Kobe Bryant kicked off 2006 not with a fadeaway jumper or spectacular dunk, but rather a suspension.
The Lakers star was forced to sit the first two games of the new year after elbowing Grizzlies guard Mike Miller during a Los Angeles loss on Dec. 30, 2005. Bryant was “shocked” by the NBA’s ruling and noted that opposing players had previously hit him with hard flagrant fouls but avoided punishment.
“I wish I could go back in time and take that foul back knowing what I know now, getting two games for it,” Bryant said. “But no way in my mind did I think it was going to be a suspension for something like that. No way.”
Perhaps that suspension provided Bryant with some extra motivation because, man, he made up for lost time. Bryant returned to the floor on Jan. 6, scoring an efficient 48 points in a win over the 76ers — and that was only the beginning.
Over the course of 13 games in January 2006, Bryant averaged an incredible 43.4 points per game, marking the greatest scoring month of his illustrious career. Just four players in NBA history have averaged more than 40 points per game for an entire month (minimum of 10 games played): Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, James Harden and Elgin Baylor.
The standout performance came on Jan. 22 when Bryant torched the Raptors for 81 points, the second-highest individual total of all time behind only Chamberlain’s 100-point explosion. The box score is staggering, yet it was how Bryant did it that was so impressive.
“Everybody wants to talk about the numbers. He could have had 71. He could have had 91,” former Raptors guard Jalen Rose told ESPN’s Jorge Sedano. “The main thing I want everybody to take away from that game is that man’s discipline, that man’s focus. So as a professional on another team, Jorge, you know what you gotta do? You gotta take it.
“And that’s why when people try to tease me, I’m like, um, we held him under 100. What do you mean? What are you talking about? He’s the remix to Michael Jordan. … That game embodies his all-time greatness for sure.”
But Kobe’s crazy run was much more than the famous 81.
Bryant drained all seven of his 3-pointers against Philadelphia to start the month. He dropped 50 points on the Clippers and 51 on the Kings. He went five straight games without missing a free throw. He scored at least 30 points in 12 of the 13 games and 40 or more in seven of those contests.
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The Lakers went 9-4 in January and 45-37 overall in 2005-06, largely relying on Bryant to simply will them to victory. The Hall of Famer averaged a career-high 35.4 points per game that season. Los Angeles’ second-leading scorer, Lamar Odom, was more than 20 points behind him at 14.8.
Kobe, 2005-06. My favorite Kobe season. He averaged a ridiculous 35.4 points per game.
He scored 2,832 points, the 7th-most in a season in NBA history.
The only players with more are Wilt Chamberlain (4x) and Michael Jordan (2x) pic.twitter.com/1liwnZhPKr
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) January 26, 2021
A lack of depth ultimately doomed the Lakers, as they fell to the Suns in the first round of the 2006 NBA playoffs. Los Angeles held a 3-1 lead after Bryant hit multiple clutch shots in a Game 4 win, but Phoenix took the last three games of the series to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.
Anything less than a championship was unacceptable to Bryant, so he likely didn’t look back on that campaign fondly. Still, that stretch — and that entire season — showed what kind of heights peak Kobe could reach.
It also marked the end of an era. Bryant switched from No. 8 to No. 24 for the 2006-07 season and wore that jersey for the rest of his NBA days.
“When I first came in at 8, is really trying to ‘plant your flag’ sort of thing,” Bryant told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes in 2017. “I got to prove that I belong here in this league. I’ve got to prove that I’m one of the best in this league. You’re going after them. It’s nonstop energy and aggressiveness and stuff.”
Not only did Bryant prove that he was one of the best in the league, he proved he belonged in the discussion of the best to ever touch the court. He has an elite basketball resume, but Kobe’s excellence can be explained in that one month.
Now imagine if he hadn’t gotten suspended for two games.