We’re three games into Kobe Bryant’s grand return to the NBA, but despite Bean’s entrance music last Sunday, thus far the sequel’s been much more Attack of the Clones than Empire Strikes Back. After a small three game sample size, I’ve got a few thoughts on the matter:
- The defense is moving closer to preseason predictions
Up until this week, the Lakers haven’t been as terrible defensively as many of us figured they’d be. They’ve wavered between 14th to 16th in defensive efficiency, a metric that measures points given up per possession. With their performance over the past two weeks, they’ve slipped to 18th…and still falling. The Lakers are 0-3 thus far with KB back in the fold, giving up an increasing point total every time; 106 to the Phoenix Suns, 114 to the Portland Trailblazers and a whopping 122 in a dominant beatdown from the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Show has yielded a 47% or better field goal percentage in every game, with opponents averaging better than 55 points in the paint all three nights.A lot of the blame goes to Pau Gasol. He’s been horrible as rim protector this season, a partial indictment of his physical ability, but in part his willingness to embrace being the team’s willing stopper in the paint. Part of me wishes that he simply cannot do this anymore, because it’d be much worse if this was just a question of effort. Regardless, he’s been completely ineffective deterring opposing guards from taking him off of pick and rolls or just on straight drives to the rack. Even more discouraging is how he’s been bullied by his fellow big men, who routinely break him off the dribble or outmaneuver him beneath the rim. This is not to say it’s completely Pau’s fault; after all, the max effort guards on the Lakers may try really hard to stay in front of their opponents, but often times trying isn’t doing.
None of this is a particular surprise–I predicted that the team would be amongst the five worst defense in the entire NBA before the season began. In this sense, Kobe’s not responsible for the team’s recent defensive collapse. This was going to happen regardless of his return
- But offensively, the team is in decline and that MAY be Kobe’s fault
There’s been a stark difference in how the team operates scoring the ball. After leading the league in almost every three-point category the first quarter of the season, they’ve hit no better than 32% from the arc in three games. This, more than anything, has displayed just how dependent the Lakers are on the three-point shot to win on any given night.It’s clear that the fellow Lakers guards are trying very hard to adjust to Kobe’s presence on the floor…and that it’s gotten them completely out of synch. LA has won their games based on a ball-sharing, three-point shooting system that’s been partially successful because of the socialist aspect of the offense. There was no particular emphasis on any one player scoring, just the purest “Mike D’Antoni” philosophy–find the open man as quickly as you can and hock that ball. The Lakers have been the third fastest team in the league, but have been predictably much slower with Kobe on the floor.
It’s hard to say if this will be a permanent thing–after all, it’s been three games. But with Kobe on the floor, this will most likely become a much more stagnant, half court based offense that may try to emphasize Pau Gasol even more than they have already. Bryant’s been one of the Spaniard’s loudest advocates over the past six seasons, and I suspect that he’ll try to ignite the big man’s production by setting him up as much as possible.
- As much as I would love to come to a definitive conclusion on Kobe, there are other factors at work here. Such as no point guards for you.
Not all of this is on Kobe’s shoulders. The team has exactly zero natural point guards on the roster at the current time, with Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all out with various injuries. LA’s playmaking has been absolutely horrid over this past week, with the offense stalling because there have been long stretches without a skilled ball-handler on the floor that can break down opposing defenses or cut through traffic. In fact, the injuries have reduced Kobe to the de facto starting point guard, as the alternatives are Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry and somehow, Nick Young.
Kobe won’t be the point guard all season long, whether that means a returning Farmar, Blake or Nash can be effective or the team goes out and gets another PG. Grading the offense right now is thus very premature–however, there’s a real possibility that the team won’t have any great options at the point for the entire year. This might be a lingering problem for a long time to come.
- If you don’t know the type of player that Kobe is right now, that’s okay–he doesn’t either
There’s nothing I’ve seen since last Sunday that suggests that Kobe won’t be an effective player anymore. While his passes have been sloppy and off target, his instincts, as we’ve surmised, are still sharp. He’s still trying to figure out what are the tendencies of his teammates and what it takes for him to maximize his success. Remember, except for Blake, Meeks, Hill and Pau, this is an entirely new set of Lakers he’s playing with.
On his own, Kobe has been able to effectively man the paint with his immaculate footwork that thus far seems to be unaffected by his injury. It’s very apparent that he’ll be able to be the great post player that many suspected he’d rely on much more heavily as he aged–it just seems that that phase of his career will come much quicker than expected.
However, that part of Bryant’s game may not be quite as great as it looks right now. Teams are guarding him conservatively him in the paint or the elbow at the moment because they’re not sure if he’s capable of taking opponents off the dribble or hitting that fadeaway jumper. In other words, they’re not attacking his potential weaknesses because they do not know what his potential strengths are. Like an old Swiss Army knife, there’s still a big question mark as to how many tools Kobe can still access. Once teams get a better gauge on what he can or cannot do–and rest assured, that will happen–they’ll attack those with glee. It seems that the Lakers and the rest of the NBA alike are all waiting to see exactly what the Mamba can still do.
- The Lakers, as currently constructed, will not make the playoffs.
Even if Kobe came back exactly the player he left, this team is so bad defensively that barring a major trade, I can’t imagine them becoming good enough to consistently win games, especially on the road. But the reality being what it is, the team is suffering offensively as well in their attempt to integrate Kobe. The Lakers are 10-9 in an extremely competitive Western Conference and are wasting valuable time working in a major piece coming off of what’s typically a career death sentence. When or if Los Angeles gets its bearings, they’ll still have to readjust to a returning Nash, Farmar and Blake, as well as the continuing saga of Pau’s failures at both ends of the floor. By that time, they may be too far behind in the standings to recover and even grab a 7 or 8 seed in the postseason bracket. The Lakers are hurtling towards a high draft pick, which is actually a great situation for the team that owes almost a third of its payroll space to a 35 year-old shooting guard for the next two seasons.
Overall, there’s nothing that’s been particularly surprising to me about Kobe’s return, though truth be told, I wouldn’t have been shocked if he were even more out of synch than he is now. The rest of the checklist looks about right: the footwork on offense has been great, he’s been much slower and less explosive than years past and he’s been much more a facilitator than a scorer (though somewhat due to circumstances out of his control). The Lakers have gone into the tank partially because of their attempts to bringing in a brand new starter 1/4 of the way through the year, which also isn’t at all a surprise. I’ve stated many times that I believe the Kobe Bryant we all know and loved for the past 17 seasons is gone and he’s never coming back. In his place will be a slower, more methodical Mamba, whose effectiveness will be predicated on a power game from inside the arc. The real question is if we are all asking is whether or not that guy can be an elite player as well.