NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Pelicans have had their share of injuries this season.
“That’s an understatement,” Kobe Bryant said with a chuckle. “That’s an understatement.”
New Orleans’ games lost because of injury and illness this season jumped to 316 in their 110-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the few teams in recent history that can relate to the Pelicans’ pain.
Over the past four seasons, there are only five other instances of at least 300 games lost in a single season in the databases of InStreetClothes.com: The Minnesota Timberwolves (twice), the Lakers (twice) and the Milwaukee Bucks. Bryant played a big part in the Lakers’ first- and second-place finishes in this category last season and the season prior.
Bryant missed 76 games in 2013-14, the most of his career, and followed it up with 47 on the shelf last season. This season, amid a farewell tour thick with pomp and big-board testimonials, the 37-year-old has missed 17.
But despite the injury woes that marred the end of one of the most celebrated careers in NBA history, Bryant said he wouldn’t approach his playing time or the management of his body much differently.
“Eh, nah, man, nah, not really,” he said. “Because technology has changed so much since I was coming up. And back then, I tried to do absolutely everything I could to stay on top of things. And I’m sure they’re doing the same. But at the end of the day, you can’t worry about going out there and playing and risking injury.
“You have to go out there and play. And if it’s in the cards, that you may get injured, then it is what it is and you go figure it out from there. But you can’t worry about that. You just got to go out there and play your game.”
If there’s a moral to extrapolate from Bryant’s final few seasons, perhaps it begins there, with forging your own path.
Bryant, whose offensive repertoire has clearly diminished in his 20th season, spent Friday’s game chucking up shots whenever he could to the delight of the decidedly pro-Kobe crowd at the Smoothie King Center. He finished with 14 points, all scored in the first quarter, on 4-for-15 shooting.
The sellout crowd ate it up, giving Bryant a huge ovation when he checked in for the final time in New Orleans with 7:20 left in the fourth quarter, and again, during the curtain call and wave goodbye three minutes later.
But the path the Pelicans have forged for their immediate future runs counter to what Bryant often symbolizes in today’s NBA.
Their coach, Alvin Gentry, has spent his first season with the Pelicans stressing ball movement and has deep roots in the Phoenix Suns teams that served as a foil to Bryant’s solo show. Their star, Anthony Davis, is often lauded by his coach for his differential approach. Though the Pelicans’ struggles are varied, and the injuries plentiful, the team was often at its worse when it required Davis to function as its sun, stars and moon.
Davis, for what it’s worth, has developed a deep affection for Bryant after their time as teammates on Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics.
“He’s meant a lot,” Davis said. “What really kind of stands out is that whole Olympics thing, me and him. He kind of took me under his wing and made me learn a lot about the game, and how the game is different -- way different -- than college and high school and even the Olympics. Having a guy like that just take you under his wing, especially at 19 and coming into the league -- I wouldn’t even say coming into the league, because I wasn’t even coming into the league yet.
“Trying to learn the game and get better and get to where he has, to where people put him on a pedestal. You want to get there too. And then him being able to bring you in with open arms and try to school you to the game, that means a lot to me.”
But there’s an important distinction between appreciating those who have paved a path for you and adopting their approach.
Davis has spent this season, his fourth in the NBA, adjusting to life at center stage. After compiling one of the highest player efficiency ratings in history in his age-21 season, he has been feted with all of the appropriate spoils: MVP buzz, marketing opportunities, movie guest spots and expectations. His 25.19 PER this season, still eighth-best in the NBA despite his being shut down for the season for a left leg injury, seems almost a disappointment. (And to a certain degree, it is.)
The 23-year-old is also often derided for his mounting missed games because of injury, now at 68 over his first four seasons. But such a conservative approach -- both in seasons past and in this one, having been officially shut down before Game 69 with little to gain and so much to lose -- is the exactly the type of considered, long-range thinking that has led to so much good in some of the most successful NBA outposts -- San Antonio and Golden State chief among them.
“They’re two entirely different personalities,” Gentry said in regard to Bryant and Davis. “Anyone that you would coach, you would want them to have the competitive spirit that [Bryant] has. That would be true of anybody in the league. I think if you ask any coach, they would say if you could find a way to bottle the competitiveness he had when he walks on the court.”
But be like Kobe?
That path can be a painful trek.