PBT’s Top 10 NBA stories of 2014, No. 8: Kobe Bryant returns

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He’s the NBA’s most divisive player — you love him or you hate him.

But you watch him.

Also, you have to respect his game. He’s going to retire soon with a career that will be looked back on as Top 10, Top 15 all time in the league (depending on who is doing the rankings).

Kobe Bryant returned to the court in 2014 after missing almost a full season battling injuries and the league is a better, more interesting with him in it. He’s been one of the most interesting story lines of the young season, even though the Lakers are terrible.

Kobe had been hinting about retirement back in 2013 before when he ruptured his Achilles, a devastating injury that oddly provided something he needed — an obstacle to overcome. A goal to focus on. There were people saying he couldn’t come back from that in his mid 30s, and nothing motivates Kobe like people telling him he can’t do something. He got back on the court for an entire six games last season before a knee injury ended that first comeback. But that just fueled his fire.

Bryant wanted to come back because he wanted to see how far he could push himself, what he could do at age 36 coming back off two major injuries. How far could he push himself, how far could he carry a rebuilding Lakers’ team?

He can push himself all the way back to averaging 24.1 points a game — fourth best in the NBA. He did it playing 35.4 minutes a game (14 most in the NBA) while using 35.8 percent of his team’s possessions when on the court (second highest in the NBA). Those are amazing numbers for a 26-year-old, let alone a 36-year-old. He pushed himself past Michael Jordan to become third on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. His footwork is still impeccable, his ability to get to his spots on the floor amazing. He is incredibly fundamentally sound.

Of course, this is Kobe so those numbers and accolades come with controversy. With detractors.

Kobe has been far from the model of efficiency — he is shooting 37.2 percent overall and 24.5 percent from three. He has attempted more shots in the inefficient midrange (276) than he has in the paint, and he’s shooting just 38 percent on those. Of course, when he does get to the rim (106 shots in the restricted area) he’s not finishing, shooting just 50.9 percent.

What’s more, the Lakers have been predictable — and in the NBA that means defendable — when he has the ball. Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report said it best, coach Byron Scott had built a shrine to Kobe, not an offense. The Lakers have had better offensive numbers with him off the court (although the adjusted +/- stats have the Lakers as slightly better when Kobe is on the court). Kobe tends to pound the rock, either in the post or out on the perimeter, and when he gets it teammates don’t move or cut, they stand and watch. His shots are often contested — 93 percent of his midrange shots this season have been contested. When other teams send a double at Kobe he passes out quickly and smartly, and his teammates — mostly guys who need open looks to knock down shots — are getting open looks. The Lakers’ offense looks better. But left single covered Kobe tends to think he can still just beat his guy. Like 26-year-old Kobe.

All the load on his shoulders forced him to miss three games — including Christmas Day against the Bulls — to get rest and reset his body. Kobe’s not the kind of person who loves the idea of a Spurs-style maintenance program, but he seemed to have learned he needs one.

When asked recently if it was foreign for him to have to think about his body this much and in this way, he said, “Of course… It’s frustrating but I have to figure it out.”

On his return Sunday he promised to play a more patient game, and more patient with his body. We’ll see. He has matured as a person but changing his persona on the court is a different process. A harder one.

What we do know is that whether he is chucking up ill-advised shots or playing patiently, we can’t stop watching.

Kobe Bryant is a draw, a guy fans will likely vote in as an All-Star starter again this season (he is currently second in voting among Western Conference guards and is well ahead of third place James Harden).

He’s back. And the league is more interesting to watch with him in it.