Kobe faces his toughest test - NBC Sports

Kobe faces his toughest test
With new coaches and a depleted supporting cast, Bryant and Lakers at a crossroads
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Kobe Bryant's task this season with the Lakers might be harder than ever, NBCSports.com contributor Michael Ventre writes.
December 20, 2011, 5:12 pm

Must lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship at the age of 33; with knee and finger questions; during a compacted, lockout-shortened season; with Mike Brown and a new coaching staff instead of Phil Jackson; with a roster that's short one Lamar Odom; with Andrew Bynum suspended for the first five games; with Chris Paul - the friend you thought you'd be playing alongside in a spectacular backcourt - playing instead for the Clippers; while you're going through a divorce.

Maybe it's fitting that while Kobe is about to embark on this assignment, the new "Mission: Impossible" film is coming out, which should probably be titled "Mission: Impossible, Although It's Not Nearly As Difficult As What Kobe's Got Going On."

This season might be the sternest test in the career of this future Hall of Famer, and that's saying something. Remember the mess he got into in Colorado? The turmoil with Shaq? The early battles with the Zen Master? The trade-demand campaign? The Game 6 humiliation against the Celtics in '08? Having to share the basketball with Smush Parker?

On the plus side, Bryant is one of the few humans on the planet who might be up to the task, because he's been through all that aforementioned stuff. To quote Pat Riley, who borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche, "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger." Of course, the jury's still out on whether playing a jam-packed 66-game season with this current roster will indeed destroy him and everyone in Laker Nation.

One of Kobe's key tasks is to get in the ear of Pau Gasol. He loves the big Spaniard. But Gasol was anemic at the end of last season (in fairness, all the Lakers were). And Gasol was packaged in the original deal with New Orleans for Paul, which was killed by David Stern.

That debacle messed so badly with the head of Odom that he demanded a trade, and got one to Dallas. It had to have messed with Gasol's, too, although he's much more even keel in public. Kobe has to get Gasol to forget all that, to play with rage, and to be the star of the frontcourt.

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Kobe has to remind Bynum that his defensive prowess is needed more than ever, now that the Lakers are down one big man with Odom gone.

There are other concerns for the Lakers' superstar. He's had various ailments involving his knees and fingers, and he attacks the basket far less frequently. The Lakers need his scoring, but they also need him to be smarter when it comes to shot selection, simply because other teams have gotten stronger, the Lakers have become slightly weaker, and the margin of error is slimmer.

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Kobe also has to help direct a much more effective defensive squad. The Lakers won championships in '09 and '10 largely because their interior defense was stout - when they decided to play defense, that is, which wasn't all the time. Last season's team defense was spotty and often shabby, especially in the postseason. Brown will emphasize defense more than Jackson did, which is fine, but Kobe will have to be the floor leader that keeps everybody mindful of that assignment.

And Kobe will have to do all of this knowing that a new NBA collective bargaining agreement makes it much harder for a franchise like his with an obese payroll to do anything major in terms of revamping the roster. If the Lakers do obtain Dwight Howard somehow, they'll do so by giving up Bynum and probably Gasol. That might provide the cornerstone for future Lakers teams, but it wouldn't leave much to make the team a contender at present.

Kobe might not say it out loud, but he'd love to have a sixth ring to match Michael Jordan. That would make his side of the "Kobe or Mike?" debate much more viable. Bryant is hooked on jewelry to begin with, and doesn't need Jordan's presence in the record books as motivation to go after more titles. But it certainly provides extra fuel.

On paper, these Lakers don't seem to have what it takes to win the 2012 NBA finals. Younger clubs such as the Thunder and Grizzlies threaten to seize power in the West, and there are always the defending-champion Mavericks to face. Heck, the Clippers with Paul and Blake Griffin could be formidable. Even if the Lakers in their current state managed to reach the finals, they'd probably get swept by Miami.

But if Kobe can somehow experience rejuvenation, it might spread like a virus to his teammates. The Lakers are still among the most talented teams in the league when you consider Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Metta World Peace (oy vey), Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Derek Fisher. They're just old. And it doesn't appear that new additions Gerald Green (25), Jason Kapono (30) and Troy Murphy (30) will make significant impacts.

If Kobe can lead this team to a championship this season, his sixth ring won't be the only reason he'll be considered on even terms with Jordan. That will occur because he will have accepted a challenge only a rare few would be capable of taking on, and nailed it.

Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44

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