Lakers, Kobe set to navigate this transition together

As he [Kobe Bryant] enters his 20th season, elder statesman and superstar Kobe Bryant embraces new challenges in Los Angeles

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Brandon Bass just got done with rebuilding, having spent the last two seasons in Boston, where the Celtics cancelled Ubuntu and broke up the Big Four for spare parts with nary a tear shed. It was time to move on. The Los Angeles Lakers, his new team this season, are in the midst of a rebuild, so Bass, no doubt, has advice for his new, young teammates.
Except, he doesn’t.

“You aren’t ever going to be in a rebuild as long as that guy is on the team,” he said last Monday, on the team’s Media Day, nodding to your right.
Any guesses about to whom Bass was referring?

That Guy, aka Kobe Bryant, seemed a little wistful on the eve of his 20th NBA season. He is on his 10th coach, and his latest center, and his next point guard. Whether this is his last season will surely be his decision as the One-Name guys always have that autonomy, their great pasts a guarantor to determine their futures.

But the One Namers still have standards, and for almost all of his two decades in the NBA, Bryant’s only standard was being on a team good enough to compete for a championship. This year’s version of the Lakers won’t, can’t, has no shot at being that relevant in the NBA landscape. It would take almost everything to go right for the Lakers to be in the hunt for a playoff spot, even as they should be improved over last season’s 21-win effort.

So, what could feel new this year, after all these years?

“Every team has a different puzzle that you have to try and piece together,” Bryant said. “Every season feels new. Here, we have so many new guys, guys that’s never played in the NBA before. We have to try and put that together. It feels new.”

The Lakers certainly needed a new roster after last season’s crashed and burned. They brought in Roy Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers, and reigning Kia Sixth Man of the Year winner Lou Williams from the Toronto Raptors. They took Ohio State point guard D’Angelo Russell with the second pick of the Draft instead of Duke’s big man, Jahlil Okafor. There’s even Metta World Peace, for a second tour of duty, and Julius Randle, for a do-over of his first, which lasted exactly 14 minutes before he broke his right leg in last season’s opener.
I think he’s at a point in his career that he’s mature enough to accept certain things, and accept uncertainty. Probably earlier on in his career, he wouldn’t have dealt with it as well. – Former Lakers big man Pau Gasol, on Kobe Bryant.
Into that new mix comes the 37-year-old Bryant, who begins the season third (32,482 points) on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, 4,446 points behind second-place Karl Malone. Unless Bryant gets in the wayback machine and averages better than 30 a game this season, it would likely take two-plus seasons for Bryant to pass Malone, at which point he’d still probably need another season to catch the all-time scoring leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points).
It’s hard to imagine Bryant hanging around just to get a shot at Abdul-Jabbar. To play past this season, and the end of his two-year, $48 million deal, Bryant would have to see real signs of improvement from the team. Playing just to be playing has never been his style.
Yet the present is also … cloudy.
“I think he’s at a point in his career that he’s mature enough to accept certain things, and accept uncertainty,” said the Bulls’ Pau Gasol, one of Bryant’s closer friends and his Lakers teammate from 2008-14. “Probably earlier on in his career, he wouldn’t have dealt with it as well. But I think he understands they have a pretty young group — with some talent, for sure. But he also understands he’s in his 20th year in his career. He hasn’t had a full, healthy year for the last three years, pretty much. I think he’s just looking forward to having a healthy year and to compete and have fun and be the player he is, and we’ll see where the team goes.”
The challenge — not just for Bryant, but the Lakers’ organization — is to manage his remaining years in Forum Blue and Gold with as much dignity as possible. Step one is keeping him healthy, after he’s missed large chunks of the last two years with injuries, including the torn rotator cuff that finished last season in January. As ever, Bryant killed himself in the gym this summer once he got the green light.
“It was a challenge, a full-time commitment,” Bryant said. “You’ve got to stay on top of things, all the time. But that’s part of the process. That’s why it’s so much harder when players get older, because the commitment level must go through the roof, even more so than it was when you felt you were working hard.”

Coach Byron Scott plans to play Bryant more at small forward this season, with Jordan Clarkson playing at the two alongside Russell. Bryant will also be a stretch four on occasion. (Left unsaid: it will also help Bryant’s field goal percentage being closer to the bucket. In 2014-15, he shot a career-worst 37 percent. That wasn’t all his fault, of course. Given the team’s other options, a bad look from Bryant was still as good as most other shots the Lakers could get.)

“First of all, (at) the three, it’s less running,” Scott said. “It’s less pounding as far as being 20 feet away from the basket. We can put him in a much less condensed area. I know people lost their minds when I said the four, but Golden State plays (Andre) Iguodala at the four. So he can play the four at times. Against some of these lineups, he can play three, four, one, two. It’s just how this league is going right now.”

How much Bryant plays this season will likely be a group decision, with Scott, General Manager Mitch Kupchak and head athletic trainer Gary Vitti (who is retiring after this season) all having their say.
“I’ve had that discussion with Kobe, not with everybody else,” Scott said with a laugh. “We’ve just got to figure it all out. Let’s go to training camp first and see how that works out. Let’s go to preseason and see how that works out. Then we’ll have a really good indication on what kind of load he can handle when the season starts.”
Scott acknowledged that the 26-30 minute range that teams have used to preserve the effectiveness of aging stars like John Stockton, Malone, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan in recent years would be a good rule of thumb, at least at the start of the season, for Bryant.

“I think that’s very reasonable,” Scott said. “I haven’t given a hard cap on minutes right now, as far as how many minutes, but I do know that it won’t be over 30. I know that for a fact. And Kobe probably knows that as well. Even though we didn’t talk about numbers, we did talk about being able to sustain a level of play that he’s accustomed to doing in a certain amount of time. Last year I made the mistake of playing him too much, and we could see he hit the wall after a certain period of time.”
Bryant says he’s fine if he has to play what passes for power forward in today’s NBA.

“It would be different if we were playing in the ’90s, and the guys who played four. That would be a little different — Larry Johnson and guys like that,” Bryant said. “Now, the fours nowadays are slightly tall two guards. So it doesn’t make that much of a difference to me, unless you’re playing Memphis.”
His teammates say Unca Kobe has been warm and fuzzy all summer.

“Just really a mentor so far,” Russell said. “Every time I’ve talked to him, he’s always giving me positive information.”
Randle was in a bad mood most of the offseason, as the Lakers were ultra-careful with his workload during the Summer League. Unfortunately, Bryant has become an expert on the mental side of rehabbing season-ending injuries.

“He’s been great, mentally checking on me, making sure I’m okay” Randle said. “Obviously challenging me on the court. Kobe’s Kobe. He’s a great guy, and I’m excited to get back on the court with him … I’m a person that thrives on competition, that thrives on challenges. Whenever he challenges me, whatever it is, it’s fun.”
But when they start playing for real, what will Bryant’s mood be? Can he accept an elder statesman role as the Lakers begin to play through Russell, Clarkson and Randle? (Paul Pierce, Professional Troll, threw some shade Kobe’s way last week.) Will Scott force the ball to him if he demands it late in games?

And what can Bryant, ending a score with the same team — two decades’ worth of triumphs and jealousies, pride and pain — still bring to the table?
“I think it’s experience, kind of what I’ve been through on my journey,” Bryant said. “That’s the most important thing. It’s not necessarily to tell the young kids, do this or do that. It’s more like, this is what I’m gonna do. These are some of the obstacles that I’ve met. And hopefully they can relate it to whatever it is that they’re going through. So that’s what I’m looking forward to bringing off the court.”

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