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Lightening the Load on Bryant

Before Kobe Bryant began his 19th season in the NBA, the topic of how many minutes he would, could and should play was a difficult one to measure.

After all, Bryant has played more combined regular season and playoff minutes (55,165) than all but four players in NBA history (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Jason Kidd and Wilt Chamberlain).

Should Kobe be on a hard minutes restriction and stay around 30 or 32 per game to protect his legs moving forward? Maybe even fewer? If he looked good early, was he OK playing more minutes and practicing less? Could he possibly approach his career average of 36.6 minutes per game somehow?

Coach Byron Scott, head athletic trainer Gary Vitti and Bryant himself all had a say, but for whatever reason, Kobe ended up playing 35.4 minutes over the first 27 games, ranking 15th in the entire NBA, with former teammate and current Bull Pau Gasol the only other longtime veteran logging as much burn.

But after a few particularly inefficient games in which Bryant appeared more fatigued than usual, it appears Scott is going to cut back on Bryant’s minutes generally, and maybe even rest him for full games from time to time.

"To play the game and to get the physical pounding that he gets, it takes its toll,” Scott said. “So I’m not super surprised after (27) games that it’s starting to hit him. And it’s something that we probably should have talked about in the beginning of the season. If we saw this coming, it probably would have been a few games already that he would have had those days off, or not play(ing) in back-to-backs.”

In L.A.’s most recent game at Sacramento, Bryant managed just eight makes in 30 attempts and acknowledged heavy legs afterwards.

“Just fatigue and just general soreness, joint soreness, and body soreness,” Bryant said after the loss to the Kings. “I just have to look at the body and see how it responds and the amount of workload and stuff like that it might make sense.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d acknowledged not feeling well physically, as witnessed most clearly by his career-low shooting percentage of 37.2 (career 45.2 percent).

Still, Bryant’s workload remains remarkably high, as his 34.4 usage rate ranks behind only Russell Westbrook's (39.1). Bryant's mark is also the second-highest rate of his career, next to when he led the league in 2005-06 (38.7).

“I just have to run plays not through him … and let other guys make decisions and get the shots and stuff like that,” Scott said. “Kinda use (Bryant) sometimes as a decoy. “

To his credit, Bryant believes it’s part of his job to be on the court for the good of the NBA game in general and for the fans, let alone his team.

“I take a lot of pride in trying to play all 82 games,” he said. “People come and spend their hard-earned money to watch us play and hoping that I’m out there. I try to take that into account every single night.”

But as Scott explained, trimming another several minutes off his first and third quarter totals can get Bryant closer to a 32-minute range, which could make a long-term difference.

“This is all new for me,” Scott said. “I’m sure it’s really new for Kobe. We’re just trying to manage it the best way we can so he can get through this season. And again, we’ve got to take into consideration the fact that he hasn’t played in over a (year) and a half, and he’s still knocking off some of the rust.”

The bottom line, at least as of Dec. 23, seems to be that Bryant’s body can’t or should not take the load at age 36 that it did at age 26, and his minutes should be adjusted accordingly.