Kurt —  December 1, 2009

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It’s one of the little discussed themes emerging with the Lakers this year — this is a mature team in the important senses of the word. And in a couple of cases, it’s from people that a couple years ago we may not have expected it from.

One is the off-the-court Kobe Bryant. Yesterday I riffed at NBCLA on a story from the NY Times about Kobe Bryant serving as a mentor to the suddenly resurgent Vince Young. Young was a troubled athlete; Kobe had been through and navigated rough waters to return to the top of his sport. Everything — from Colorado to the trade demand tirade to the calming counsel of Phil Jackson — has matured Kobe in recent years. We Lakers fans who followed Kobe more closely realized this was simply and extension of who he already was, just a maturation; while those farther away tended to see it as some kind of miraculous transformation. It’s all perspective, one of the many lessons Kobe learned. So it’s not a shock that Young got in touch with Kobe, who essentially told the QB to tune out everybody else, do what you love and win. Now Young is doing that quite well.

The Lakers game on the court has matured just this season with the return of Pau Gasol. He, as Kevin Ding profiles, came to the Lakers (and frankly the United States) a mature person. But it is the maturity of his on-the-court game that makes the Lakers offense flow. He has an almost innate understanding of spacing and movement on the basketball court, and with that comes passing and a flow to the Lakers offense that was missing without it. He has to be defended because he can score with a jumper, or with his back to the basket using either hand, and he is efficient every way. So you bring the double team, or your center out 15 feet to defend Gasol in the high post, and that is when he really destroys you. With passing, with the shot anyway, but always with the smart play. The mature player’s play.

Ron Artest came to the Lakers with a public reputation of immaturity, but so far that seems to be a mislabeling of him. To borrow the words of Andrew Kamenetzky, no doubt Artest is a different cat. But he is very self aware and has learned things from his past experiences — maybe not the lessons some think he should have learned, but he learned. He is not repeating mistakes.

His game on the court is mature, more mature than we expected. He is a better playmaker and passer than we had seen in the past, in part because in previous stops he was asked to create more of the offense rather than just play a role within it. And he is finding that role fast. He is getting his three point attempts from the spots he likes on the floor. He is attacking the rim at the right times. His defense, as expected, is stifling and relentless. He is a strong physical presence to be accounted for used with some veteran experience now. With some maturity.

His off the court choices do not affect the team or the community here the way they would in other towns. If in Indiana or Sacramento he went on a locally done talk show in only his boxers it would have been THE topic of discussion for weeks, with questions about his sanity. Here, a guy walking around in Hollywood in just his underwear is called Tuesday. Ron has an understanding of this, that there is a fit here with the community accepting him — his combination of street toughness with quirks — and his teammates accepting him as a player. Some out there are waiting for the time bomb they think will still go off. Maybe. But more and more I get the feeling they will be sorely disappointed.

Maturity is the kind of thing that helps teams ride out storms. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t panic. It’s the kind of thing that wins championships.