Kobe Bryant is in his 20th season in the NBA, all with the Los Angeles Lakers. He is the first guard to ever hit that 20 season mark, just another example of Bryant making history. However, what should be a celebration of the time and memories Kobe has given Lakers fans, the fond farewell tour he said he never wanted, has taken a sharp turn off of a cliff.
The numbers are ugly. The 37-year old is hitting just 31.4% of his 17(!!!) field goal attempts per-game. Bryant is also knocking down just 2 of the 9.7 three point attempts he is averaging, with just 1.7 assists against 1.3 turnovers. The advanced numbers don't paint a prettier picture, the Lakers' Net Rating with Bryant on the floor is -18.5 versus -4.9 when he is on the bench. Bryant and Lakers head coach Byron Scott vowed to cut back on Kobe's usage headed into the season, but for the 27.5 minutes Bryant is on the floor, 30.1% of Lakers' possessions are ending with a Kobe shot, assist, or turnover, which given his efficiency is far from ideal.
Bryant acknowledged his poor performance after the Lakers' 103-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks:
Kobe: "I'm the 200th best player in the league right now. I freaking suck."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) November 2, 2015
Kobe Bryant: "I just can't make a shot"— Shahan Ahmed (@shahanLA) November 2, 2015
Kobe used an expletive to describe how he's playing and how the team is playing defense— Eric Pincus (@EricPincus) November 2, 2015
Some have speculated that Bryant has struggled in part due to the lower leg bruise that had him miss nearly two weeks during the preseason, and when parsing early season averages, it is important to remember that a small sample size can make even the best players look like a D-Leaguer who should never see the floor in an NBA game. Take Bryant's numbers compared to last season's MVP-runner up, James Harden through three games:
It is fair to be confident that Harden will have a significantly stronger bounce back from his early season struggles than Bryant will, but as bad as Kobe has been, he has still been marginally more efficient than the shooting guard widely considered to be the best in the league. If he agreed to use up less of the Lakers' possessions, there is reason to hope he could at the very least not be a hindrance to his team, injury issues or not.
Bryant claims to understand this. After the Lakers' loss to the Sacramento Kings, Kobe spoke of needing to take a step back:
"I'm really wanting to let the young guys, especially D'Angelo, let him call the game," Bryant said. "Let him call the game. Let him organize the game. Let him read the game. Let him read the flow. Let him make those decisions."
Against the Mavericks, Bryant did not really live up to those words. His usage rate of 26.3% was second only to Julius Randle (28.5), who was significantly more efficient and effective against the Mavericks with 22 points on 52.9% shooting compared to Bryant's 15 points on 20% shooting. If Bryant is truly going to take a step back, it can't be to take a jumper. Instead, he needs to let the team's other young guards like Jordan Clarkson and D'Angelo Russell take over more possessions. Instead of forcing up shots like this:
The Lakers need to use Bryant more off the ball, getting him quick catch and shoots such as the one below, although ideally off of a bit more off the ball movement in most cases:
The Lakers' current plan with Bryant is not working. There are two scenarios that both lead to one solution with Kobe: he needs to be used less and in a more supplementary role to have a chance at being efficient. If Bryant cannot be efficient in a lesser role, then at least he will use up less possessions with his inefficiency. If a lower usage rate can help Kobe bounce back, then it could nudge the Lakers' offense towards respectability. Either way, Bryant needs to put his money where his mouth is and let the young guys run the show, or the final year of his career is going to leave him, the Lakers, and basketball fans everywhere with a bitter taste in their mouths.