Running on Empty: How Much Fuel Remains in Kobe's Tank?
Fuel or Fumes?
Kobe Bryant has logged 29947 minutes of regular season play during his career. That is 104th most in NBA history. Add in 5084 playoff minutes. Add in 265 all-star game minutes. That gives Kobe 35296 minutes (excluding preseason) in his professional career. That includes 966 career games (again, excluding preseason). That is wear and tear.
Although Phil Jackson has tried to keep him fresh by playing him roughly three fewer minutes per game this season than last, Kobe's minutes have crept into the danger zone since Andrew Bynum's injury. Kobe has responded admirably to the demands of carrying a good deal of dead weight (Luke Walton, Lamar Odom have been atrocious since Bynum's injury; Trevor Ariza is gone; Vlad Radmanovic, Sasha Vujacic, and Ronny Turiaf have struggled with injuries; Kwame Brown has struggled with conditioning; DJ Mbenga has struggled to learn the triangle on the fly), but fans around the league must be wondering how long Kobe can continue at this pace.
Since Bynum was injured on January 13th against Memphis, Kobe has logged 42, 39, 39, 45, 45, and 43 minutes. That is an average of 42.1 minutes per game, which is simply too much to ask of someone who plays as physically as Kobe, who is asked to be the primary scorer, primary ball handler, primary defender, do all this on a team that is competing for elite status, and who has as much wear and tear as Kobe has.
42 minutes per game. 32.8 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and all on 140 shots (69 connections, for a 49.3 FG%). These numbers are staggering in all facets. That includes the amount of time Kobe spends on the court. It is true that such a load is nothing new for Bryant who has averaged 40 or more minutes per game in four of the last five seasons. He has missed only seven of his last 205 games, including two (I believe) the result of suspensions, not his inability to play. The all-star break comes in just three weeks' time and Kobe will have time to rest during those festivities. That is all true, but one has to wonder if the three weeks will be too much. And if it is not, what of the month afterward during which the Lakers will still be without starting Center Andrew Bynum and arguably their best defender Trevor Ariza?
No one outside the AP could pretend that Kobe's effort since Bynum's injury have been less than electrifying. Yet with a 2-4 record over those six games, including four losses in the last five games, the emotional wear and tear on Kobe becomes every bit as important as the physical. Given that the Lakers took over the top spot in the West on the day Bynum was injured, spirits were undoubtedly high. That kind of momentum can alleviate the stress that comes with day to day physical pounding. While still 27-15, the Lakers have fallen to the sixth seed in the West. They are now just three games away from being out of playoff seeding in a very competitive Western Conference. That amount of mental strain takes its toll on even the greatest.
This is just more of the same for Kobe Bryant. His fans can explain away 40 field goal attempts in a game, not passing to an open teammate to take a contested jumper, coasting on defense. His critics honestly believe that he does not deserve an MVP award despite being the uncontested best player in the NBA for years now. They believe he is over the hill, selfish, a complainer, gets foul calls handed to him like no one except Dwyane Wade.
If Kobe has another good player on his team, he is only part of the success of the team. If Kobe has to shoulder the burden on his own, he is not a winner. Yet night after night Kobe puts his body on the line, his ego on the line, and when he leaves the court, he leaves nothing unexpressed. His actions speak louder than any explanation he could offer for the Lakers' 98-95 loss at the hands of LeBron James's Cavaliers, for instance. But if you do not believe that losses like this, where it is accepted as a fact that LeBron "outplayed" Kobe (Kobe rarely covered James), where Kobe failed to hit the game winner (he did not even have the ball in his hands for a shot until 0.3 seconds remained), where the Cavaliers proved themselves the better team, will take its toll, there is little to be said. Kobe cannot win even when he does (LA outscored Cleveland 89-84 while Kobe was on the court; during the 5 minutes he was off, Cleveland outscored LA 14-6). Even the most ardent fan has to be concerned that his psychic energy will fail at some point. When it does, his physical wellbeing could follow.