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Pondering Kobe as a Consolation

Danny Chau —  December 12, 2012

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fgQxdnt5oaU

“I won’t lie, man. They’re really f—— with my s—.”

- Kobe on his teammates and the sun and the moon and the universe right now (0:31).

1-10.

Chances are, you know what this figure means. The Lakers are 1-10 when Kobe Bryant scores 30 points or more. It’s one of those stats that obscure context for dramatic effect, but given the state of the team, figures like have at least some merit. If it doesn’t explain why the Lakers are losing when Kobe’s playing his most efficient season ever (it doesn’t), it should shed some light on the present condition of Kobe himself – or at least the mythos that defines and directs his career path.

The stat itself is incongruous to the notions that are affixed to Kobe’s greatness. Of course, it falls into the idea that a particularly tunnel-visioned Kobe is detrimental to the team’s success, which is probably true. But he’s playing really, really well. And in past seasons, one of his torrential downpours would have netted them more than one win out of 10. Part of the myth-building around Bryant revolves around his ability to carry a team with nothing more than will. Equipped with an incendiary glare, a snarl, and a jutted row of teeth, he’d singlehandedly right the ship, all the while elevating the dreaded sense of inevitability in the opposition. This often wasn’t the case with elite running mates in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, but neither player is above disappearing for stretches. And so, to the rescue, Kobe would appear, making miracles out of the failure that the rest of the team had scraped on to his plate. That just hasn’t happened this season.

Eight of the Lakers’ nine wins came with double-digit margins, and in those games Kobe has looked like a consummate all-around player. In these games, he is still a force of nature, but he is no longer nature itself; no longer does the team orbit around the gravitational pull of his shot attempts. As depicted in Bill Simmons’ interview with Bill Russell, Kobe’s trying hard to figure out his teammates. It shows in his assist numbers and in his assist percentage, which is at the highest it’s been in almost a decade. This is partially to fill a void left by the prolonged absence of Steve Nash, but he’s also laying the groundwork for his unavoidable departure. The team will go on without him at some point, and simply commandeering the shots as he’s done in the past leaves the future of the team in dubious territory. In wins against Dallas and Denver, the Lakers demonstrated the historically rare ability to dominate games despite quiet efforts from Bryant. It’s a bizarre notion to believe this generation’s most potent (and willing) scorer can take a backseat as the team flattens opponents, and indeed, it’s only happened in fleeting instances. It’s the idyllic dream that comes by to torment you every other week, each time seducing you with its pseudo-reality. As the case has continually been, the next game leaves you awake in a ditch.

This isn’t exactly rocket science. In good times, sharing the wealth is the sensible thing to do. There just haven’t been many good times. And so Kobe’s Altered Beast manifestations are, game after game, lured out of their rattling cages from frustration and anger. The results? Absolutely staggering. He’s averaging almost 11 more points a game in losses with spikes in makes, attempts, and percentages across the board. Tom Haberstroh wrote a great ESPN Insider piece in November on Kobe’s shift in priority and (as a result) efficiency on the floor. Chief among Kobe’s adjustment this season has been leaving the bread and butter off the table. Kobe’s favorite shooting distance on the court last season was from 15-19 feet, a zone that almost begs of Bryant to give into his most self-destructive vice: toying with the improbable. Last season, according to the NBA.com stats tool, almost a quarter of his shots (23 percent) came from that distance. This season, it’s down to 12 percent. Where’d the shots go? Mostly to the painted area, where 45 percent of his shots are coming from; a huge bump from 33.8 percent of last year. Bryant’s recommitment to the most effective spaces on the floor—around the rim and behind the arc—has given the mythical beast that is Kobe’s career a new shiny coat. Maybe Kobe’s staggering efficiency levels off a bit soon – that doesn’t really matter. He’s changed his approach in a way that invites efficient numbers; he’s not fighting against it in hopes of the same result. This latest battle in the ongoing war against age has been as inspiring as Tim Duncan’s over in San Antonio. If only it came with the same number of wins. Kobe’s always been the savior, but despite his best efforts, precious little is working. And that’s a very confusing, very humbling, thing to think about. Even kings are mortals.

