As we’ve discussed plenty, Kobe Bryant’s return has meant a noticeable shift in how the Lakers play when he’s on the floor.
As it’s been for almost his entire career, Kobe is the center of the Lakers’ universe and with that comes a hyper-focus on him and a tilting towards what works for the team when he is on the floor. As Kobe’s game has evolved, that has meant the team has evolved with him. When he was younger and more of an open court player, so was the team. As he’s aged and become more of a post up player who is at his best working at the elbows and the shallow wing, the team has slowed down to accommodate him. Through all that change, the team has been successful so as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke…
What the Lakers face now, however, is a team that was built to play a certain way with Kobe’s presence an uncertainty. Through training camp and the preseason, the conversation about how the team would play in relation to Kobe always came back to the simple fact that there wasn’t a firm idea of when Kobe would be back to influence such things. In other words, the team would play a style that fit its personnel and it would cross the Kobe bridge when he was on the floor and part of the game plan. Well, that time is now. And, it seems the answer is that this team will have two identities. From Ramona Shelburne:
One thing that won’t change though, is the difference in the way the starting unit will play compared to the reserves.
D’Antoni said he expects Bryant and Pau Gasol to play a two-man game when they’re on the court together because each are so good at creating their own shots.
The second-unit needs to create shots “collectively.”
“Yeah, just naturally,” D’Antoni said of how the starting unit will function differently with Gasol and Bryant. “They have to. Kobe’s a hell of a shot creator and so is Pau. So they’ll play one way. And then that other group is going to have to do it collectively. Hopefully we can get that started a bit more.
“They’re going to play distinctly a little bit different until we get guys back and completely legs under us and get poing guards back in there to even it out a little bit.”
Even before Kobe’s return, the team dealt with some of these same issues. At the start of the season, Mike D’Antoni played a lot of “big” units with Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol together with Steve Blake running the point. These units relied heavily on their HORNS sets, played a lot of high-low between the bigs, and really tried to work the ball inside out. The pace was slower and the actions were more methodical. When the second unit came in, the identity shifted towards a more frantic style with Jordan Farmar captaining a group I dubbed the “chaos unit”. Farmar teamed with a combination of Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Nick Young, and Jordan Hill to form lineups that pushed the pace, either played in isolation or ran multiple pick and rolls in the half court, and generally got after teams defensively by pressuring ball handlers (even picking up full court at times) and jumping passing lanes.
But as that second unit found success, the contrasting styles between the two units disappeared. Kaman found his way out of the lineup, Jordan Hill became a starter, and Steve Blake started to play more aggressively by running more P&R’s and looking to attack the paint off the dribble. What used to be two styles became one and the team started to win more games.
Now, however, Kobe is back and the team is back to playing those two distinct styles. Whether Jordan Farmar’s return — he is, reportedly, roughly a week away from coming back from his torn hamstring — can serve as a bridge between the two units remains to be seen, but at some point the Lakers will need to forge more of a single identity rather than having two distinct ones. Whether that means Kobe and Pau find a way to play faster (think of how Pau ran the floor in the game against the Grizzlies while Kobe looked to pass ahead more often) or the return of the point guards means a more controlled second unit, something will need to give.
The ideal, I think, would be somewhere in the middle: a more balanced attack overall where the guys with the younger legs continue to provide a level of energy that the older players try to match for their minutes on the floor with the flip side to that coin being when it’s time to grind out possessions at the end of close games, the veterans could then take center stage and provide the support that the younger players can lean on. When the Lakers were last winning championships, this was actually more of the model they used with Farmar and Lamar Odom anchoring a bench unit that was a little bit more reckless but still willing to conform to the structure of the Triangle when needed.
If this group could do the same, they may just find some of that early season magic again.