Did Kobe Bryant inspire a historic scoring stretch in the NBA?

It’s no secret that over the last couple of decades the NBA has changed rules and re-interpreted others to favor offense, in general, and scoring, in particular. But that doesn’t explain why, in a span of four days last week, four different players scored 62 points or more after only one — Giannis Antetokounmpo — broke the 60-point plane in the first 2 1/2 months of the season.

So FOX Sports asked a cross-section of scouts, GMs and other front-office executives what they would point to as the reason. The most interesting, if not most popular: Kobe Bryant.

The Hall of Fame Los Angeles Lakers guard died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. His highest scoring game, 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, occurred on Jan. 22, 2006. The memory of both received plenty of attention prior to, and on the day of, their anniversaries.

On Jan. 22, 2024, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns scored 62 points in a loss to the Charlotte Hornets. An hour or so later, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid completed a 70-point performance in a win over the San Antonio Spurs

On Jan. 26, 2024, Phoenix’s Devin Booker put up 62 in a loss to the Indiana Pacers. At nearly the same time, Dallas’ Luka Dončić poured in 73 in a win over the Atlanta Hawks.

Four of the top five individual scoring performances this season occurred on the two dates Bryant’s memory is celebrated the most. Coincidence?

One Western Conference executive didn’t think so, at least not with Dončić and Booker, both of whom have cited Bryant as one of their greatest inspirations. 

“I think Booker and Luka were Kobe-driven,” he said.

Not everyone agreed. One Western Conference GM laughed at the idea. An Eastern Conference executive simply dismissed it. A Western Conference scout considered it plausible but only one of several factors.

The amused Western Conference GM did see one connection between Bryant’s 81 and the recent spate of remarkably high individual efforts: the point in the season.

“This time of year guys are in peak shape and not fatigued yet,” he said.

Several responders credited Towns, in that he delivered the first of the four and clearly was on a mission to score, taking 35 shots while registering two assists and seven turnovers.

“It’s a copycat league and the big thing with scoring that many points is taking that many shots,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “Once one guy sees someone do it, it might give him a little more license in his mind to do it himself. Most of these big 60, 70-point games have been in wins, so that may be another reason that everyone — teammates, coaches — is OK with one player taking that many shots.”

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr recently griped that playing defense has been legislated out of the league by having its referees blow their whistle at the slightest contact and invariably in favor of the offensive player. In case you were wondering, that is a nearly universal belief among coaches, scouts, executives and GMs. 

“The NBA has f—-ed with the game too much,” a Western Conference scout grumbled. “There is no physicality anymore. Coaches are too afraid to innovate on defense lest they be criticized by the traditional media and social media. We have effectively tilted the floor to offense way too much. Today’s scoring outbursts have discounted value. No one can defend today’s NBA athletes without the help of physical play.”

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The inability to defend, an Eastern Conference scout said, has prompted a lot of coaches to abandon demanding it, tying playing time to a player committing to it or building game plans around it. The shift can be seen in league-wide offensive-rebounding percentages. They’re on a steady rise in the last three years after an eight-year decline that coincided with the Golden State Warriors’ dynastic run behind lickety-split small ball. Opposing coaches countered by having their players forget about attacking the offensive glass and simply sprint back on defense during that stretch. That approach no longer seems to be in vogue.

“There are a few teams that really emphasize defense,” he said. “Minnesota. Boston. Cleveland. Houston. Orlando. But not as many as in the past.”

With more coaches bending to the league favoring offense, GMs have put a greater emphasis on drafting offensive — vs. defensive — players. That, too, was cited as a reason for four different players going for 60-plus points in the same week. It’s worth noting that they all came against some of the most hapless defensive teams in the league. (Toronto being Kobe’s 81-point victim was no surprise, either — the Raptors finished 29th in defensive rating that season.)

“Fewer defensive-minded players are being drafted into a league that prioritizes three-point shooting over everything else,” a second Eastern Conference executive said.

That means fewer defensive-minded players to call upon to slow down a one-man show.

But that executive also believes a comeuppance may await teams like the Milwaukee Bucks (ranked third offensively, 19th defensively) and Indiana Pacers (first in offense, 26th on defense).

“The difference between what is allowed defensively in the playoffs vs. the regular season,” he said, “will be more obvious this year.”

In short: defense does matter. Eventually.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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