Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I'm sure all of you out there who have NBA TV watched the L.A. Lakers begin training camp last week. It was the start of Kobe Bryant's 14th. He is 31 years old now, which for your typical athlete is still not that old. It's older certainly, definitely not a kid anymore, but it is an age that indicates an athlete is still in their prime (if nearing the end of it). But it's not really the age with someone like Bryant, it's the years served and the mileage, and there is nothing even remotely young about our Mamba in those two categories. I'm not going to go into any further detail about it, you already know the deal. I'm not breaking any new ground here. Kobe Bryant has reached the point in his basketball career when he could start falling off. It's been well documented. In basketball years, he is about 34 years old, and that is old no matter how you look at it.
Bryant had a very quiet summer following the winning of his fourth championship, and it carried over into the start of camp. The Lakers held media day last Tuesday, and most of the press' attention centered around the debut of highly controversial off-season acquisition Ron Artest and the newly wed Mr. Khloe Kardashian, Lamar Odom. But to me, Kobe is still the most interesting person on the team. Sure, I want to see how Artest fits in, what impact Lamar's new union plays on the team, what kind of year Andrew Bynum has (will he come off the bench?), and what happens with the point guard situation (can Jordan Farmar overtake Derek Fisher for the starting gig?). But none of those things intrigue me as much aswhat I consider the great theater of watching the "old" master Kobe as he tries to outsmart the onset of decline. I want to see what new tricks he pulls out from under his sleeve as his legs accumulate more and more games and minutes and the wear and tear tries to trip him up from behind (like Bruce Bowen used to).
He broke out a couple of new methods last year, aimed at preserving his body both short-term and long. Blessed with the most talented supporting cast in the league, Bryant, having reached his 13th year, seemed intent on coasting (relatively speaking, of course) his way through the regular season in a calculated effort to save his body for the playoffs. Then Andrew Bynum went down again and his workload was increased, but by that point it had become evident that Kobe realized he needed to make adjustments. Step two of the conservation plan involved Bryant cutting back greatly on his slashing and transforming himself into a virtuoso primary jump shooter - a move that represented not only a desire to reduce the stress on his legs and body but, as the late, great David Halberstam once put it in praising a similar change by Michael Jordan at the end of his run with the Bulls, "a very smart player's concession to the changes in his body wrought by time." Indeed, Bryant's hops and first step are not what they used to be.
But what alterations will Bryant make next? He already made one. Kobe tempered his legendary work ethic greatly this off-season, barely picking up a basketball until the start of September. Then last week, Dime magazine's online site posted recent video of Kobe in Houston, working out with with the legendary Hakeem Olajuwon. Yep, a two guard trying to learn post moves from the center with the best set of post moves in league history. It's another page out of MJ's book, but while Mike put on muscle as he got older and developed more of a power post-up game in his latter years with Chicago, Kobe seems to be going at it in a slightly different direction, opting instead to keep his body more lean and rely more on sublime footwork and finesse (although of course MJ had textbook footwork as well - remember kids, it starts with the fundamentals).
Last season Bryant saw a reduction in minutes; at 36.1 per contest he had his lowest average in that department since 1999, when he was 20. And yet, at the end of the regular year L.A. went on an eight-game road trip in which Bryant played as poorly as I have ever seen him play for a sustained stretch. He was exhausted, you could tell. And he showed the signs of fatigue in the conference finals against Denver, a fact that made his stellar performance in the series the most impressive showing of his career (as he fought through the weariness to average a 34-6-6 on 48 percent shooting).
I do not question whether or not Bryant will maintain his dominance this year; I am almost certain he will. He has proven it foolish to doubt him, so that is not where the intrigue lies. No, the intrigue lies in witnessing the means by which Kobe Bryant will continue to succeed, and I can't think of anything about this Lakers team that could be more absorbing than that.