Fighting Father Time

What’s left for Kobe Bryant? What’s left in Kobe Bryant?

To judge the most recent past, he has played in 11 of L.A.’s 14 games this year, and has yet to hit 50 percent of his shots even once, struggling to find his legs and his rhythm towards 31.1 percent shooting from the field and 19.5 percent on 3's amidst the 2-12 start for the Lakers.

It’s difficult, no doubt, for basketball folks to watch a player who scored with such ease for so many years struggling to get buckets.

Bryant typically fluctuated between 45 and 46 percent from the field throughout his career, while attempting perhaps the NBA’s most difficult all-around set of shots. Most weren’t complaining much about that shot selection when he was drilling all manners of FGA’s in NBA Finals games, helping put “Lakers” on Larry O’Brien five times.

The 17-time All-Star has made a total of 11,377 regular-season field goals in his 20 years, a staggering number of buckets that includes 1,709 3's. He ranks third in scoring, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, with 32,649 points.

It shouldn’t be so hard to figure out why Bryant is struggling in year 20, why he struggled last season (37.3 percent field goals) or even in six games of 2013-14 (42.5 percent), his first year back from surgery to repair his torn left Achilles.

He’s played far more minutes than any other wing in NBA history:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 57,446 regular season + 8,851 playoff = 66,297
2. Karl Malone: 54,852 regular season + 8641 playoff = 63,493
3. Jason Kidd: 50,111 regular season + 6088 playoff = 56,199
4. Kobe Bryant: 47,110 regular season + 8,641 playoff = 55,751
5. Wilt Chamberlain: 47,859 regular season + 7,559 playoff = 55,418
6. Tim Duncan: 46,246 regular season + 9,152 playoff = 55,399
7. Kevin Garnett: 50,067 regular season + 5,283 playoff = 55,350
8. John Stockton: 47,764 regular season + 6,398 playoff = 54,162
9. Elvin Hayes: 50,000 regular season + 4,160 playoff = 54,160
10. John Havlicek: 46,471 regular season + 6,860 playoff = 53,331

There isn’t another shooting guard on that list for a reason, such is the punishment that the great wing players take on both ends. In fact, the only other Hall of Famers in the Top 10 that were under 6’9’’ were Jason Kidd and John Stockton — point guards who seldom left the ground, and John Havlicek, another ground-bound player*.

*Lakers analyst Mychal Thompson likened Havlicek’s on-court movements to those of Paul Pierce.

Kobe Bryant vs. Golden State

Bryant’s defense has slipped markedly in the last several years, but for years he was an annual member of the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team, which he made nine times.

Yet the 37-year-old continues to have his name announced with the starters in 2015, averaging 30.5 minutes per game.

It’s fair to ask if Bryant would be better off playing the kind of minutes that fellow Top-10-Minute-Men Tim Duncan (27.6) or Kevin Garnett (15.8) are averaging. While Duncan’s numbers are slightly down with his minutes (10.0 points, 8.2 boards, 1.7 blocks), he remains very effective (52.3 percent field goals). Garnett is doing much of his work as a mentor to Minnesota’s young players on and off the court. And though he remains an impactful defensive player, the Wolves’ team defensive rating far better when he’s on the floor (94.8) than off (102.7), according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.

Byron Scott, however, has consistently said that he thinks Bryant’s minutes are OK.

“His (minutes) are going to stay about the same,” Scott reiterated on Friday, before the Lakers took off for Portland, where they’ll play the Blazers on Saturday night.

Maybe we’ll see a further reduction at some point, but in the meantime, Bryant’s looking for a different solution.

“It’s tough,” Bryant said after a 1-for-14 struggle at Golden State on Tuesday. “The shots that I could take, pull-up shots, jumpers, and contested jumpers. You know those are tough shots to get at 27, it’s very tough getting them at 37.

“I’ve got to do a better job of demanding some help off the ball and get some easier chances pitting downs, picks, catch and shoots, things of that nature. But tonight it was just really pressure. It kind of got the better of me.”

That’s not something you’re used to hearing from Bryant. At the same time, Kobe has expressed confidence that he’ll find his shot, showing the same dogged determination that’s been so crucial to his greatness in the first place.

“I’m not really worried about it, honestly,” he went on. “My shooting will be better, we’ll be better. I could have scored 80 (against the Warriors) and it wouldn’t have made a damn difference. We have bigger problems. I could be out there averaging 35 points a game and we’d be what, 3-11?”

Kobe Bryant vs. Toronto

Odds are that Bryant doesn’t literally think he can score 80 right now, that he was just making a point. But that’s a chicken/egg argument. How much do his shooting struggles and his inability to get back defensively when missing shots impact the general team struggles? How much does that hurt, against what the team gains by his presence, knowledge and playmaking, when he’s in the mood (nine assists in the win over Detroit, for example)?

Either way, Bryant isn’t convinced there’s a huge difference between 20 and 30 minutes per game. He’s confessed to feeling “great” when he gets two or three days of rest, but at the same time is lacking a strong base in his legs, something apparent when watching his lack of elevation on his jumper or when he tries to drive to the rim.

“The challenge is trying to get my legs back underneath me and get my strength back,” he said last week. “It’s just having a foundation. When you get into the season, sometimes what happens is you just break your body down so much — no matter how old you are, (although) older is a bit more difficult — because you never really get a chance to recover or get stronger. Having some days off, I’m able to get stronger and build a more solid foundation as the season goes on.”

What if 55,751 minutes makes it impossible to truly get that foundation back? You know, Father Time and all that.

Well, Bryant isn’t giving up just yet. Meanwhile, we will see how much Bryant continues to try and balance his indomitable will in trying to find what was always there with contributing to the future of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle.

D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle

“I’m just trying to help these young guys, honestly,” Bryant said after the loss to Toronto on Nov. 20. “I feel good enough that I can go out there and score 25, but what the hell is that going to do for these guys? It’s not gonna do a damn thing. If we’re gonna win and try to win games in succession, we have to get better at playing together, spacing and ball movement. … I have to continue to teach, talk to these guys and try to pull them along.”

It’s been increasingly clear that this is likely the last season of Bryant’s legendary career, and he truly does want to leave the franchise in capable hands, something that can happen more quickly if embraces the development of the young players.

Even as, hard as it is to accept, his own play slips as the laws of nature demand.