Byron Scott wants to limit Kobe's minutes, back-to-backs: 'I don't want him to go out hurt'

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Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant have a chat. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant have a chat. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)

Los Angeles Lakers fans got some welcome news last week, when Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding reported that superstar swingman Kobe Bryant has been "medically cleared for all basketball activities" after undergoing shoulder surgery in January. Lakers coach Byron Scott's thrilled, too, and now that he's got his top gun back following threeconsecutive season-ending injuries, he says he's committed to doing whatever he can to make sure the future Hall of Famer stays in working order — including instituting a minutes cap aimed at ensuring the 37-year-old Bryant won't once again suffer from overuse.

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From a wide-ranging interview with Bill Oram of the Orange County Register:

Q. What decisions are you facing with Kobe?

A. I think the biggest decision is playing time, trying to make that as limited as possible and also back-to-back games. That’s something we have to talk about. Other than that, there really is no other decision to make. He wants to play, and he wants to go out the way he wants to go out — if this is indeed his final year. He and I have talked a number of times on the phone, we’ve talked about playing time, we’ve talked about back-to-backs, we’re going to probably sit down as we get closer to training camp or as we get in training camp and even talk more about it. Because the one thing I want, if this is his last year, I want him to go out standing. I don’t want him to go out hurt. I want to make sure I do everything in my power to make sure we stick to the game plan, as far as his minutes and as far as back-to-back games.

Q. What do you mean by as “limited as possible?”

A. I didn’t mean play as limited as possible. Obviously we want to keep him as efficient as possible, but I know he knows his body better than anybody. When we start talking about those minutes, I want to listen to him more than anything. I’m not going to go by what I think he can play like I did last year, I want to really go by what he thinks he can play. Then I want to make sure we stick to that.

It's something Scott and the Lakers didn't have in place early last season, when the 36-year-old Bryant returned from a broken kneecap to a workload more appropriate for a Mamba 10 years younger.

Kobe logged fewer than 30 minutes in each of his first two games; L.A. lost both, by a combined 38 points. Over the next 25 contests, Bryant averaged 36 minutes a game, topping 37 seven times and 40 minutes on four occasions, while jacking up 22.5 shots a night. He passed Michael Jordan on the NBA's all-time scoring list in mid-December and just kept on firing, appearing to hit a wall well before Scott deigned to give him a break.

By mid-January, the 12-27 Lakers sat a full 10 games behind the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference. Through 39 games, L.A. had been outscored by a whopping 12.6 points per 100 possessions with Bryant on the floor, and had outscored opponents by a strong 4.5 points-per-100 with him on the bench, according to NBA.com's stat tool.

The team seemed to be going nowhere and, at times, to look better with Bryant off the floor. Arguments were forwarded that, with Kobe looking the worse for all that early-season wear, the Lakers would've been well served to reduce his playing time, or even — famously insane competitor or no — shut him down. Scott dismissed that notion, saying he wouldn't consider more significant rest for Kobe until the Lakers were "nowhere near playoff contention in March."

Scott took this tack despite Bryant telling him he felt dinged up, according to ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes:

Kobe Bryant might have said it at a practice or a game, and he might have said it a month ago, or maybe longer. Byron Scott doesn't quite remember.

What the Lakers coach does remember is his star guard saying that his shoulder was bothering him.

“You all right?” Scott said he asked Bryant.

“I’m all right,” Bryant replied.

The two never talked about the issue again, Scott said.

One week after Scott's "not until March" remarks, Bryant suffered a right shoulder injury that was later revealed to be a torn rotator cuff. Bryant would have to go under the knife yet again; his season was over.

More from Holmes:

“I don’t know if the wear and tear of playing so many minutes early is a result of what’s happening to him right now,” Scott said. “To be honest with you, I thought about that, it made me almost sick.”

Scott said he apologized to Bryant via text.

“His response was like, 'No, that ain’t it,'” Scott said. “He tried to make me feel better.”

Then Scott discussed Bryant’s nagging shoulder issue, which hadn’t been made public, and they brought it up again this week after Bryant appeared to tear his rotator cuff on what seemed to be a no-frills baseline dunk against the Pelicans.

“You remember when I said it?” Bryant said, according to Scott.

“Yeah, I remember,” Scott said.

“I think it was kind of hurting then and I just re-aggravated it on a much higher level,” Bryant replied.

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While Bryant would never blame Scott, the coach clearly felt as if there was more he could have done to keep his star out of harm's way. He told Oram that will inform his approach to handling Kobe's playing time this season:

Q. To what extent do you regret the way that decision was made last year? There was a lot made about you playing him more minutes than he thought he should play. Is that a burden for you? Do you feel some guilt?

A. I felt bad about it. I don’t know if I would say guilty. I know Kobe’s a competitor and he’s going to play as many minutes as you want him to play. I’m also a competitor, so I want to win and I know having him on the court gives me the best opportunity to win. But I also know that I’ve got to think about him more than anything. And I thought there were points in time last year where I thought he could play a certain amount of minutes. He told me Day One the minutes that he thought he could play and like I told him at the end of the day, "You were absolutely right and I was wrong." I won’t make that mistake again.

Q. How do you avoid making that mistake again when it’s December and you guys are on a bad run and Kobe’s playing well and he seems to be OK? You don’t do it?

A. I don’t do it. Stick to my guns. This is what we talked about, this is what we felt would be the best way to use you and to make you the most efficient that you could be, I’m going to stick to it. Win or lose, I’m going to stick to it.

It's noteworthy that Scott's plan appears at this stage to be devoid of specifics; while he says he's spoken to Bryant about minutes and back-to-backs (of which the Lakers have 18 this season), he doesn't indicate that they've come to any definitive determinations about how they'll handle those situations. Eight months ago, Scott said he hoped Kobe could play "at mid- to low-20s, minutes-wise" — a neighborhood in which Bryant hasn't lived since he was a teenager — but suggested that "you have to have some horses to be able to" impose that kind of limit.

This year's Lakers feature a young core headlined by No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell, returning 2014 lottery choice Julius Randle, second-year guard Jordan Clarkson and rookie forward Larry Nance Jr. Scott can also deploy newly acquired veterans Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Marcelo Huertas, and forever-willing-to-carry-the-offensive-load Nick Young in reserve on the wing. The coach certainly appears to have, if not a playoff-caliber roster, then at least more hands on deck than he did a season ago.

Whether or not that gives him enough cover and confidence to curb Kobe for his own good, of course, remains to be seen. Saying stuff like this before training camp and implementing it come wintertime are two very different things (as we saw last year). If Scott really does stick to his guns, though, it could go a long way toward making Bryant's former colleagues into soothsayers, and ensuring that Kobe really does get to make the decision as to whether or not this is his last ride, as opposed to having that call made for him.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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