Lakers Look to 'New' Kobe Bryant
Shooting star assuming role of team playmaker, last season's 81-point binge still haunting Raptors
Over dinner, long before the NBA season began, a former head coach and scout were discussing the year to come.
"People are talking about LeBron (James) and Dwyane Wade?" he said. "What about Kobe? He's the best player in the league."
What about Kobe?
There might not be a more polarizing presence in the league than Kobe Bryant, who shoots too much or shoots too little, is a great teammate or a selfish one, a divisive talent or a team-first star.
The 28-year-old Kobe Bryant has been flying under the radar this season. He sat out two games at the start while recuperating from off-season knee surgery and he hasn't had the kind of Bryant game that fans have come to expect.
The Los Angeles Lakers have tweaked their offence a bit in the last couple of days, putting the ball more in Bryant's hands as the facilitator of the triangle offence employed by coach Phil Jackson rather than the dominant scorer.
It all plays into Kobe Bryant's new role as leader of a team trying to establish legitimacy rather than a key part of a club that has legitimate championship potential.
Jackson told reporters earlier in the week that the benefit of Bryant directing the offence is the "obvious knowledge that he has of getting people involved and trying to get us as a team reading defenses better."
Bryant is no stranger to the role — he did it at length last season — and he's fine with it. Gone, seemingly, are the days when he wanted to do nothing more than take over a game as only he can, getting up shots on almost every possession, often to the detriment of his teammates.
Now, wiser it seems, he's letting the likes of Lamar Odom and emerging star big man Andrew Bynum take centre stage.
It's not as if Bryant is going to entirely disappear because he still leads the Lakers in scoring, averaging 21.2 points a game and shooting 52 per cent from the floor. But Odom gets as many shots as Bryant and there's a renewed aura of "team" around Kobe.
He seems to have ceded his place among the highest-profile players of the league to James and Wade and if there's such a thing as an eight-time all-star and three-time NBA champion flying under the radar, it's happening now with Bryant.
Bryant does, of course, hold a special place in the mind of Raptor fans after his 81-point shocker against the Toronto Raptors last season. The highlights are a blur of made shots, contested and uncontested, from deep range and in the paint, a litany of his sublime skills.
"Any time a guy scores 81 points and does what he did against our team, you're definitely going to think about it," Morris Peterson said yesterday. "But he played great. Watching the game on film, he played like a perfect game.
"You could do one thing, foul him or not foul him. I fouled him a couple times and he hit the shot. I didn't foul him a couple times and he hit the shot.
"Watching the film and playing him was totally different. We were out there trying to stop him, but he was so determined that game."
Word of Bryant's spectacular game spread around the basketball world like wildfire and it wasn't limited to North America.
Anthony Parker was playing in Tel Aviv and couldn't escape news of the game, the second most prolific game ever by a player after Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point gold standard.
"Everybody heard about it," Parker said. "I think (the reaction) was the same as everybody else's. When someone scores 81 points, it's pretty incredible."
Tonight, Parker's going to get an up-close view of Bryant's unique talents.
"I think he's proven year in and year out, when he's got it going, what can you do?" Parker said. "You've just got to make him work for shots and make him take the toughest shot possible. That's about all you can do.
"Kobe's going to get his points, but if you can make him take a lot more shots to get those points, you've done your job. It's obviously not just one person, it's the whole team being conscious of where he's at at all times."
It's folly to think any Raptor is going to give Bryant any space tonight.
"That was last season," Chris Bosh said. "This is a new season, it's a new day. We have a different team. That was the old Raptors."