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The hope and excitement that Los Angeles Lakers fans felt when Kobe Bryant was cleared to return to the court has quickly dissipated. L.A. sits at 0-3 after Sunday night's 103-93 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks, a game the Lakers never led. In fact, the Lakers have led for only 10 seconds of their last 103-plus minutes of play, trailing for the final 7:09 of their season-opening loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves and holding only a brief 4-2 advantage in an 18-point loss to the Sacramento Kings.
The start's been dispiriting. A defense many hoped would improve after this summer's trade for former Indiana Pacers rim protector Roy Hibbert continues to be as porous as ever, ranking 28th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession through the season's first six days and allowing a staggering 76 points in the paint to Sacramento on Friday. And while the Laker offense has been roughly middle-of-the-pack thanks to a newfound dedication to the long ball, it's still featured more than its fair share of isolation-bred stagnation and ill-fated misfirings ... with an awful lot of them coming from a dude wearing No. 24 who looks kind of like Kobe Bryant:
Kobe's shooting just 31.4 percent from the floor and 20.7 percent from 3-point land through three games, while trying nearly 10 triples per contest, which is staggering. He's attempted 51 shots while throwing just 56 passes, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data, and nearly two-thirds of those shots have been tightly contested. The Lakers have been outscored by 26 points in his 82 minutes of playing time, and by only three in his 62 minutes of rest. He's been bad, full stop, and the man himself acknowledged as much after Sunday's defeat.
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"I'm the 200th-best player in the league right now," Bryant said [...] "I freaking suck." [...]
"I just can't make a shot," said Bryant, who was ranked No. 93 in ESPN's #NBArank project, which counts down the NBA's top players for this upcoming season.
Lakers coach Byron Scott had no answers for Bryant's struggles.
"I don't know," Scott said. "I know he's not happy with it. He's disappointed with the way he's shooting the ball. He's playing hard. He's competing just like he always does. I think it's a matter of time."
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It does look like a matter of time, but not in the way Scott means — Bryant just looks, well, like a 37-year-old guy coming off three consecutive season-ending injuries who has a combined 55,497 NBA minutes and is working his way through his 20th professional season. He looks several steps slow, lacking lift, enervated rather than energetic.
It's a look of "desperation," the look of "a bad gambler," as longtime Laker observer Kevin Ding writes at Bleacher Report:
And therein lies the difference between a great gamer and a bad gambler.
These shots were beyond his usual forced ones. He was taking contested and out-of-rhythm three-pointers. When he did work his way a little closer to the basket, he was moving himself to his preferred spots on the court instead of reading the defense the way he has done better than almost anyone to play this game.
So after Bryant had missed 12 of 15 shots on the night and the Dallas Mavericks had their wire-to-wire 103-93 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in a battle of expected also-rans, Bryant sat with a towel over his shoulders in bewilderment.
"I freaking suck," he said.
That wasn't even the most damning postgame quote: "I'm getting the shots I want," Bryant said.
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That, of course, is a big part of the problem. These are the shots Kobe wants. They are, largely, bad shots:
You're tempted to say that you'd like to see Bryant working more off the ball than on it, and sure, 5-for-16 on catch-and-shoot 3s is better than 1-for-10 on pull-up heaves, but we're still talking about sub-one-out-of-three propositions. If anybody else was taking 10 3-pointers a night and missing 80 percent of them, he'd be stapled to the bench; instead, Kobe's taking five more shots per game than any other Laker and Scott's sticking to his support-the-star guns: "You've still got to respect him out there, period." Except that — right now, at least — you kind of don't.
Scott's inability to curb Kobe's enthusiasm for jacking isn't new, and his willingness to let Bryant keep operating as the hub of the Laker attack — in more limited minutes, yes, but with a seemingly limitless leash — suggests that the allegedly forthcoming transition to a Julius Randle-D'Angelo Russell-Jordan Clarkson-fueled future might not actually begin in earnest until either Scott proves capable of steering the offense away from Bryant, or Laker brass proves willing to move on from Scott on the sideline in pursuit of someone who can take a firmer hand.
Step-back suggestions aside, it doesn't seem that Kobe's going to recede of his own volition. “Look, the guys are getting me the ball. It’s their job to facilitate and it’s my job to finish" sounds like a mea culpa, but it's also a tacit reassertion of a pecking order that just might not make a whole lot of sense right now. The sky doesn't necessarily fall after three games, but if this is the Kobe we get now, then maybe management needs to think about restructuring the job responsibilities at Staples Center.
Scott suggested that the two weeks Bryant recently spent sidelined because of a lower leg bruise "set him back."
"He's just trying to get that feel back again," Scott said.
Bryant didn't necessarily agree.
"Maybe. Just playing like s--- right now, that's all," Bryant said [...] "At some point you've just got to say to hell with all of that and just figure out how to put the ball in the hole."
Or, y'know, give it to someone else who might be able to do it.
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