Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has averaged only 9.4 points on a 38.9% shooting… (David Ramos / Getty Images…)
The closer no longer carries the team late in the game. The scorer no longer takes a bulk of the load. His shot looks off the mark. And regardless of whether he's just pacing himself for next season, Kobe Bryant looks remarkably slow in the 2012 London Olympics.
There's very little to like about Bryant's play through five games in group play. Before Team USA's Wednesday's quarterfinal match with Australia, Bryant has averaged 9.4 points on 38.9% shooting. He ranks sixth on Team USA in scoring behind Kevin Durant (18.6 points), Carmelo Anthony (17.4), Kevin Love (13), LeBron James (11.6) and Russell Westbrook (10.4). Bryant also looks a step slow on defense.
Sure, Bryant provided 16 points, including 14 in the first-quarter, in an 83-point blowout last week against Nigeria. Bryant's also played the elder statesman role by enthusiastically deferring to his younger teammates and allowing them to assume the on-court limelight. But it still doesn't mask his poor play.
It's prompted ESPN.com to explain why it's in Team USA's best interest for Coach Mike Krzyzewski to bench Bryant in favor of Andre Iguodala. Regardless of Iguodala's better defense, it's a move Krzyzewski won't and shouldn't make.
Bryant has remained professional during these Games. Partly to promote his international brand. Partly because he doesn't want to be an obstacle toward his second gold medal. Partly because he appears intent on enjoying the tail end of his career rather than stubbornly trying to hold onto everything he once had. So if Krzyzewski actually took Bryant's starting spot away (which he won't), it's likely the Lakers' star would simply bite his tongue. But there's no doubt such a move would wound Bryant's ego.
Team USA boasts so much talent and depth that James, Durant and Anthony likely could dominate the scoring column even without Bryant on the floor. This isn't the Lakers, where Bryant's mere presence frees Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol of double teams in the post and leaves other perimeter players wide open for three-pointers. But even with Team USA possessing so much talent, Bryant's elder statesman role diminishes without his starting position.
It follows somewhat of the same logic on why Derek Fisher started so long for the Lakers even as his skills declined. Teammates still respected his presence, his work ethic and his mentorship. The same applies to Bryant, who has given the next generation of stars a blueprint to follow on maximizing talent and building an international brand.
A likely scenario will play out in the upcoming elimination games where Team USA will need Bryant's veteran presence, late-game experience and scoring. As he's proved before, Bryant will deliver in such moments. But if he doesn't, Krzyzewski can hold Bryant accountable without creating a distraction by benching him. All he has to do is lower his minutes.
He followed that plan when Tunisia started off strongly against a sluggish starting lineup, including a foul-prone Bryant. Playing the reserves for most of the first half and to begin the third quarter provided enough of a message. It also allowed Krzyzewski and Bryant to save face by mentioning afterward the need for him to limit his minutes.
That's not to discount Bryant's struggles. Team USA can sugarcoat it all it wants by mentioning the team's depth and Bryant's desire to limit his playing time. His field-goal percentage still looks awful. But sports performances go beyond statistics. It also involves ego and team dynamics. Even overlooking the likelihood that Bryant will play at his best when the moment truly counts, those two variables alone serve enough justification for Krzyzewski to keep Bryant as Team USA's undisputed starting shooting guard.