We don’t know when Kobe Bryant will return to the court after rehabbing from his torn achilles tendon. And, when he does return, we don’t know how well he’ll play. What we do know, however, is that when he does return and regardless of how well he plays, one major goal will be to keep his minutes down from what they’ve been in recent seasons.
When discussing how to best accomplish that goal, the two players who are most often mentioned are the newly acquired Nick Young and Wesley Johnson. Both players are natural shooting guards and while they both bring different skills to the table — Young is a natural scorer who hasn’t shown a proclivity for defense, Johnson is more of a defender who will likely need to better develop his outside shot to become a viable offensive threat — those skills, when combined, are ones that will be needed when Kobe is on the bench.
However, just because Young can score and Johnson can (hopefully) defend, it doesn’t mean they’re the players best suited to ensure Kobe’s minutes remain low. In fact, an argument can be made that both Young and Johnson would be better off playing next to Kobe rather than attempting to fill the void in the lineup when #24 is on the bench. Young, as a scorer, could thrive as a weak side outlet when Kobe is operating with the ball, attacking closeouts when the ball is swung his way or working in isolation against defenses less likely to want to help when spread out guarding the likes of Kobe (and Pau and Nash). Johnson, meanwhile, could also thrive as a shooter on the weak side but also provide some sorely needed wing defense next to Kobe (and Nash), sparing the veteran of having to guard the opposition’s best perimeter threat.
So, while the two new wings can offset some of what Kobe provides and be used as replacements for him in certain lineups, I’ve a feeling that we’ll also find both players’ production is better and more efficient when playing with him rather than without. And, if that turns out to be true, the Lakers will still be looking for a player who can step in and provide some relief in the form of offensive punch and shot creation that keeps Kobe on the bench for longer stretches.
As crazy as it sounds, that player just may be Jordan Farmar.
Yes, Farmar is a smallish point guard who shouldn’t (can’t?) play any shooting guard in any lineup that offers viable defense. Farmar also isn’t known to be the type of offensive threat that defenses game plan for in a way that makes him a “replacement” for Kobe in a classic sense (though, to be fair, the Lakers don’t have that guy on their roster anyway). However, what Farmar does provide is a combination of skills and mindset that could be exactly what the team needs to ensure that Kobe gets those few extra minutes of rest a game that he sorely needs.
If putting together a checklist of attributes you’d want from a player who is going to steal minutes from Kobe Bryant, you’d probably find that besides Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar is the only other perimeter player on the team who marks off a majority of the boxes. Farmar has the requisite ball handling, shooting, and shot creation skills to take on a relatively high usage rate. He also has the self confidence and desire to have the ball in his hands and be the player who dictates the flow of the offense. If Kobe is going to be relegated to the bench for longer stretches, the Lakers are going to need these skills on the floor — from a player outside of Nash — to still be able to run what Mike D’Antoni wants to do on offense.
I’m not saying Farmar is going to “replace” Kobe. Nor am I saying the team will function as well with Farmar directing the offense as it will with Kobe playing that role. But, Farmar is a player who is young enough to play heavy minutes, has enough varied skill in his game to be a perimeter threat with the ball in his hands, and has always wanted this specific opportunity with this specific team. I mean, one of the reasons that Farmar left the Lakers in the first place was because he wanted to be a player with the ball in his hands more than the Triangle offense (and playing beside Kobe) allowed him to. Now that he’s back in Los Angeles with Kobe needing to decrease his minutes and Mike D’Antoni running a spread P&R attack, Farmar should get his chance.
Next year will be one in which a lot of players will need to prove their worth if the Lakers are really going to be good enough to compete each night. Nash will need to stay healthy and keep his production up, Pau will need to rebound from a couple of down years and reclaim his reputation as one of the best pivotmen in the league, and several role players will need to show that they’re ready to live up to the talent level they possess.
Of the players from that latter group, none may be more important than Farmar who, in his second stint, is finally in line to play the role he’s always wanted. If he’s up to it, Kobe and D’Antoni may just get their wish of less playing time to come true.