The pump fakes began in earnest when Kobe Bryant got stuck with the ball against Denver this month.
He had nowhere to go in the lane so he relied on an old trick to get himself out of a jam — and possibly a defender in the air.
He pump-faked once. He pump-faked again. He might have done it a third time but briefly lost control of the ball.
Nuggets forward Will Barton didn’t budge, staying on his feet while guarding Bryant, forcing an off-balance 10-footer that ricocheted hard off the back of the rim.
The book is out on Bryant’s declining skills, and somewhere high on the first page is an over-reliance on pump-faking.
“Kobe can’t get open shots. He can’t go around people to get layups. It’s hard to make contested shots.”
That’s Bryant these days. He’s 37 years old and 20 years into his NBA career. It’s an uneasy mix on a bad Lakers team with a 2-12 record.
He’s shooting a jarringly low 31.1%, which puts him 122nd out of 122 players who qualify for NBA stat-keeping with enough attempts this season. Bryant is shooting an equally damaging 19.5% from three-point range, last out of 103 NBA stat qualifiers. He has yet to make half his shots in a game and his trademark fly-through-the-air days are gone. He does not have a dunk this season.
Lakers fans are despondent, wanting to remember the player who scored 81 points against Toronto, 62 through three quarters against Dallas and captured the league MVP award in 2008 and NBA Finals MVP awards in 2009 and 2010.
They don’t want to see what Bryant has become — a salary cap-killing shadow of his former self.
He makes $25 million in the last year of his contract, part of a two-year, $48.5-million extension generously given by the Lakers in November 2013 before Bryant returned from a torn Achilles’ tendon.
Before he went down with that injury late in the 2012-13 season, Bryant’s numbers were stellar, especially for a 34-year old — 27.3 points, six assists and 5.6 rebounds while playing a colossal 38.6 minutes a game.
Double-teams were still mandatory because he could operate with precision from the post and also drive with successful abandon. He could easily create his own shot and was notably at 46.3% accuracy before he got injured, above his career mark of 45.3% going into that season.
Nowadays, teams don’t waste an extra defender on Bryant. Since the Achilles’ injury, he has averaged a seemingly respectable 19.8 points but shot a miserable 36.5% on a very high volume of attempts.
Bryant whipsaws between saying he feels fine and then claiming he can barely walk to his car, which was the case after playing 36 minutes in a rare victory over Detroit.
But NBA executives, players and talent evaluators interviewed by The Times felt differently.
They would not criticize Bryant on the record, almost universally citing respect for a career in which he won five championships and set a standard with a maniacal work ethic and drive. This Bryant, however, is not the one they want to remember.
“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”
Barkley laughed and laughed when asked how Bryant had played this season. “There is nothing he can do about getting old, man,” the TNT analyst said. “It ends like that for everybody, and Kobe is no different. It’s ending badly for him.
“You remember Patrick Ewing playing for Orlando in his final season. You remember me playing for the Rockets my last season. You remember Michael [Jordan] playing for the Wizards. Karl Malone playing for the Lakers his last season. I mean, it ended bad for us and it ends bad for everybody.
“The only thing I feel bad about is that the Lakers aren’t going to be very good. If they were competitive, it could be a little bit better for Kobe. But they’re not going to be competitive.
Should this be Bryant’s last year?
“Oh, yeah, this definitely should be it,” Barkley said. “To me, this is like a farewell tour. Just go and play 25 minutes a night and let the NBA fans say, ‘Thank you for an amazing career.’”
A few other guards recently played into their late 30s. Jason Terry is still going at age 38 and Ray Allen hung it up last season at the same age, though neither handled the ball as much as Bryant and never had injuries comparable to his last few seasons.
An Eastern Conference executive seemed almost melancholy when discussing the player he followed since Bryant attended Lower Merion (Pa.) High.
“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” he said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”
Bryant has not officially decided whether to return for another year, continually saying he will defer until after this season.
He hasn’t driven into the lane like he used to and also isn’t getting foul calls like in the past, the dual realities giving him only 4.4 free-throw attempts a game, below his career average of 7.6 before this season.
Another big change in Bryant’s game is jacking up seven three-point shots a game, almost double his career average. His glaring inaccuracy only accentuates his new over-reliance from long distance.
Bryant has been unusually jovial so far this season, easygoing in interviews with reporters and offering kindness and respect toward players he might never see again as opponents.
He spent a long time on the Madison Square Garden court after the Lakers lost at New York this month. He had kind words and an embrace for Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and also offered encouragement to Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, an almost unheard-of notion from one of the league’s most raging competitors.
That game also underlined another struggling point for Bryant. His defense is poor, sometimes reduced to clutch-and-grab techniques best demonstrated by his inability to successfully stop the bigger Anthony.
One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”
Even former teammates have to look hard for silver linings.
“It was definitely different seeing him go one for 14,” Golden State interim Coach Luke Walton said after the Warriors trounced the Lakers, 111-77. “But I try to focus on the fact that it is still great to see him out on the court playing in that Laker uniform, finishing his career with that team.”
TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal didn’t mince as many words. “It is unfortunate for a guy like Kobe. He was such a big star so it is hard to watch,” said O’Neal who teamed with Bryant to win three straight titles in the early 2000s.
Perhaps a West scout said it best after watching Bryant play a few times this season.
Does one of the greatest players ever have anything left?
“Nothing. I hate it,” the scout said. “He pump-fakes every time he gets the ball. He pump-fakes it to death.
“I hope this is his last season. It’s not going to get better.”
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