Kobe Bryant is 34 years old. He has played in nearly 1200 regular season NBA games. On top of that, he has also played in 220 playoff games. After his second stint as a member of the U.S National Basketball Team this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar indicated that he may only have two years of hoops left in him before retirement.
This summer, much to the chagrin of 29 other teams in the NBA, L.A. went out and acquired future Hall of Famer Steve Nash and perennial All-Star Dwight Howard. The idea was that the latter would shoulder some of the defensive burden, the former would shoulder some of the offensive burden, and Bryant (who visibly wore down in the playoffs last season) would be able to exert less effort and energy over the course of the year.
So far this season Bryant is averaging more minute per game than he has at any point since 2009-10.
The most startling thing about Bryant’s play up to this point is how tremendous it has been. He is averaging 29.8 points per game and doing it on 47.5 percent shooting – a career high by two percentage points. Offensively he has essentially been carrying his struggling 16-21 ballclub.
But apparently that isn’t enough. According to head coach Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers need Bryant to guide them on defense, too. They need him to check the other team’s best player.
"I think that really helped us," D'Antoni told ESPN recently. "It helped us against the Clippers with Chris Paul. (Bryant) wants to take the challenge, and it really helps us.""He disrupts the whole offense on the ball," said D'Antoni, who added that Bryant will draw either Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. "He's done that a couple games, so we'll continue to milk that one."
But, ah, what about that whole, you-killing-him-by-playing-him-too-many-minutes thing?
"That's what worries me and that's why I took a long time to put him there and that's why, even now, I still have some trepidation," D'Antoni said. "But he's taking the challenge. I told him his minutes got to go down -- they got to go down. He doesn't love that, but he's willing to do anything to make us win.
"He's always going to be focal point or the lightning rod of a lot of things here in Los Angeles. But I've only found a guy that wants to win and as a coach, I couldn't ask for anything more than that."
It is absolutely stunning that a team with Howard on the roster needs Bryant to be the defensive specialist. Yes, the big man hasn’t been healthy. Yes, he doesn’t get much help from L.A.’s ancient roster. But that’s his role. It is something that only he can do on this team. And yet, for whatever reason, he refuses to really give everything he has on that end.
With Howard in the lineup the Lakers are 26th in the NBA in points allowed and 20th in defensive efficiency. That’s why they need help from Bryant on that end. Unfortunately, more likely than not, what will end up happening is that the 34-year-old will routinely get burned because he now lacks the athleticism to defend on an elite level and his offensive production will suffer, too.