In the past Kobe Bryant has said that he has no desire to stick around once he is no longer able to play up to his own high expectations, and that day is coming sooner rather than later. Bryant is preparing for and thinking of that day, telling Yahoo Sports Adrian Wojnarowski earlier this season "It's a lifestyle, an absolute around-the-clock lifestyle. There's no getting away from it. I've always enjoyed that aspect of it, the process of it, the building of it. But there will come a point when I don't anymore, and then it will be over for me."
He began the 2014-15 season shooting his worst field goal percentage and three-point percentage of his storied career while playing nearly 40 minutes a game, and it appeared that day may already be here; that Bryant would face a choice between collecting the rest of the money on his two year extension, or leaving the game with the dignity the surefire first ballot Hall of Famer obviously hoped for.
Given Kobe's notoriously stubborn and competitive personality, the potential for these last two years to end in an ugly fashion was on the table, with Bryant refusing to admit his own limits, continuing to hijack a miserable team as it crashed towards the lottery. Then, something (kind of) unexpected happened: The NBA's most infamous workaholic took a break. Bryant sat out three games, and when he returned with questions from some whether the team was better off without him, Lakers head coach Byron Scott announced Bryant would be on a (sensible) minutes limit of 32 per game. Instead of bristling at this role reduction, Bryant has thrived in it, leading the team in points (17), assists (8), rebounds (8.5), and steals (1.8). Kobe has also raised his field goal percentage to 46.9% (up from a hideous 37.7). Rather than force things out of a fear that no one else could generate points, Bryant has happily ceded control of the offense and looked to set up teammates in his four games since returning.
So what is the secret to this new Kobe? Well, according to quotes gathered by ESPN's Baxter Holmes (via Twitter), Bryant has admitted his own mortality. "I have many faults, but one of my strengths is that I can be realistic and then I can build around that...I would try to dominate, but my body just couldn't hold up to it. So I wind up missing a lot of shots that I normally make..." This new Mamba 2.0 looks to be a much more effective model than the one that began the season seemingly attempting to chuck up a jumper for every year he had been on the planet.
This admission of mortality from Bryant at the end of his career stands in stark contrast to Julius Randle a rookie who should be in the midst of his first NBA season, but is instead sidelined due to a cruel break of his leg during the Lakers season opener. Just as Kobe has always looked to prolong his career by watching and learning from those who came before him, as well as any advantage in medical treatment he could seek out, Randle appears to be of a similar mindset. In between the third and fourth quarters of the Lakers win over the Pacers on Sunday night, the team announced via press release that Randle would undergo surgery on Tuesday morning to replace the screw in his right foot.
Some will recall that this is the problematic screw that led to Randle's draft stock dropping enough that the Lakers were able to select him with the seventh-overall pick, and while the team had in the past stated that there was no reason for concern with the screw going forward, as long as Randle was out for the season anyway, this would appear to be as good of a time as any to get this potential future issue taken care of in the present. After the game, Randle was seen by reporters seeking out advice on rehabilitation from the Pacers' injured franchise player, Paul George.
Paul George giving Julius Randle some nice tips on rehabbing and building confidence back. Rook asking good questions pic.twitter.com/jkuKtxyyIM— Dave Shore (@Dave_Shore) January 5, 2015
While it is not quite the same thing, this brings to mind quotes that Kobe gave to Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding a few weeks ago about seeking out the advice of Michael Jordan during his youth:
"I'm not scared of anybody," Bryant said. "It's more curiosity and such a respect that I want to learn. I want to learn. I'm so curious to learn-still to this day. Just a constant learner. I'm not afraid to ask questions about things that I don't know. I'm not afraid to admit what I don't know. I'll ask questions and try to learn as much as I can."
Bryant wasn't shy. Early in his second year in the league, he already hit Jordan with direct questions on the court in Chicago. They discussed Jordan's fadeaway jumper and his post moves right then and there."Talked a little bit about the game. I do that often, though. My conversations with Michael get the most attention, but I do that often. I used to ask Clyde a lot of questions; I asked Stockton a lot of questions. You grow up watching these guys and seeing them do what they're doing, and you want to know how they do what they do and why they do what they do. I wasn't too proud to ask."
While George is no M.J., and Randle is (probably) no Bryant, it is encouraging to see that the centerpiece of the Lakers current rebuilding effort is going about his business in a similar way to the last one. Mitch Kupchak and company will truly have hit another home run in an organizational history full of so many if, in 19 years, bloggers are having similar conversations about an aging Lakers Champion in Randle accepting his mortality, as Kobe has been forced to do now. We can only hope.