- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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The paradox that is Kobe Bryant was on full display during the 2011-12 season.
Should he be celebrated for the second-highest scoring average in the league as a 33-year-old playing in his 16th NBA season?
Or should he be criticized for shooting 43 percent (his lowest since his second year in the league) and averaging 4.6 assists per game (his lowest since 2005-06) while posting the highest usage rate (35.7) in the league?
As Kobe often says when asked whether a low-scoring Lakers night is the fault of the Lakers' offense or a credit to the opponent's defense, "Probably a little bit of both."
Were the Lakers empowered by having Bryant push them to the third-best record in the West despite coach Mike Brown being in his first season with L.A., the team trading its longtime point guard at the deadline, and the season seeming to never escape the shadow of the failed Chris Paul deal?
Or were the Lakers sometimes hampered by Bryant trying to hold on to the player he once was, instead of evolving to fit the roster that surrounded him at this point in his career?
Probably a little bit of both.
Was Kobe all about No. 24 instead of about the other 13 guys on the roster when he was scoring 40-plus points in four straight games in January?
Or was he just doing what one of the top five scorers in NBA history is supposed to do, helping along an anemic offense by putting the team on his back until it found its offensive stride under Brown?
Probably a little bit of both.
Should fans be impressed that Bryant’s six 40-point games (between the regular season and playoffs) in 2011-12 were twice as many as league MVP LeBron James’ three and two more than NBA scoring title winner Kevin Durant’s four?
Or should fans point to the Lakers’ 3-3 record in those six games and say that when Bryant plays "hero ball," the team isn't as efficient as when he dials it back a bit?
Probably a little bit of both.
And that’s the tension that runs through any thoughts about the Lakers’ future championship chances, too.
Does the logical person observing this team believe that Bryant’s salary next season ($27.8 million) will make him grossly overpaid and hinder the Lakers’ chances of reaching the title?
Can the romantic person -- who has observed Bryant’s drive, will and work ethic over the course of his career -- have any doubt that Kobe will figure out somehow, some way, to tie Michael Jordan with six rings before he retires?
You’d have to say that both the logical one and the romantic would admit they feel a little bit of what the other feels.
In the grand scheme of things, Bryant’s biggest accomplishment undoubtedly was passing former teammate Shaquille O’Neal for fifth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. The rest of the top five? Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Karl Malone. Jordan. Wilt Chamberlain. Pretty heady stuff.
The fact that he passed O’Neal back in his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia made for a “This is your life”-type moment for Bryant.
That’s the big-picture stuff.
The real day-to-day highlight of Bryant’s 16th campaign was his ability to play through injuries. First, there was the torn ligament in his right wrist that he hurt in training camp; eventually, he received pregame injections to numb the pain. Then there was the concussion and broken nose he suffered at the hands of Dwyane Wade in the All-Star Game that resulted in him wearing a mask for several games . Finally, there was a left shin injury that caused him to wear a walking boot on non-game days for a while, and eventually led him to sit out two weeks near the end of the season, a period during which he seemed to embrace a “Coach Kobe” role.
Bryant called the 2010-11 season a “wasted year of my life” after the Lakers were swept out of the second round by the Dallas Mavericks. He’d have to feel similarly about 2011-12.
Even though the Oklahoma City Thunder were the better team during the regular season, and thus had home-court advantage in their Western Conference semifinals series, L.A. had its shot to advance. That shot went awry thanks in no small part to the way Bryant closed Game 2 (missing his last five shots and being part of two key turnovers) and the way he finished Game 4 (missing seven of his last eight shots).
His struggles in the clutch were only magnified by what he said (pegging Game 4’s result on a Gasol turnover) and by what he didn’t say (choosing not to address the media during the postseason exit interview schedule like the rest of his teammates).
PROSPECTS FOR 2012-13
Bryant has made it clear that the only thing that motivates him at this stage of his career is adding to his championship collection. With two years and approximately $58 million remaining on his contract, will the money he is owed make it impossible for Lakers management to engineer a title-contending team in part because of an inability to retool the roster under the new, stricter collective bargaining agreement?
It’s going to be intriguing to see how Bryant handles this upcoming offseason. On the one hand, he can try to spin it positively, pointing out that a full training camp with Brown, and another season with Bynum in his prime (even if the roster isn’t dramatically overhauled) could give the Lakers enough of a boost to get back to the promised land. On the other hand, how much longer can he continue to defy the effects of aging and be the alpha dog of this team? And if all the years and games and minutes do start to take their toll, will Bryant be able, or willing, to make the necessary adjustments to his game to maximize the way he can best help the team?
The guy who used to play for the Lower Merion Aces isn’t satisfied with anything less than an A, but it just didn’t all come together this year for Kobe.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
The paradox that is Kobe Bryant was on full display during the 2011-12 season.Should he be celebrated for the second-highest scoring average in the league as a 33-year-old playing in his 16th NBA season?