Trapped in all these losses is a version of Kobe that we may very well remember decades down the line, but a version sullied by the crushing weight of expectations and a truly horrid start. Kobe’s undeniable 30,000-point milestone has given fans something to celebrate as a standalone. Since Kobe’s emergence as a star, he’s proven himself exceptional; as a part, he’s always been greater than the whole. Maybe in a different context, Kobe could be celebrated for what he’s been able to accomplish this year without an asterisk. In a vacuum, without the expectations of a proud and perpetually contending franchise, Kobe’s remarkable turn toward efficiency might be held with the same isolated reverence as Blake Griffin’s rookie season, when he mattered more than the Clippers franchise itself. Griffin was the beautiful diversion, a spectacle that expanded far beyond the team he played for. He was also shielded by the complete and utter lack of expectations then. It’s impossible to pull Kobe’s body from the burning wreckage when he’s melded to the rest of it.

The Pau of Los Angeles

Danny Chau —  October 29, 2012

I’d like to welcome Danny Chau as a contributor to FB&G. He’ll be joining us from time to time to write on the Lakers, basketball in general and, if we’re lucky, what he ate for lunch and where he got it. Danny brings a unique and incredibly thoughtful writing voice to the game we love and his L.A. roots make him well versed on what the Lakers mean to the city and the league at large. We’re lucky to have him. You can find more of Danny’s work at Hardwood Paroxysm and you can follow him on twitter here. His first effort is on Pau Gasol. Enjoy.

A nationally broadcasted Lakers game wouldn’t be complete without the panned-out shot of the ubiquitous Hollywood sign, standing tall and inert as it has been for almost 90 years. Hollywood is the spiritual home of the Los Angeles Lakers, a team with a history of blockbusters and A-list celebrities — and that doesn’t count the stars who attend home games. The team is one of the most recognizable in all of sports, and the idea of Hollywood is one of America’s most important and enduring cultural exports. It’s a symbiotic relationship that begets continued dominance.

With the introduction of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers have their highest-profile team in almost a decade. The team, if the Hollywood spirit is still alive and well, will be among championship favorites just from the breadth of their star power. And in one fell swoop, Pau Gasol, once the team’s unquestioned second option, becomes the fourth player mentioned in any Lakers conversation. Naturally, he takes it in stride. After all, after a couple years of dealing with serious trade rumors and internal strife, it’s probably a blessing just to be standing as a Laker.

But Gasol’s relationship with dominance—and with those who expect him to dominate—has been tenuous at best, nonexistent at worst. Three consecutive trips to the Finals (with each one incrementally better than the last) as Kobe Bryant’s right hand man can do wonders for a player’s image, but Gasol has found out how soon the heaps of praise can wither when expectations are stacked too high. In four years time, he shed the “soft” label and then, once again, emerged as one of the softest players in the league. This is no small feat given the timeframe.

However, it seems most can agree that Gasol’s role in on this season’s team will be a positive for all parties involved. But if Kobe, Dwight, and Steve keep the team Hollywood as Hell, where does that leave Pau? I suppose with the rest of Los Angeles — a county that doesn’t always have the luster of its internationally-recognized focal point, but one with a compelling collective narrative all its own.

Los Angeles is a sprawl — as iconic as New York but nowhere near as condensed.  It’s a result of centuries of various ethnic migrations and subsequent white flight. Good, bad, or neither, it’s how the county became the cultural jigsaw it is today. Each city is its own archive; many of which are part of a grander story of how the underrepresented can still cultivate vibrant communities in spite of external forces. It’s a collection of compartmentalized clusters loosely sutured together by the freeway system.

