Over the past four games, Kobe Bryant has played more than 47 minutes of a possible 48 minutes on three occasions. Sure, the Lakers need their best player to give his all at this crucial point in the season, but who exactly is making the decision on whether Bryant plays or sits: the player or the coach?
After Sunday’s loss, Pau Gasol said, “We know how competitive [Bryant] is and how much he wants to play. So, then it’s up to the coach to say ‘no, you’re not going to play 47 (minutes). You’re going to play 38 (minutes).’ Or ‘yes, I’m going to let you play whatever you want.’”
So, what does the coach think?
Lakers reporter Mike Trudell asked Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni ahead of the Friday’s game against the Grizzlies, “If (Bryant) tells you he’s staying in, is there a point when you say ‘no, you’re going to sit for a couple minutes?’”
“No, I doubt it,” D’Antoni responded. “I trust him, and he knows.”
Although Bryant playing nearly 48 minutes may be a necessity with the season nine days from expiration, there is a fine line between Bryant controlling his own playing time and Bryant being instructed to play maximum minutes during the Lakers’ playoffs chase.
Players are meant to play, and coaches are meant to tell them when and how to play. Sure, this is a living Lakers legend, but he is still a player.
Bryant has taken control over when he will play. Often this season, he has hijacked the offense and refused to play defense, too. Sometimes it has worked, but the Lakers’ strategy of allowing Bryant off a leash currently has them struggling for the eighth and final playoff spot—hardly impressive by anyone’s standards.
From day one on the job, D’Antoni molded an environment where Bryant maintained complete control over his own play.
During D’Antoni’s debut on Nov. 20, Bryant quickly picked up two early fouls. Less than six minutes into his tenure, D’Antoni sent in Chris Duhon to replace Bryant, but Bryant refused to leave the game.
After some confusion, Darius Morris came out of the game to avoid a delay of game warning. Bryant stayed on the floor. Less than six minutes on the Lakers sidelines, D’Antoni received notice that Bryant would stay on the floor whenever he wanted to.
The coach didn’t respond.
At that point in time, a quick timeout to tell Bryant to listen to instructions and grab a seat would have gone a long way to D’Antoni having control at this point in the season. Unfortunately, that never happened.
“If he says he feels great and his legs aren’t bothering him, then, I’ve got to take his word for it,” D’Antoni said about Bryant’s fitness following Sunday’s loss to the Clippers. “But he said he feels great.”
So, D’Antoni must now rely on the one of the greatest competitors in the history of sports volunteering to leave games with the playoffs on the line. If Kobe plays the first three quarters, does anyone truly believe he will ask to come out of the game in the fourth quarter due to fatigue?
The greater issue for the Lakers is that Bryant’s ability to control his playing time appears likely to continue for the remainder of this season, into the postseason (if the Lakers make it), and into next year (if D’Antoni remains coach).
“Kobe’s our best bet going forward to win games,” D’Antoni said. “He said he’s going to retire after next year, so we’re going to get our money’s worth for two years.”
OK, but will the Lakers get their money’s worth out of D’Antoni?