As we’ve been reading for the past couple of days, all indications point to Kobe returning against Memphis on Tuesday. Obviously, this is great news for the Lakers as the team is finally getting it’s key players healthy for their late season push into the playoffs. We all know that Phil Jackson loves to have his team peak at the right time and his goals are always focussed on the big picture of performing the best come May and June and not necessarily January and February. That said, those preparations for the playoffs do start now (if not already) and eventhough the Lakers will be without Sasha and Luke, the goals will now start to shift towards what this team will look and play like heading into the second season.
So, now that Kobe is back, what can we expect? A lot of people have weighed in on what the Lakers were like in his absence, but answering this question is more complex than it appears on the surface. We all know what Kobe is capable of, but in his absence we’ve also seen a more disciplined and team focussed approach without our best player (which is natural, btw - this has happened to many NBA teams over the years as they miss their best player – look at Houston’s long win streak without Yao two seasons ago for further evidence of the bunker mentality that develops with your top guy out) . The goal, at this point in the season, should be combining the best of both worlds (Kobe the difference maker + more aggressive and disciplined teammates) with a push towards the ultimate goal. With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the Lakers offense, defense, and rotations with Kobe back in the fold. We’ll start in reverse order…
Rotations: We’ve already covered what missing Luke Walton means to the Lakers rotations. And now that Sasha is out with his sprained shoulder, we’re likely to see even more shuffling of the lineup to compensate missing roation players. So, in this regard, the return of Kobe could not come at a better time for a team that suddenly finds itself short on bodies that can play on the wing. With these injuries, we’re likely to see Kobe resume his role as the primary backup to Artest at SF with him also logging more minutes at his traditional SG spot. As we’ve discussed in the past, Phil has shown he’s quite comfortable with Kobe playing SF for extended stretches, especially with thet Farmar/Shannon backcourt. And with Sasha also out (even though he was getting limited minutes on the season), I think we’ll also see more of Kobe in general as Shannon is the only back up SG on the roster and Phil starts to shorten rotations and play the players that he trusts most.
In the end, I think the Lakers will move more towards their most effective lineups and that means more Kobe at either SG or SF. This may also mean experimentation of lineups that we have rarely seen this season (Shannon as a PG, LO as a SF, Ron as a SG) just because this puts our best players on the floor for more minutes. At first take, this would surprise me as Phil is rarely one to tinker with lineups in this manner this late in the season. It would not surprise me if these lineups were worked on in practice, but to impliment them in the games would be a step away from the normal for Phil as he traditionally has liked to build consistency throughout the season with his substitution patterns, minute allocations, and roles within units that are on the floor. But, Phil has shown (in subtle ways) that he is not afraid to go to the players that work best (Farmar had been closing a lot of games out right before Kobe’s absence) and as the team preps for the playoffs, Phil will get players ready mentally for what he thinks their roles may be.
Defense: Getting Kobe back is a two sided proposition to the Lakers’ defense. On the one hand, Kobe is an All-NBA level defender. He has the ability to slow any wing player in the league and make that player work hard to not only score the ball, but to even receive it. I’ve often said that Kobe is one of the best players in the league at ball denials and he often does a lot of his best defensive work off the ball. That leads us to the other side of the defensive coin with Kobe – he’s a tremendous off ball defender that truly does like to gamble and play “free safety” when he’s not the primary-on-ball defender. This is even more true when the player that Kobe is guarding is not an offensive threat. So, what getting Kobe back on defense means will be greatly determined by what his mind set is. Will Kobe be the off the ball gambler whose individual freelancing help tendencies can sometimes comprimise our team help schemes? Or will Kobe be a more traditional help defender, play his excellent ball denial defense, and exert his doberman mentality when playing on the ball? I think the answer will probably be in between and vary based off matchups, but this will be something to monitor.
In the end, I think we need to understand that the Lakers have been one of the best two defensive teams (measured by pointer per 100 possessions) all season. So, even with Kobe playing “center field” on defense, the Lakers have still been quite difficult to score on. However, as has been noted, the defense has picked up with Kobe out of the line up and I think the coaches will continue to emphasize the Lakers D when Kobe returns. I do think he’ll buy in to what the team wants and needs, but we’ll see it first hand come tomorrow evening.
