Its been taken for granted that Kobe Bryant is superhuman. More than perhaps any player in history, Bryant understands that historical greatness in the NBA is most dependent upon games played and longevity. The careers of injury prone superstar talents are strewn all along the road leading to the Hall of Fame.
Shaquille O’Neal has often said in retirement that his biggest regret was that he didn’t make the “30,000 point club”. He finished with 28,596 career points and missed out on 322 games over 18 seasons. A conservative estimate would place O’Neal 2nd all time in scoring had he placed more value on not missing games.
On the converse, Bryant has been loathe to miss games, often performing with injuries that would shut other players down for long stretches of the season. His stubborness has long been an asset for himself and for the Laker’s box office, but the question now must be asked:
By coming back from injury early while not physically near his peak does Bryant risk losing the mental edge he held for so many years over the rest of the league?
Bryant ruled the NBA for years by instilling fear in his opponents. He had no tendencies, he had mastered a ridiculous arsenal of pet moves from every spot on the floor. His handle would embarass you, you could drape yourself on him defensively and he’d still score. If you challenged him at the rim, he’d posterize you.
Fellow wing players around the league, including the stars, studied a little more film, got more rest, and came prepared to play against Bryant. Through all the wars with a rogue’s gallery of players, Kobe was always the hunter. That’s why even as he aged, his feints and pump fakes were so effective, players feared being embarassed.
That is changing. The list of players not intimidated by Bryant was short before this season – James, Wade, Paul, Durant, Westbrook, Anthony. If he is unable to quickly regain some semblance of his athleticism he risks becoming, for the first time in his career, a target of opposing players.
In the three games back from injury, Bryant’s movement has improved with each game but he is clearly a shell of himself in terms of quickness and explosion. Players are going at him at both ends because they smell blood in the water.
Kevin Durant’s post game comment regarding Bryant last night was telling. When asked about Bryant being switched on to Durant in the first half before being called for a foul, Durant said “I would’ve taken him” and later said “I wish he didn’t foul me.”
He was serious.
The infamous fight between Julius Erving and Larry Bird came as Bird began to dominate the aging Doctor and let him know about it. Surely Bryant is aware of how hard he went at Jordan’s neck as a 19 year old full of competitive arrogance and vigor. He must know the young guns of the league will come for him as well, such is the NBA circle of life.
The Lakers don’t have enough talent collectively to not have Bryant be the focal point of the team. They need to do a better job putting this version of Kobe in better positions to succeed.
The question is what will Bryant do to combat the coming attacks? He and the Lakers better figure something out fast.