If the Los Angeles Lakers have remained a draw this season despite their firm position as a lottery team, then it's likely because of the ongoing intrigue surrounding 36-year-old legend Kobe Bryant. Kobe has hit several major milestones but has scored so inefficiently that it's fair to say he's not helping the team. Yet he remains a crucial part of the NBA, to the point where the team's performance in his absence is still mostly about the status and reputation of the Lakers' iconic star.
Such was the case on Christmas as the Lakers visited the East contender Chicago Bulls. With Kobe on the sidelines sitting out his second-straight game for rest, the game lacked some glitz but ended up being a fairly entertaining contest, with the Lakers challenging the superior squad most of the way before falling behind and ending up with a fairly lopsided 113-93 final score. Former Laker Pau Gasol led the Bulls with 23 points (9-of-14 FG), 13 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks, while Derrick Rose continued to round into elite form with 20 points and six assists.
The Lakers competed ably but clearly faced a meaningful talent deficit. The team looked fantastic in out-playing the league-best Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on Tuesday, but that performance looks increasingly like an outlier rather than an indicator of renewed energy and superior ball movement with Kobe out of the lineup. Ed Davis (13 points, 14 boards, and three blocks) and ex-Bull Carlos Boozer (14 points on 7-of-11 FG) played well in the interior, but the team as a whole struggled to shoot (39.1 percent from the field) against the Bulls' typically solid defense.
It's possible that Bryant will return to the lineup with newfound vigor, whenever that might be. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times tweeted that Kobe will likely sit out Friday's game against Dallas, which would make three games in street clothes. The star tried to deflect questions about missing the game with a joke, but there's some truth to his comment that he's just old. At this point in his career, Bryant just might not have the legs to contribute at an All-NBA level with any regularity.
Kobe has accomplished enough in this league to be an asset to the roster, if only because a team with its full complement of players can at least work towards an ideal situation instead of trying to plug gaps with interim solutions. Nevertheless, it seems most likely that the Lakers just aren't that good, with or without Kobe in the lineup. We can attempt to quantify and qualify his influence, but his presence (or lack thereof) might impact our attention more than the final score.
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