Kobe Bryant took a tidal wave of flack to begin the 2015-16 NBA season. Most of it was deserved, with the longtime Los Angeles Lakers' guard coming out of the gates guns blazing, but shooting like a drunk stormtrooper in his first day of blaster training.
Bryant began the season with an 8-24 shooting line against the Minnesota Timberwolves and things did not get better from there. During one particularly dispiriting four game stretch from November 28th to December 2nd, Bryant was at his worst, taking no fewer than 20 shots in a game while shooting 30.9% from the field. Bryant was playing so bad that opposing players were reportedly "shocked at how far he had fallen."
Making matters worse, Lakers head coach Byron Scott made it clear Bryant had license to shoot, telling reporters that Bryant had "earned" the right to shoot as much as he wanted. All of this while Scott continued to play Bryant 30+ minutes a night to chase wins the now 4-21 Lakers clearly weren't getting.
In a vacuum this would hardly be an issue, the Lakers are not a good team when running on all cylinders, much less with Bryant shooting everywhere but the basket, and their first round pick conveys to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside of the top 3 in the 2016 NBA Draft. But Bryant's over-usage was not only hurting his efficiency on the way to better lottery odds, it was taking away from valuable development time for the Lakers' young core of D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle.
Bryant's usage rate of 29.3 through December 6th stood in stark contrast to how Bryant spoke about the season during training camp, when he proudly told reporters of how he planned to take a passenger seat and let the young guys take the wheel:
"I do not like setting up the offense. I hate it. Phil made me do it years ago... You guys know I like scoring the ball, why the hell would I like setting the offense up?" Additionally aiding in Bryant's comfort to sliding off of the ball is the addition of Russell, because as Bryant told the media, "[I] haven't played with point guards that are playmakers at heart. D'Angelo is a ridiculous playmaker man. I'd much rather catch & shoot."
Over the Lakers last 5 games, Bryant has actually lived these words, and in doing so has transformed from a possession devouring sarlacc into a useful NBA player, averaging 17.3 points on 47.4% shooting with 5.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists to boot. Even more encouraging, Bryant (26.9) has fell to third on the team in usage rate over that span, behind Russell (27.6) and Randle (27.2).
"He's kind of stepping to the side a little bit and having them have a little bit more say in what they do," Scott told Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News of Bryant's decision to cede more of the Lakers' offense to the younger players. Earlier this season, "stepping to the side" would have been an accurate description of the lead up to the majority of Bryant's shots, but by allowing his teammates to shine Bryant has been forced into less desperate end of clock heaves like this (that he still somehow made):
In exchange for more shots in the flow of the offense like this one:
By letting the ball come to him as a secondary attacker, Bryant is able to pump fake and get right into a soft spot in the Bucks defense for as easy of a jumper as he ever takes. However, Kobe's current efficient shooting may fall off a bit due to the fact that he has made a lot more of the tough jumpers he was missing early in the season, like this one against the Houston Rockets:
If Bryant continues to transition into a role as more of a secondary attacker, then his shooting could be sustainable, but otherwise it is almost certain to crater again at some point.
In addition to simply ceding possessions to his teammates, Bryant has also taken initiative in setting them up for easy looks, especially out pick and rolls. Rather than firing like he did in the example above, Bryant has looked for teammates out of the action:
Here Bryant takes a screen from Roy Hibbert and instead of rising and firing over both his primary defender (Trevor Ariza) and the helper (Dwight Howard) like the highlighted play against the Rockets, Bryant willingly flips the ball to Hibbert for an easy layup.
Again, Bryant takes a screen from Hibbert, but this time sees the entire defense focus on himself and the big man. Russell also notices this, and cuts to the basket where Bryant zips the ball through the defense to him for a layup.
If Bryant is going to have the ball in his hands, the Lakers are going to have to get off the ball movement like that going more often to keep defenses scrambling. Having Hibbert acting as a deflector shield on ball screens could also be incredibly helpful to the aging superstar going forward.
"I just relax and teach," Kobe told Bob Garcia of Sports Out West after the Lakers win over the Bucks. "If the plays are there I take them. If not then I teach. I have found a balance between both." Earlier in the season Bryant would often wax poetic about giving the team over to his young teammates after firing up 20+ shots that night, but in recent games he has actually put his money where his mouth is.
Some of this change has been facilitated by Russell and Randle being benched, and thus separated from Bryant at times, which is an issue. Bryant's shooting will also likely drop again at some point. But Kobe is taking baby steps towards the type farewell season realistic-minded fans had hoped for going into the year. Not one filled with buzzer beaters, 40 point explosions, and nightly reminders of what Kobe used to be, but one where Bryant simply took the co-pilot's seat and offered help when needed while letting the future of the Lakers fly the ship. If this change in mindset lasts is anyone's guess, but the last five games have offered reasons to hope again that despite mounting losses, this season can be the fun combination of "goodbye" and "hello" that everyone wanted all along.