Kobe Bryant turned back the clock last night and produced some old-school Black Mamba magic against the Washington Wizards. He scored the Lakers’ final two field goals of the game to lead Los Angeles to its third win of the season, a 108–104 triumph.
It was exhilarating to watch, and the D.C. crowd filled with No. 24 jerseys cheered on Bryant as he carried the Lakers down the stretch like it was 2005.
Of course, Kobe’s chuck-tastic campaign hasn’t always yielded such rosy results this year. In fact, as practically every NBA fan knows, it’s been difficult for even the most ardent Bryant defenders to watch the legend play out his final season.
Bryant has the worst field goal percentage (31.1%) of 120 qualified players. Ditto for his 22.2% three-point success rate, which would rank as a career low by a comfortable margin. Despite this, a career high 43% of Bryant’s shots have come from downtown.
It’s noble for Bryant to ignore coach Bryon Scott’s foolish views on three-pointers and lead the charge on that front—eight of the past nine NBA champions have led all playoff teams in attempts and makes, after all. But he’s doing it more out of necessity than a sudden appreciation for analytics. Bryant simply can’t accelerate quickly enough past defenders to get to the rim anymore, as a mere 29% of his shots are from within 16 feet of the basket this season.
Despite all those grisly statistics, Bryant leads Los Angeles with 17.6 shots per game. And you know what? That’s fine. In fact, letting “Vino” shoot away throughout his farewell tour makes sense for the Lakers for several reasons.
First and foremost, if Los Angeles’s draft pick doesn’t end up in the top three of next summer’s NBA draft, they forfeit it to the 76ers. The Lakers are incentivized to be their worst selves this season. When you look at it that way, the club’s embarrassing loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday (and Kobe’s 7–for–26 line from the field) was actually a positive.
Secondly, it’s highly doubtful the Lakers would be a drastically better team even if Bryant decided to be more deferential. This is a team that was forced to sign Metta World Peace— fresh off stints in China and Italy—to fill out its roster. The Lakers would be a lottery team this season with or without Bryant and his rapidly deteriorating shooting touch.
Now, many argue that Bryant’s ballhog tendencies are limiting the potential of the team’s young players. Specifically, some writers are up in arms about Bryant’s usage rate and clamoring for more court time for rookie D’Angelo Russell.
Though the No. 2 overall pick certainly needs to develop his distribution skills, it’s not as if he’s being nailed to the bench by Scott. Russell is a regular starter who’s averaging 27.6 minutes per game, fifth-most among rookies. The only first-year point guard averaging more minutes than Russell is Emmanuel Mudiay, who has a season of professional experience in China under his belt.
Putting on-court issues aside, there’s one huge reason why the franchise’s stakeholders are likely relieved about Bryant declaring this season his last hurrah. Consecutive losing campaigns in 2013–14 and 2014–15 had begun to do the impossible—convince Lakers fans to stay away from the Staples Center.
More than anything, that is probably what’s biting at the Buss family most. And you know what the Lakers faithful want to see this year? Kobe. And lots of him.
Ticket sales to Lakers games have rocketed up 85% on Ticketmaster since Bryant’s retirement announcement, according to ESPN. Just two hours after Bryant’s Players Tribune piece went live, the cheapest Stubhub tickets for the Lakers’ home season finale rose from $125 to $400.
Retaining their chokehold on the L.A. market is the most important thing to the Lakers in the long-term. Letting Kobe shoot whenever, wherever he wants to this season will let Angelenos reminisce on the glory days of their fandom, ignore the rest of the squad’s ugly on-court product in the present, and best prepare the team for a future without one of the most exciting and bankable stars in NBA history. And who knows? Maybe the home fans will be treated to a vintage Kobe performance once in a while.
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