With the Lakers up 24 points on the Pistons with 8:55 remaining Sunday night in Los Angeles, ordinarily a cushy margin against an overmatched opponent, coach Mike Brown sent Kobe Bryant back in. The same ailing Kobe Bryant who said after the previous game, Friday against the Clippers, that it felt like his foot was falling off. The same 34-year-old Kobe Bryant who opened the season by logging 35, 38 and 43 minutes.
The Pistons had cut the deficit from 36 points, and Brown was taking no chances even though L.A. probably could have just fallen forward and crossed the finish line first. Bryant went in for Devin Ebanks. Dwight Howard went in for Robert Sacre. Steve Blake, starting for the injured Steve Nash, went in for Darius Morris. This was the 0-3 start talking. This was a championship contender — yes, still — forced into responding to a lottery team when Brown might have held off on at least Bryant returning to the game if the Lakers had been off to a slow start instead of their Prepare For Nuclear Winter start.
If Brown was living in the moment, though, he was also living in the past. The issue at hand is much more than just about Sunday night and getting a lot of people to breath into paper bags. It was the same thing in 2011-12. A season after Bryant could barely practice, Brown, as new Lakers coach, played Kobe 38.5 minutes a game, more than anyone in the league except 26-year-old Luol Deng, 23-year-old Kevin Love and 23-year-old Kevin Durant. Brown would come to say the workload should have been reduced.
Nothing has changed early in 2012-13. The offense is doubled over, Bryant is going good at 26.8 points and 59.7 percent from the field, Nash has missed the last two games and most of another with a leg injury, and so Brown keeps turning to Bryant. It’s understandable as the Lakers search for help turns up few takers. It’s just asking for trouble.
Bryant didn’t just play 32 minutes, which ordinarily isn’t a lot, in Sunday’s 108-79 victory. He went 32 minutes two days after limping through the locker room with a strained right foot and telling a group of reporters how much he was hurting, a rare admission on his part. To have to be rushed back into action in the fourth quarter against the Pistons was surely the last thing he wanted, but an 0-3 start and Detroit making a charge does strange things.
As Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register tweeted later:
Nash’s arrival as an expert distributor and another shooter for the backcourt was supposed to reduce the dependency. Yet Bryant is at 37 minutes a game and taking on a greater burden as the offense labors at full strength. Plus there’s the added hit of Nash’s leg injury. He will miss at least two games under the original calendar for recovery from the fractured tibia. Nash said he was hopeful the timetable will hold, but could offer little in the way of certainty.
Adding to the problem, the Lakers don’t have much of a bench in the best of times, especially in the backcourt. Blake has moved into the starting role and Brown is using only Morris behind Blake and some Ebanks, also a small forward, behind Bryant. Jodie Meeks isn’t playing. Chris Duhon isn’t playing. That’s it at guard.
The depth issue won’t go away until the second unit proves capable. The Nash issue will go away when he returns and is playing at his usual high level. The Bryant minutes issue? That may never go away.