Navigating through the county is a lifelong endeavor, and there are many who have made it their life’s work to map out as much of L.A’s everchanging landscape as humanly possible. Of course, food is a convenient way to experience much of L.A.’s cultural diversity. But it’ll take a drive. In the day time, head to the Harvard Heights district for a pupusa; at night, have as many tacos as you can handle from the taco tables that line Pico Blvd. Less than five miles away is Langer’s, where you will get some of the best pastrami anywhere on earth. Neighboring cities Gardena and Torrance are about 20 miles south, home to many stellar mom-and-pop ramen shops. A few miles east is Bludso’s BBQ in Compton, where I would suggest the Texas Sampler (bring a friend, or five) and the mac and cheese.  And I’d be thoughtless to neglect the San Gabriel Valley, my home, which in my unbiased opinion has the best regional Chinese and Taiwanese fare in America.

(Oh, and one of the best burritos I’ve ever eaten was from a small little shack in La Puente, an almost exclusively Latino community. It’s a family business owned and operated by a Korean father and son, obviously.)

It’s all worth taking in. It just requires time and patience and gas.

Pau is reading The Taoof Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. Actually, he’s probably finished it by now. He’s not exactly taking up Daoist teachings from the source, but it’s a start. The core beliefs of Daoism center on the idea of flow and wu-wei, the way of being natural, of uncontrived action. Phil Jacksonsaid Gasol is the oil that makes the machine run. Kobe has said similar things in the past. Despite being lower on the chain of command, Gasol is the only player of the without a rigid set of objectives in the system. We have a good idea of what Dwight will bring to the team, and we know that Kobe, regardless of system, won’t be deviating far from what has made him the player he is. Nash’s historic shooting and pick and roll ability will both be viable at the beginning of any possession and as safety blankets when options begin to crumble. In an offense that won’t key in on strict sets and a defense with the most intimidating stopper in the league, Gasol will need to fluidly switch in and out of his many compartments to keep the Lakers steady. That means being a dual threat from the high post, defending the opposition’s best big man to give Howard the freedom to make plays elsewhere, and remaining aggressive on scoring opportunities.

A Gasol that can and does do everything on the court isn’t beyond the realm of possibility — he’s done it before. His game is understated; as understated as it can be when he’s basically good at everything. It’s easy to focus on Gasol’s startling passivity last year and how his role as a facilitator seemed to overshadow the rest of his game (never mind that Gasol averaged more shots a game than in any previous season as a Laker). With Andrew Bynum’s emergence over the last two seasons, Gasol adapted to the shift in focus in a sensible manner. Compartmentalizing his game allowed Bynum to blossom, but in sealing off portions of his game for the sake of continuity, he ceased to be the player the team needed. And when you’re playing alongside an obsessive maniac, dips in assertiveness are magnified. It’s baffling to consider Gasol the “glue guy” on this team when he is still among the league’s top talents, but he is. He’s the freeway system that can connect the team’s newfound diversity.

Pau is entering his fifth full season as a Laker, but there still seems to be a disconnect between the player he is and the player fans are expecting. In the new offense, perhaps Gasol’s freer role can serve as a reminder of why Gasol has been so integral to the Lakers’ success. With Howard and Nash soaking up a larger portion of the spotlight, it’s a good season to stop and appreciate the nuance of Gasol’s vision and footwork and balance. The team’s new look promises Michael Bay-esque explosions on screen. Gasol should ensure that the dialogue won’t be half bad either.

That Hollywood sign is why many come to Los Angeles, but you stay for the rest of it. Los Angeles is dense, but it rewards your effort. So take a drive. Maybe put on the new Kendrick Lamar album. The world of Los Angeles can’t be taken in all at once. There’s just too much there hidden from plain sight and so much left undiscovered. Absorb the experience in bits and pieces, and live without ever expecting to complete the jigsaw. If that sounds like an endeavor worth undertaking, then there’s one reason why Pau Gasol is worth rooting for.