The Lakers have played 25 games of a season that is irritatingly difficult to define: Is this the season of Byron Scott taking over the Los Angeles Lakers? Is this the season of Kobe Bryant return? Is it the season of Bryant's decline due to age? Is this a season to "tank?"
At the moment, this season has no identity on or off the court.
Starting with the last question first, the Lakers aren't built to "tank" nearly at the level that would be required to help the team. They need to need to finish with a top-five draft selection in the 2015 NBA draft, or the Phoenix Suns will claim the first round pick as part of the failed Steve Nash trade, as just about everyone should know by now.
[Pause for fans to rant and scream about Nash]
At the moment, the Lakers are tied with the Indiana Pacers for the eighth worst record in the NBA, and the purple and gold appear to be making progress on the court. Even if it's not championship level progress, ownership and management have been boisterous in publicly trashing the thought of "tanking" a season.
With the way the Lakers are trending, the NBA Draft lottery is probably the Lakers' best hope of getting a first round pick in 2015. As every financial adviser will tell you, winning the lottery is no way to plan for the future.
One last point on "tanking," the Lakers have won three of their last four games, so the notion that this team is actively trying to lose is pure fiction. Constantly talking about "tanking" is, frankly, a waste of time with this organization. The Lakers aren't going to do it. They didn't do it last year when Bryant was out for the season, so why would they possibly do it when he is out there standing on the court with smoke pouring out of his nostrils?
Since this will not be a season of "tanking," it is probably better defined as the season of Scott meshing with Bryant. The coach of the Lakers got off to a difficult 1-9 start but has won three of his last four games. Still, he's only won eight of 25 games, and often, the Lakers have often looked atrocious.
Still, Scott's biggest criticism as Lakers coach has been his (over)use of Bryant, whom is an aging superstar coming off nearly a full season on the sidelines.
Dealing with injuries and a hodgepodge roster of largely expendable talent, Scott has been playing his 36-year-old superstar for 35.4 minutes per game with the hopes to simply compete. To this point, however, Scott has not pushed to reduce Bryant's time on the court, and Bryant ranks 15th in minutes per game. He also ranks 16 in total distance run, 56.6 miles. In gross, Bryant is second in the NBA in total time on the court, 885 minutes.
Obviously, Bryant has been complicit--if not overbearingly forceful--in the matter. After all, he is the Lakers' best chance on offense whether he is passing or shooting. Bryant leads the team in points and assists, along with minutes.
As coach, Scott has not simply acted as a idle stooge. After 20 games, the coach took steps to adjust his starting lineup. Scott had hinted changes were on the horizon, and the massacre in Boston left the ex-Lakers player no choice. Since the lineup changes, the Lakers are 3-2. The Lakers' first unit has improved its defense, and the second unit has been packing more of a punch off the bench.
With regards to Bryant, Scott adjusted to give Bryant more time off from practices. Unless the Lakers have a prolonged stretch of three or more days off in between games, Scott began to keep the Lakers' living legend away from scrimmaging or even shooting on off days. Even on game days, Scott often told Bryant to skip the shootarounds. When the game was in Los Angeles, Bryant stayed home. When the game was on the road, Bryant stayed in his room.
Often, Bryant will talk about the "round the clock" or "24-hour" treatment he requires to be ready for games. Practice? No, he's not talking about practice.
In games, however, Bryant has been worked to the bone. Often visibly and vocally fatigued in the locker room after a contest, Bryant has only failed to cross the 30-minute threshold twice in 25 games, which were the first two games of the season. One week into the season, Bryant played 44 out of 48 minutes in a game the Lakers still lost by six to the Phoenix Suns.
At some point between now and the end of Bryant's career, the game minutes will need to be lessened and the load will need to be lightened. Scott should be present when that time comes, and the only question is whether that transition occurs this season or next.
A glimpse into the reduced role for Bryant this season could help the Lakers land a marquee name over the summer. Seeing Bryant playing fewer minutes, performing more efficiently down the stretch and preserving his body offers a far more attractive future than the alternative.
Soon enough, there will be a casting call to fill the lead role on the Lakers. Luckily, this town specializes in filling roles and creating stars.