LIGHTEN KOBE'S LOAD
Three consecutive season-ending injuries have forced the Lakers to admit the truth: Thirty-seven-year-old Kobe Bryant's engine light is on, his brakes are squealing, and there's smoke coming from the hood. Coach Byron Scott broke from his usual hard-charging script before the preseason started, wisely suggesting that he would take better care to manage Bryant's minutes.
Last season, as Bryant passed Michael Jordan for third on the all-time scoring list, he averaged 34.5 minutes, far more than other aging stars such as Tim Duncan (28.9) and Kevin Garnett (20.3). Not only did Kobe break down with a torn right rotator cuff after 35 games, but his 37.3% shooting was also the worst by any player who has averaged at least 20 shots during the three-point era. The knee-jerk response in Los Angeles has been that Bryant has no choice but to shoulder a huge burden because of his weak supporting cast. The numbers disagree: The Lakers' offense operated at a slightly higher efficiency without him in 2014--15, and their team defense performed significantly better. This late-career dip in effectiveness shouldn't be surprising: Kobe has logged 46,774 regular-season minutes, compared with 35,887 for Jordan at the same age.
Moderating Bryant's usage will also enable L.A.'s recent lottery picks—point guard D'Angelo Russell and power forward Julius Randle—to feel like core pieces rather than mere supporting actors. While Bryant and Lakers fans might find fewer minutes hard to accept, it's the only option. Who wants to see him hobble into the sunset on crutches?
A rival scout sizes up Los Angeles
They're still going to be really, really bad. I don't see Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass and Lou Williams as game-changers. The Lakers are in an identity crisis.... Their focus should be on their young guys. That means D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are the priorities. I'm worried that Byron Scott will ride the veterans instead and it goes down as a lost year. Scott has a lot of loyalty to Kobe Bryant and the organization.... Kobe's presence and knack for scoring and the attention he draws still make him a plus player, even if his stats have fallen off a bit. Nobody else on that roster strikes fear in your heart.... My main question with Russell is whether he can make decisions at this level. There's a big difference between being a good highlight passer and really running an entire offense. You need to know the playbook and understand when to involve your big guys, when to step forward yourself.... Williams only makes their picture cloudier. He's good enough to take minutes from Clarkson, and that harms the long term while not adding a ton in the short term.... Randle is the biggest question. People saw a lefty who has a knack for scoring on the block, and they wanted to call him Zach Randolph. But Randle hasn't done anything yet to say he's headed in that direction. There's some real bust potential. He needs to become a good scorer in isolation because he can't shoot three-pointers or make plays for others, and he's not a defensive lockdown guy.... I don't see a single plus defender on the roster besides Hibbert.
COACH BYRON SCOTT
(2nd season with Lakers)
2014--15 RECORD 21--61
(5th in Pacific)
PG D'ANGELO RUSSELL (R)
19.3 PPG; 5.0 APG; 5.7 RPG; 44.9 FG%
SG JORDAN CLARKSON
11.9 PPG; 3.2 RPG; 44.8 FG%; 31.4 3FG%
SF KOBE BRYANT
22.3 PPG; 5.7 RPG; 37.3 FG%; 29.3 3FG%
PF JULIUS RANDLE†
15.0 PPG; 10.4 RPG; 1.4 APG; 50.0 FG%
C ROY HIBBERT*
10.6 PPG; 7.1 RPG; 1.6 BPG; 44.6 FG%
SF NICK YOUNG
13.4 PPG; 2.3 RPG; 36.6 FG%; 36.9 3FG%
SG LOU WILLIAMS*
15.5 PPG; 2.1 APG; 40.4 FG%; 34.0 3FG%
PF BRANDON BASS*
10.6 PPG; 4.9 RPG; 1.3 APG; 50.4 FG%
*NEW ACQUISITION (R) ROOKIE, COLLEGE STATS
†2013--14 COLLEGE STATS
Minutes played by rookie Julius Randle on opening night before breaking his right leg. That set the tone for an injury-filled 2014--15: No Laker started more than 59 games.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED