As we slog through the off-season, the questions about how to improve the Lakers are plentiful. A repeat of this season’s disappointments will not be acceptable for this group next season. However, nearly every conversation about how the Lakers can improve next season is focused on some sort of major change that needs to occur. Whether it’s finding a replacement for Phil Jackson or trading current players for other pieces that help this team get better, our instinct is to find that new shiny toy that will improve the 2012 version of the Lakers.
However, what I’ve found to be true more often than not is that when you have a championship caliber team (as the Lakers do), sometimes the best way to improve is from within. After the 2008 loss to Boston, the Lakers came back with nearly the exact same roster and claimed the championship the following season. The reason that they were able to win the next year had to do with the fact that Pau Gasol got stronger, Andrew Bynum got healthy (for the most part) and improved his game, Trevor Ariza worked on his shooting, etc, etc. The same Lakers that lost the year before got better the next season and reached their goal.
With that in mind, my thoughts drift to what this current group of players can do to improve their individual games to come back next season as better, more productive players. We start off looking at Kobe Bryant.
This past season was an interesting one for Kobe as he played fewer minutes and practiced less as a result of dealing with the residual affects of nagging issues with his off-season knee surgery and his in-season ankle sprain. Plus, whether he’d admit it or not, the ongoing problems with his arthritic index finger on his shooting hand remains an everyday impediment to his ball handling and security (and, potentially, his jump shot).
That said, going into this off-season Kobe is as close to 100% healthy as he’s been in many seasons. There will be no off-season surgery that limits his workout regimen; no deep playoff run that requires a longer recuperation period or pushes back when he can begin his off-season program. This summer Kobe should be able to put in a lot of work to strengthen his body and be in prime physical condition for the start of next season (whenever that may be). In his exit interview, Kobe stated that:
This is a good summer for me to train and get strong. There’s a difference between feeling healthy and feeling as strong as I know I can be … there’s another level I can get to.
With a stronger Kobe, the hope is that he can once again assert himself on both ends of the floor to be the difference maker that he’s been in the last two championship seasons.
Understand that despite first team honors for both All-Defense and All-NBA, Kobe didn’t have one of his trademark years on either side of the ball. While I support Kobe’s inclusion on the All-NBA 1st team (I believe it was a toss up between Kobe and Wade and would have been okay with either being selected), Kobe’s inclusion on the All-Defensive team isn’t something that I can defend easily. His knee issues at the beginning of the year and ankle problems near the end of the season affected Kobe’s defense more than many are willing to admit. The hope is that if he’s fully healthy next season, we can see more of the tenacious defender that has the ability to impact the game on D the same way he does on O.
Offensively, Kobe can also take a step forward this upcoming season just by being a bit healthier. When looking at his shot location data at Hoop Data, Kobe took nearly 1.5 less shots at the rim this past season than he did the year before. And while some of his inside scoring was supplemented by the fact that he shot a higher percentage at the rim and also took more shots in the 3-9 foot range, the fact is that Kobe did not drive as much and instead worked more from the post or shot pull up jumpers and runners when he did get by his man. This next season, a Kobe Bryant that has his legs under him may be able to turn some of those short jumpers and runners into lay-ins and dunks at the basket.
A stronger Kobe can also be more effective in the post this year than he was this past season. So much of establishing good position in the post is lower body strength and ability to quickly cut and reposition in order to be available for a post entry. This past year, Kobe depended much more on dribbling into the post to earn his position or relied more on his upper body strength to ward off defenders before giving up some of his position to go and meet the ball. With better leg strength, Kobe should be able to move better off the ball to earn position and better hold that spot when fighting with a defender before making the catch. With Kobe’s tremendous footwork, any inch in better positioning can lead to an easier shot attempt – be it a turnaround jumper or a step through for a finish at the rim.
Beyond any strength improvement from extra training or a more refined skill set based off his renowned work ethic, don’t discount how hunger and drive can also produce a better Kobe Bryant next year. This is a player that’s long took slights personally and used failure as a strong motivator to come back even more focused and prepared to dominate. With the Lakers 2nd round ouster fresh on his mind and people questioning whether this team’s window is closing (which could be construed as a dig at his own ability to be the best player on a championship team) I anticipate Kobe being a better player next year than he was this past season.
And if you’re looking for a way to improve this team the fastest, a better Kobe is nice place to start.