After three games out to rest, the Los Angeles Lakers get Kobe Bryant back on Sunday night against the Phoenix Suns.
Through playing the season's first 27 games, Bryant provided a significant sample size of what he could offer the Lakers in both a positive and negative way. Sadly, the final memory is often the lasting memory due to its proximity in time, not necessarily its pregnancy in meaning.
For Bryant, the final painful games before he sat down due to physical exhaustion quickly cloaked the successful preseason and early start to the season he miraculously made following two serious injuries.
Sacramento was a sad sight, but Bryant didn't start the season like that.
By the time the month of November wrapped up, the Lakers had completed 17 games, and Bryant had played all of them. He was averaging 26.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 35.9 minutes per game after over a month of shouldering the team. No 36-year-old should be averaging 36 minutes per game, let alone one in his 19th season as a professional.
As bad as nine turnovers looked in Sacramento, Bryant’s 31 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in 42 minutes against Toronto on Nov. 30 cannot be denied. Toronto was the best team in the Eastern Conference, and Bryant carved them apart in an overtime thriller.
With his triple double against Toronto, Bryant wrapped up November shooting 39.2 percent on the season. Fatigue was already a factor, and Bryant soon began his trend of admitting he was tired after games.
Carrying the momentum from the win against the Raptors, the Lakers had won five of their last eight games by the time December was two weeks old. On Dec. 14, Bryant passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list in a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Related or not, Bryant lost his legs immediately after he passed Jordan.
Between the win in Toronto and passing Jordan in Minnesota, Bryant averaged 22.4 points, 5.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game. The effects of the fatigue were beginning to show, however, as Bryant's turnovers had increased from 2.9 per game to 4.3 per game. Over that seven-game stretch, the tired legs led to Bryant shooting 36.9 percent from the field.
In the next three games, the wheels fell off but the horses kept running. As Bryant dragged his carcass across the floor, his body looked beaten. Air balls became part of his game, and he shot 26.8 percent from the field. Turnovers were as common as fadeaways. It was a sad sight to see.
Heavy legs clearly affected his jump shot, and Bryant's three-point shooting missed the mark. The career 33.3 percent three-point shooter is shooting 27.4 percent from distance this season.
"Just like I said to the people that think we're better off without him, they’re a bunch of idiots," Lakers coach Byron Scott told reporters on TWC Sportnet after the loss in Dallas. "If our players think we're better without him, I think these three games proved that we do need him on the floor."
Arguing whether the Lakers are better without their superstar is a slight bit silly. There isn't much of an argument if the guy is committing nine turnovers and missing 22 of 30 shots, as he did when he put on the last straw in Sacramento. Against Toronto, though, Bryant was good enough to start on the All-Star team, which Bryant appears in line to do after the first round of fan voting.
Whereas Bryant shot 40 percent or better from the field eight times in his first 17 games, the 36-year-old only went over the 40 percent mark twice in those final 10 games before grabbing a rest.
Fatigue is the factor that determines whether the Lakers are better with or without Bryant. There is no clear answer, but the solution surely doesn't involve playing a visibly fatigued 36-year-old for upwards of 40 minutes.
Apologies if this reality has not yet set in, but there is nothing the Lakers are playing for that warrants playing Bryant even 35 minutes in another game this season. If anyone needs a reminder of what the NBA does to a worn down body, please think back to Steve Nash's time in purple and gold. No one wants that next season.
At one point over the past couple weeks, Bryant was asked about being the last guy left from the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers most recent NBA Finals. Bryant responded by pointing out he's the last in all types of ways, i.e. he's the last guy from his draft class, too.
The response was not Bryant bragging. He seemed to be reminding folks of his basketball mortality. For a guy who made a career of being first to records, the twilight of his career is being defined by being the last guy sitting at the table in a crowded restaurant.
With Bryant returning from his rest on Sunday night, those minutes need to drop or Bryant won't be sitting at the table much longer.