Since taking over the Los Angeles Lakers as head coach, Byron Scott has taken criticism for everything from his rotations to criticizing players in the media. Many of these critiques have been valid, but one area where it has been increasingly clear it is unfair to criticize Scott is for his usage of Kobe Bryant.
The latest round of Twitter outrage came today when Scott announced that he may not sit Bryant despite Lakers trainer Gary Vitti telling Scott that he would recommend doing so after Bryant left the Lakers' win against the New Orleans Pelicans because of his strained Achilles.
Bryant has missed eight other games this season due to various other injuries, including four of the Lakers' last ten (four and a half including last night). The 37-year old has aggravated his back, surgically repaired shoulder, and now his Achlles tendon; leaving it more than fair to question how much he is being used given his advanced age. This becomes even more clear when you compare Bryant to the short list of other players to play in the NBA as long as he has:
As first noted by @presidual, here are the minutes/game for players in their 20th NBA season: pic.twitter.com/kGpogono1z— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) January 13, 2016
Bryant is averaging nearly 8 minutes more per game than the next closest player on that list, and his usage rate is the highest among players in their 20th season as well. According to the invaluable Basketball Reference, Kobe's usage rate of 31.2% not only leads the current Lakers, but is far and away the highest among players to play as long as he has. The next closest on the list is Moses Malone, who used just over 7% less possessions at a 24.1% usage rate in his 20th campaign.
In summation, Bryant is playing an unprecedented amount of minutes for a player with his wear and tear while using up more possessions than anyone ever has in the same circumstances. The unfortunate reality is if Bryant continues to battle father time and common sense in tandem this way, it all but guarantees that he will end his fourth consecutive season due to injury rather than lasting to the finish line, which is the opposite of Byron Scott's stated goal.
"My biggest concern is I want that man to finish the season standing up on the court and getting the respect he deserves," Scott told Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News on Wednesday."Obviously he can't play 30-32 minutes per game."
But Kobe is playing nearly that many minutes per game (his average dropped to 29.9 after sitting out the second half last night), and it's unclear whether there is anything Scott can do about it (as captured by Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times):
Vitti "would love to shut him down," Scott said of Bryant. "But that ain't probably going to happen. He [Bryant] doesn't want to shut it down."
Bryant, who was getting a haircut in the media room Wednesday, was asked about Vitti wanting him to rest for a couple of weeks.
He smiled and just laughed and laughed and laughed before walking away.
This on the heels of Mitch Kupchak explaining to Chris McGee of the Time Warner Cable Sportsnet last week why he told Baxter Holmes of ESPN that the focus of the Lakers' season was on Kobe. "After 19 years [Kobe] deserves to go out with the recognition that a career of 19 years would bring about. That's what everybody wants. That's what I think our TV partners want, our sponsor partners want, our fans, and I know that's what we want and what Kobe wants."
It's easy to say that Scott is the head coach, and if he really wanted to he could just bench Kobe. That does not appear to be the reality of the situation though. The Lakers organization, from the top down, seems to have signed off on Bryant essentially getting to dictate when he plays and how much he plays in his 20th season, both due to business reasons and a sense that all of the success that Kobe has brought to the franchise has earned him this right.
That may end up being a decision that leads to Bryant finishing the season due to an injury rather than the long, raucous, and tearful standing ovation he deserves on April 13th at Staples Center when the Lakers wrap up their season and Kobe's career, but it's the decision that has been made.
This is who Bryant is. The tenacity that led to him playing through countless injuries earlier in his career is the same stubbornness fueling him to now literally laugh at the idea of sitting out a few games to give him a better chance to finish the season standing. Kobe wants to laugh in the face of the statistics cited above, he wants to do the impossible and prove everyone who says he can't wrong, just like always.
If all of this is illustrative of the issues with Kobe's farewell tour, it's what the Lakers signed up for this when they gave him his two-year, $48 million extension. Even if Scott wants to, it's not clear that he can make Kobe sit down. So criticize him the next time he calls Julius Randle out to reporters, or for burying Tarik Black in the rotation. But in the case of Bryant's usage, today was the latest and most clear example that that appears to be up to Kobe himself, for better or worse.
All stats per Basketball Reference. Mitch Kupchak quotes transcribed via Time Warner Cable Sportsnet. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.