The Kobe Conundrum

Darius Soriano —  January 2, 2012

Last night Kobe Bryant took and missed a lot of shots. Of his 28 attempts from the field, he made only 6 and many of them were of the forced, long range variety. This in and of itself is not news. Kobe’s had games similar to this before and unless he plans on retiring tomorrow, he’ll have games like this in the future. Kobe, after all, is a scorer at his core and he’ll shoot his way in and out of slumps. Such is his nature and going into his 16th season if you expect this to change, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

However, even at this young stage of the season, it’s clear that the Lakers are beginning to change even if Bryant is not. And this creates a bit of a dilemma for a variety of reasons.

First is that the Lakers are now, clearly, an inside dominant team. It’s only been two games, I know, but Andrew Bynum is proving to be for real. The potential that’s been raved about for years has turned into actual production. Again, two games does not make a season, but his PER after these two contests is 36.7 and his shooting numbers are off the charts (67% FG, 66% TS). He’s carving out deep position in the post, attacking the offensive glass, and flashing improved footwork and finishing ability of the non-dunk variety.

And the, of course, there’s also Gasol. Many have been down on Pau this season but I see little reason for that to be the case. He’s not been the dominant player that he was at the start of last year, but he’s been much better than many are giving him credit for. He’s averaging 17 and 9, shooting 55%, and sporting a PER (21.9) just a shade below where he’s been the last few seasons. His mid-range shooting has been sublime and his post work has been extremely effective most of the time he’s worked the block. Pau is the type of player people always seem to want more from, but what he’s given so far has been right on par with what I’d want (though I’d like him to rebound a bit better).

These developments may not seem like they’re new and in a way, they’re not. The Lakers have had these players on their roster for years (and had Odom too) and the calls for this team to be an inside oriented team have been there for some time. That said, Bynum’s history of unavailability and Pau’s fluctuating production after taking a pounding in the post haven’t made executing that type of plan realistic. Yes, the Lakers could have worked the post more over the years  – I’ve called for it myself countless times – but these variables complicated that, to be sure.

What also complicated it was Kobe Bryant and his continued status as LA’s best player. Despite aging legs, all the questionable shots, and whatever other issues many have had with Mr. Bean, his effectiveness was always at least equal, and usually a notch ahead of his mates. This can be argued of course, but consider in every season (except 2009-10) since the Gasol trade, Kobe’s led the team in PER. Also consider that he’s been the primary leader of the team and the responsibility (both on the court as a shot creator and as the pulse of the team) that comes with that and I’d say that his ability to perform at the level he has meant he’s been the most important and best Laker. Add in the fact that he was the league’s MVP in 2008, led his team in every way to the championship in 2009, and then was the catalyst (with a huge help from Gasol) to winning again in 2010 and these assertions only become stronger.

This season, however, that’s starting to change. Kobe, after two horrid shooting nights, now trails both Gasol and Bynum in PER. His game has also been more perimeter oriented and the post up chances that we thought we’d see more of haven’t quite materialized. This has rendered Kobe more of a jump shooter (especially in the two games against Denver) and his ability to earn trips to the foul line is frequently dependent on how the ref views the defender guarding his jump shot, rather than how much contact at the basket there is when he aggressively drives.

The other dilemma, though, is that the way the Lakers’ roster is constructed doesn’t lend itself to Kobe’s role on the team changing in any real way. He’s the only perimeter shot creator the Lakers have and his ability to perform every aspect of Mike Brown’s offense means the ball will be in his hands frequently. The Laker PGs are more table setters and spot up shooters than shot creators and there’s not another wing on the roster who can create good looks for a teammate, save for MWP bulldozing his way into the paint from the shallow wing. Every other wing on the roster possesses limited skills and needs the action set up for them with little ability to create it for themselves.

And this is why Kobe’s walking a finer line than ever before. His big men are ready to take on the bulk of the load but Kobe has the ball in his hands so frequently that most of the action will still go through him. He’s more than willing to seek out his bigs and get them the ball, but that will always be countered by his instincts to score the ball himself (he didn’t get to 28,000 career points with an instinct to pass). His sore wrist and mangled digits mean he could be better served not having to initiate the offense as much as he does, but the limitations of the roster make it nearly impossible for him to get that type of reprieve.

I’m sure many will look at this as some sort of overdone response to Kobe’s game against the Nuggets. It’s not. Kobe’s still one of the premier perimeter players in the league and in a week these last two games will probably be long forgotten. I’m not trying to neuter Kobe’s game, nor am I saying he still can’t be one of the driving forces behind a championship team.

But the Lakers bigs – especially with an emerging Bynum – are in a position to carry this team now and that puts Kobe in a precarious position. The way the roster is built means that he’s depended on as much as ever but it’s more because of his ability to be a play maker than a shot maker. This is due to his decision making (even if it looked suspect on Sunday) still being better than any other guard or wing the Lakers have on their roster. It’s because he’s still an enormous threat with the ball in his hands and the defense must still tilt towards him when he has it going.

But the scoring load can be shifted and that presents a conundrum. That’s always been Kobe’s territory, but the combo of Pau and Bynum look ready to ask for some of that space. Is Kobe ready to cede some of it?

Darius Soriano

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