For whatever reason, several of the league's more entertaining players have fallen off in recent years. Be it due to injury, confidence issues, rotation frustrations, a poor fit, or general ennui in a profession that can get tiresome, these players have disappointed of late. For the next few weeks, we're going to take a look at a list of familiar names that haven't produced familiar games over the last few years. Or, at least players that have produced games that we don't want to be in the habit of familiarizing ourselves with.
Today, we're looking at Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
This might be a column, oh-so-touchy Laker fans, that you might have to actually read instead of just glomming on to the title and moving on to the comment section.
This isn't some dour bent begging the great Kobe Bryant to return to the sort of play that saw him top off an afternoon in a pizzeria with an 81-point game. The guy is 34, now, and while we fully expect a normal NBA season to aid him in kicking that field-goal percentage up a notch in his 17th season, age has set in and we don't blame Kobe one bit for the expected slight tail off.
What we "want back" from Kobe has little to do with on-court production, or bottom-line scouting. He's going to give us those numbers no matter what, even if Bryant goes for stretches as the fourth option in an offense featuring Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. No, what we "want back" from Kobe is the barely-beer-buying-legal spark that told him it was cool to ring up then-Chicago Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter during the NBA's previous lockout year in 1999. The one that had him reaching out to someone over three times his age just to chat about how the triangle offense worked.
This was before Phil Jackson took over as coach of the Lakers, a move that would rescue Winter from his role working under Tim Floyd on a rebuilding Bulls team. Bryant was sick of the unimaginative strong side-heavy offense ex-coach Del Harris employed, and presumably not impressed with whatever the heck Kurt Rambis ran, and probably wanted to know more about Winter's triangle offense; an offense that had been in place for six of the last eight NBA champions. Following Winter's move to Los Angeles, that offense would be the foundation for five more over the next decade. Good spacing and in-the-moment play-calling, it turns out, is pretty hard to counter.
Especially, as the triangle offense's detractors will tell you, when you have a group of superstars working within that spacing and in-the-moment play-calling. It's a read and react offense, sure, but it helps when you have a cast and crew of future Hall of Famers reading and reacting.
So, what do we have here?
A point guard for the ages. The NBA's most versatile big man. The best center this league will see from 2007 until at least a decade after. Kobe Bean Bryant, still a thing.
What we "want back" is Kobe doing something with this thing. Even if the triangle is junked, and the less complicated but similarly principled Princeton offense is put into place.
To discredit Bryant a little bit, it's important to point out that by his second season working under the triangle, he was already ticking off both Jackson and Winter by straying away from what they were asking him to do. Watch clips of old Chicago Bull or Los Angeles Lakers games, and you can see that Michael Jordan committed far more intensely to Winter's offense than Bryant despite MJ's consistent cracks about its limitations. It's not as if Bryant was a triangle disciple.
That's not what we're after, though.
That was a kid, that Kobe, even some six and seven years after Winter came to Los Angeles. The man is 34, now, and should be smart and confident enough to figure out his role in what could be something special. We'd just like a bit of that mini-fro era wonder as he heads into a season that has a chance to be, in terms of team-wide dominance, his finest ever.
Bryant is going to be typically fantastic this year. His age and lack of lift during the Olympic tournament was a little worrying, but over an 82-game haul he'll be allowed time off between games and plenty of help from a Lakers training staff that knows exactly what Kobe needs. Even if he presses, and continues to attempt to dominate the offense with Steve Nash out there and Pau Gasol as a potentially deadly threat within the Princeton offense, the Lakers should be considered championship favorites even in spite of the team's iffy depth and age.
We'd just like them, with Bryant leading the way, to be championship favorites for a different reason. Championship favorites because Kobe got weird with it, and stepped out of his comfort zone. Because he took a chance, even in his mid-30s, and didn't rely on that endless series of up-fakes to get his shot off. Showing the same scary mixture of humility and confidence that only a 21-year-old ringzzzz-less kid can boast while he calls up a six-time NBA champion currently working for another team to pick his brain about the nuances of an offense that veterans in their mid-30s often can't be bothered with.
That dude, that kid, is still in there. The Lakers don't need it to come back, and the still-brilliant Bryant doesn't need him to come back, but it would be pretty marvelous to see the old dog try some new tricks.
You know Kobe has it in him. We're incredibly excited to see what comes out of Bryant, and his Lakers, if he comes back.
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