as he's shown to be through the last few weeks, then there's no reason to stop him. Let the man go out the way he wants, continue to protect him by playing him less, and hope nothing bad happens between the middle of this season and the off-season. I think the Lakers should do what Kobe wants to do on this matter, even if they're the ones coughing up over $20 million.