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Ailments, bad team are Kobe Bryant's harsh, new reality

POSTED: Dec 26, 2014 2:00 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Kobe Bryant Talks With DA

Kobe Bryant talks with David Aldridge before Thursday's game versus Chicago.

— Shed no tears for Kobe Bryant. Tough as this season must be for the Los Angeles Lakers star -- the misfires, the lack of help, the losing and now even the sitting -- what he's going through now isn't much different from what others of his ilk have gone through.

Ilk, in this case, would be defined as that elite subset of All-Star, all-NBA, future Hall of Fame and Top 10 all-timers. The only thing separating Bryant from so many of them is that he's experiencing near the back end of his career what he dodged at the front.

Remember, when he arrived in June of 1996, he and his reps managed to leverage his way away from Charlotte, the team that picked him at No. 13. Instead, Bryant went directly to Los Angeles. That's not how the draft is meant to work -- top prospects are supposed to go to needy franchises, where they boot-strap their way higher in the standings while boosting their own profiles.

Yet while other guys from Bryant's draft class sucked it up -- Allen Iverson going to Philadelphia (18-64), Marcus Camby to Toronto (21-61), Shareef Abdur-Rahim to Vancouver (15-67), Ray Allen to Milwaukee (25-57) and so on -- Bryant was off to the 53-29 Lakers.

There, he side-kicked with Shaquille O'Neal, won three out of every four games and played in seven postseason series in his first three seasons, then won NBA championships in his fourth, fifth and sixth. Yes, Bryant had much to do with it -- he was an All-Star by 19, a 22.5 ppg scorer by 21 -- but the Lakers' culture and traditions were ready and waiting, built by others. It wasn't until Bryant met all the expectations and then kept going that he proved he was capable of the heavy lifting.

Now? More circle-of-life stuff than karma. Or simply the sun not shining on the same dog's behind every day. And while we imagine it's tougher to flounder and lose after having had it so much better -- five NBA titles, all those highlights, a reservoir of acclaim -- that's really not fair to the guys who sweated and paid dues as they started their careers, lacking any assurances things would get better. For most of them, things didn't; of the players drafted ahead of Bryant in 1996, only Allen wound up as a key guy (twice) on championship teams. (Antoine Walker was a role player when he won with Miami in 2006).

None of this is to downplay the trials through which Bryant and the Lakers are suffering. Their 113-93 loss Thursday to the Bulls at United Center was real and hard and decidedly unglamorous, and left them at 9-20 facing a back-to-back finale Friday at Dallas. Bryant didn't play, sitting out his second consecutive game with what was termed "general soreness" by coach Byron Scott. He spent the night in the last seat on the Lakers bench, looking both sharp in his black slacks, black shirt and maroon jacket and entirely out of his element.

This would have been unthinkable for most of 19 seasons, that Bryant would miss a Thursday night TNT game and Christmas matchup with one of the league's top contenders. He came in as the NBA's all-time leader in Christmas scoring (383 points) and games (15), so maybe not having Michael Jordan in front of him as red meat, the aches and pains barked a little louder.

"Old age," the 36-year-old Bryant said about 90 minutes before tipoff. "My knees are sore at this stage of the season. My Achilles [tendons] are sore. ... Back's tight. I just need to kind of hit the reset button.

"It's really going against my nature, but I've got to be smart about this."

An on-court reunion and showdown with former Lakers pal Pau Gasol never happened, draining more emotion away from the night. "I want him to be healthy. I want him to be ready," said Gasol, who did spend more than two hours with Bryant Wednesday, catching up and talking "mostly not" basketball. "He knows his body well and he'll do what's best for the team and for himself. Obviously I would always want him to be on the floor and play."

Said Scott of Bryant's physical state: " 'Everywhere' hurts. You've got to respect that. The guy's put in a lot of work over the years. And even this year, just to get back to this level of play [after a torn Achilles in April 2013 and a season-ending knee injury six games into last season], he's put in a lot of work this summer. Right now, hopefully, his body can heal up and he can get back out there and play the way he's accustomed to playing."

As Kobe Sits, Bulls Handle Lakers

Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol combine for 43 points as the Bulls beat the Lakers at the United Center.

Bryant hasn't been. He averaged 24.6 points through L.A.'s first 27 games, put up 30 or more six times and generated some old-school headlines by surpassing Jordan's points total to take over third place on the all-time scoring list. But he is shooting 37.2 percent and taking 22.4 shots per game.

After the Lakers played well and beat Golden State Tuesday at Staples Center, some folks suggested that they might be better off without Bryant. The numbers crunchers concurred, citing the net gains offensively and defensively when Bryant was off the floor vs. on.

Scott, whether standing by his man or tweaking the analytics crowd he does not embrace, said before the loss in Chicago: "We have one great game without Kobe and everybody thinks now we're a better team or something like that. ... But as far as all that [analytical] stuff goes, you know what? If I had my choice, I'd rather have him on the court for 48 minutes every time we played. I know we'd have a better chance to win."

After his team got outscored in the fourth quarter 30-16 and outrebounded over the final three 46-22, Scott was asked about the critics and brainstormers again. "I just say those people are idiots," he said.

Still, Bryant knows this is different. His game hasn't been right of late. He dropped a couple of scatological remarks to describe facets of it. He can spend 90 minutes getting his body tuned up -- massaged, iced, stretched -- just to find out whether he'll feel well enough to play. When he does come back, a dip in minutes likely will follow at some point.

"It's tough," he said. " 'Cause there's really no blueprint for playing this long. At this position, at least in the NBA. So we're trying to figure these things out, trying to see what's out there, trying to see what works and doesn't work. Constantly experimenting."

Some players adjust to infirmities and advancing years by picking their spots, revving up only in spurts. Bryant has begun picking his spots more literally.

"Kind of figuring out which spots from the floor I should operate from consistently," he explained. "Where it's habit for me to move around and be active offensively all over the place, from different spots on the floor. I don't think my body can hold up to that anymore."

With a relative motley crew around him, by Lakers standards, opposing teams have been able to pester Bryant like seldom before. "It's always defenses loading up," he said. "But also what I try to do is look at things I can control. What I can control is tempo. I can control spots on the floor. I can control efficiency. A lot of that's the breaking of habits. You're used to playing a certain way for so long, now it's time to fine-tune that and work around the limitations that I have."

Seeing how the league's other half lives -- or three-quarters or nine-tenths -- might seem good for him and the Lakers, so fortunate for so long. But Kobe Bryant with limitations? That might be worth a tear after all.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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