Offense: It is on the offensive side of the ball where we will see the biggest impact from Kobe’s return (pause to let obviousness sink in). That said, the Lakers’ offense will need to incorporate Kobe in a way that optimizes what the Lakers are capable of on that end of the floor. This is something that has not always taken place this season as evidenced by the Lakers offensive efficiency this season (hovering around 10th all season which is in direct contrast to the top five ranking of the past two seasons). Simply put, Kobe is so talented on offense that he really hasn’t needed the intricacies of the Triangle to score his points. Early in the season when Gasol was out, we saw Kobe in the post a great deal and he was essentially a guard version of Bynum. He was scoring at an efficient clip, but rarely using the motions and passing opportunities built into the offense to get other players good shots. Since Gasol has returned, Kobe has vacated the post much more, but has still relied heavily on isolation plays from the wings and P&R’s to get jumpshots or to create driving opportunities. And because Kobe has the ball in his hands a lot, this has led to an imbalance in shot distribution that has not been slowed because his teammates have not been as agressive in either calling for the ball or forcing the ball movement away from Kobe to better set up the Lakers offense.
In the games that Kobe has been out, we have seen less of this perimeter isolation play from our wings and the fluidity of the offense has looked much better. Yes, we’ve still seen a bit too much P&R (mostly from Farmar) and we’ve also seen a fair amount of over-dribbling, probing, and settling for jumpshots (mostly from Shannon). But for the most part, the offense has been run through the post and this has led to better shots within the flow of the Triangle. However, while this has led to a more aesthetically pleasing offense, it has not been any better at producing a better performing Lakers offense. As Phillip linked to earlier today, the Lakers offense has struggled in the majority of games that Kobe has been out and moving forward, the Lakers will need to integrate Kobe in a manner where he is both killer and facilitator, primary offensive weapon and decoy that sets others up for easy shots. The only person that can make this happen is Kobe and it must be a concious decision by #24.
In order to accomplish this, I’d like to see Kobe operate less as a primary ball handler and much more off the ball. If this takes place, Kobe will then become a player that will get shots more through the motions of the offense than through his own ability to create a shot. He can use the weakside screen actions to curl to the ball. He can set up at the weakside elbow where he has an almost unstoppable jumpshot while also eliminating double team opportunities for the defense (and if the double team does come, he can easily see where it’s coming from and make the appropriate pass – ala the Denver series last year). Kobe can also use the “blind pig” sequence in the offense where the ball goes into the high post on a flash from the weakside (aka the pressure release) and then the weakside guard (Kobe) cuts to the baseline where he can either receive a pass from the big on his backdoor cut or he can cut and then post up to get an easy look inside. Essentially, Kobe can utitlize this offense better and do it in ways that he has been for years under Phil Jackson.
When Kobe does have the ball coming up the court, I’d like to see him call for the P&R less and instead initiate the post entry from the top or pass to the corner to initiate our sets. As a captain of the team and a 10 year veteran of this offense, Kobe knows this offense inside out. He also knows that our big men are our most efficient players and that their efficiency is at least partially based on the attention that he draws as a primary focus of the defense. There is a balance to be struck on offense and over the past few games we’ve seen what the motion should look like, but we have not seen the high level of finishing that is possible. With Kobe back in the fold, will now be possible again.
In conclusion, Kobe being back will be a tremendous boost to both our offense and our defense. He will affect the game in positive ways even if he doesn’t play in a manner that fully promotes team play for every minute that he is on the court. I mean, we will need hero Kobe at least once or twice more this regular season and in the playoffs; he will need to take over a game and that is the benefit of having him on our team. But, I do think we will see more of a team committed Kobe than at any point we’ve seen this season. His missed time allowed other players to get comfortable in what they need to do on a nightly basis, allowed Kobe to observe those same things, and also gave Kobe the time to rest up and come back fresh for the stretch run.