Not even a year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were concerned that Kobe Bryant was playing too many minutes. Now, his team needs him to do even more than lead the league in scoring by working harder on the defensive end.
What a difference a year makes.
Last season, Bryant averaged 38.5 minutes per game and 27.9 points in 58 games played during the lockout-shortned season. Even with only 66 games being played, there was concern that Bryant's overuse would catch up to him.
But at 34 years old in 2012-13, Bryant is looking like his vintage self, leading the league in scoring and shooting a career-high 47.5 field goal percentage. Even with that, the Lakers need him to do more. Los Angeles needs him to be a leader on defense.
That's a lot to ask of Bryant, even though he is in outstanding shape. The Lakers need as much as they can get out of him, however, if they are going to have any real shot at playing in the postseason.
Los Angeles ranks 21st in the NBA in opponents points allowed per contest with 103.7. Even though the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the worst offensive teams in the league, it was Bryant's stifling defense on Kyrie Irving that helped bottle up Cleveland for the duration of the game and hold them to just 93 points.
The question around Los Angeles has been whether the Lakers should be in panic mode. Consistently putting an aging superstar on another team's best, and usually more athletic, player is a tall order, especially when that player may or may not be giving 100 percent effort on the most critical end of the floor.
But is Bryant doing enough? Is he bringing the effort consistently?
"Kobe's a guy that likes a challenge, so to give him a challenge I think sometimes is best for us," Steve Nash said. "Sometimes when he maybe is guarding someone who isn't going to demand his interest, he can wane a little bit. But when we put him in a position where he's challenged, he can be phenomenal."
That pretty much sums it up. Tell -- or even suggest that Kobe can't do something, and he'll do everything in his power, usually succeeding, to prove his detractors wrong. But he's been lauded all season, praised for his offense, while the defense has suffered.
Head coach Mike D'antoni added his take:
Mike D'Antoni on Kobe's off-ball defense: "Umm, it’s good … You know. I think sometimes he just … You know … Umm … Yeah, it’s good."— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 14, 2013
SB Nation's own Silver Screen & Roll said it a little better than that:
To call Kobe Bryant's defense this season bad is to call the Pacific Ocean big, or the sun hot. He hasn't just been bad and he's not just a liability. His presence on the defensive end of the court has actually become a detriment, in the truest sense of the word. And the worst part? He's not failing to play defense. He has willingly decided that he no longer needs to try.