Is there any more polarizing question among NBA fans than “What should we expect from Kobe Bryant this season?”
Even his most staunch defenders realize that he is not 2006 Kobe anymore, but they expect him to stay healthy, use his high hoops IQ, and be closer to his old self than people realize. Then there are the doubters that note he played in just 41 games the past two seasons and when he did play last year he shot just 38 percent — they don’t expect Kobe to change, and they don’t expect him to play well.
NBA executive: “He’ll be a high-volume, low-efficiency scorer. The biggest deficiency will be on the defensive end. He can’t defend quick guards anymore. But he’s still going to get buckets. He’s still smart. He’s going to draw fouls. He’ll average a very inefficient 22 or 23 points a game.”
Rick Fox, former Lakers forward and NBA TV analyst: “He has a lot of miles on his body. But he’s smarter as a basketball player this year than he was last year and the year before. So above the shoulders, he will continue to progress.”
Anonymous NBA assistant coach: “I could see him consistently post 18 to 24 points a game, five rebounds, five assists and a couple of steals. He will shoot well from the free-throw line. He will be more in a catch-and-shoot situation at small forward so his 3-point percentage should go up. He just can’t be in a situation where they throw it to him with six seconds left on the shot clock. He’s not as athletic anymore and can’t beat so many defenders.”
I have trouble seeing Kobe changing his style after 19 NBA seasons, when it matters the Lakers offense will go through him. Nor do I see filling the true mentor role with the Lakers young players such as D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson — at some point he will grow frustrated with their mistakes and try to take over games, which will not go well. As noted by the assistant coach, Kobe is not physically that guy anymore. He’ll put up numbers, hit some big shots and hopefully be healthy at the end of the season, but he’s not the guy who can put a team on his shoulder for any length of time anymore.
Flowing out of the first question is the next one: What he will do at the end of the season? Is Kobe going to retire or keep playing?
Obviously, if he can stay healthy is the biggest factor in that decision. But for fun, let’s say he stays healthy and plays 65 or more games this season, not a lot of people around the league think he can walk away.
Fox: “I don’t think this is his last year. It might be his last year in L.A. But it won’t be his last year in the game. I think he’ll play overseas in China. Or maybe go to New York and be with Derek (Fisher) and Phil (Jackson) and mentor the other players with the triangle offense.”
Anonymous NBA executive: “If the Lakers can get a couple of guys, he’s going to want to be a part of it. But if they strike out, he could get another monster paycheck because they think he’s worth the price of admission.”
Kobe has repeatedly said he will not leave the Lakers (and I tend to believe him, being a Laker is a big part of his brand). No other team is going to play Kobe more than a $10 million, one-year contract — and any contending team will tell him he has to subjugate his game and be a third/fourth/fifth option. The idea that the Lakers would pay him more because he is worth more to them financially is spot on, but the Lakers have to realize it will be hard to land elite free agents if Kobe is still there (top guys will say publicly they will play with Kobe, but they don’t want to be in his shadow and have a fight for touches at points).
In his 20th season, Kobe may not be the most important part of the Laker season — development of the young stars is — but he’ll be the most interesting.