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Whatever is left of Kobe Bryant will ultimately result in dividing some of his most loyal fans.

The news that a rotator cuff injury will probably prematurely end another season – third straight – for Kobe brings joy to no one. Not the league, not the fans, opponents or those covering basketball.

Bryant is simply too much of a force of nature in terms of personality and talent. Some of the things he’s done on the floor over the course of his career are born out of an impressive imagination coupled with the bravado to attempt them in-game. Kobe’s mental toughness is perhaps unparalleled, and his will has yet to be broken.

The one time Bryant ever displayed any sign of weakness was in the aftermath of an Achilles rupture a few seasons ago. He appeared saddened and distraught, and yet, the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer quickly quipped that he wasn’t done.

“There are far greater issues/challenges in the world than a torn Achilles,” Kobe wrote in a Facebook post. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, find the silver lining and get to work with the same belief, same drive and same conviction as ever. One day, the beginning of a new career journey will commence. Today is NOT that day.”

Mortal he is not.

As result, the Kobe book cannot be closed…yet. It feels as though he has so much more to offer as evidenced by his transformation this season. Bryant has looked more like a mentor on the floor and less like an assassin. He’s taking teammates under his wing and showing them the way, instead of barreling through defenders to lead them through it.

The five-time champion is still a fierce competitor, and very few can walk along his path as he so eloquently put it, per The Washington Post’s Michael Lee:

“Listen, man. There are not a lot of players in this league that say, ‘Come hell or high water, we’re going to get this [expletive] done.’ People can look around and joke around about winning, saying they want to win. For me, it’s a matter of life or death. It was that important to me. And if it’s that important to me, I’m going to get there.”

Interestingly enough, that gladiator mentality has slowly taken a different form. Kobe appears far more jovial against his opposition, as the end of his career approaches. This was mostly evident when Bryant kept exchanging pleasantries with LeBron James during a home tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Some years ago, both competing for championships, it was a little different,” Bryant said after the loss to Cleveland, according to ESPNLA.com’s Baxter Holmes. “It was a lot more moody. Now it’s a little different. I’ve got a chance to really appreciate the competition and enjoy that interaction. We’ve gotten to know each other really well over the years. It’s good to see him.”

This is a version of Kobe that is foreign to many. I wouldn’t call it a softer side, rather he’s less guarded, and it’s an iteration that I want to observe more with the benefit of additional games.

In the same breath, it’s impossible to look at this future Hall of Famer without openly wondering whether it’s finally time to close the curtain.

Kobe’s bulletproof legacy will not be tarnished by anything that happens the rest of the way, but the feelings of the collective masses might slowly take a different route. The newest memories will never surpass the oldest and most important ones, but they will become the fresher ones nonetheless.

Imagine watching a hobbled Kobe misfiring on multiple contested three-point fadeaway shots and then thinking to yourself “man, those you used to be easy shots for him.” Worse yet, there’s a realistic scenario where Bryant rehabs his most recent injury only to return next season and back up Nick Young.

This might sound ludicrous at first glance, but both are posting similar per-36-minute scoring numbers and shooting percentages this year. Bryant’s been the superior rebounder and playmaker, while Young has been better at avoiding turnovers.

Considering that Kobe will be 37 years old at the start of next season, it’s certainly logical to expect his physical state to deteriorate further. If that’s the case, L.A. could be better off cutting his minutes in favor of Young, who turns 30 in June.

Is there any plausible scenario that exists where Bryant loyalists would accept such a development? I’m not sure whether I or anyone else for that matter is prepared for a world where a healthy but older version of Kobe is no longer the Purple and Gold’s best player.

As terrifying as that scenario sounds, it’s the one Lakers Nation will likely have to face if it truly wants one last chapter, page or verse to be included in the Kobe hardcover. If that sounds like a source of conflict, it certainly is.

As someone with a healthy appreciation for Hall of Fame speeches, I can openly admit that Bryant’s last title (2009-10 season) – the one that broke the tie in ring count between he and Shaquille O’Neal – led me to believe his elocution would surpass Michael Jordan’s jab-heavy Hall of Fame acceptance.

Kobe only becomes eligible for the Hall five years after retirement, which means that calling it quits fairly soon is in order for fans to hear him address all in Springfield as soon as possible.

Therein lies the conundrum with Kobe Bean. One would hope he could make everything happen all at once, but Bryant simply can’t.

Should I stay or should I go?

It’s one or the other, and one would think it will be an agonizing choice.

Kobe’s never done things easy over the course of his career, and it sure looks like his next decision will follow suit. Fans will have a hard time with whatever direction he chooses, but let’s give Kobe a shot to close his career on his own terms.

Until he does, the best thing left to say is…

Thank you for the memories Mr. Bryant.

Kobe Bryant is one of the most talented players the league has ever seen and he has used his skills to repeatedly reach the mountaintop. Mind you, his basketball skills alone did not suffice in his ascension into the pantheon of greatness. He also had to morph into a leader.

The leadership component often goes unmentioned and even unnoticed. However, its absence typically gets a lot of publicity and becomes an important point of criticism.

Early on his career, Bryant could not be a leader on the Los Angeles Lakers. Within the span of a few months, he went from playing and practicing with high school players to sharing the court with professionals.

While still developing as a teenager, he now was in a working environment with grown men. Thus, Bryant had to evolve as a person before anyone on the Lakers would accept to follow him.

The path was a difficult one. In his early years, he was perceived as selfish. Some on the Lakers felt as though he looked to elevate his status while sabotaging team concepts.

This resulted in a well-documented rift with Shaquille O’Neal. During his stint with the Lakers, O’Neal was the team’s dominant personality and as well as its best player, which in turn made him the team’s leader.

Thus, whenever Bryant strayed form the pack, the onus fell on the big man’s shoulders to bring him back into the fold. Mind you, his methods were often questionable.

The process O’Neal borrowed created friction and animosity at times. Both players eventually figured out which buttons to push with each other on the way to championships, but the uneasiness often loomed in the background.

Continue Reading…

 

The Los Angeles Lakers have won five of their past six games to solidify their hold on the final spot in the Western Conference playoff picture.

Their victory over the Golden State Warriors last night despite Stephen Curry’s 47-point eruption should have been cause for celebration. Although some of us had some trepidation about stating Pau Gasol was back to his 2010 form, his triple double last night certainly erased some of the doubts many had about the Spaniard’s ability to rise to the occasion.

And then all of Los Angeles fell as their very own incarnation of James Bond was victimized in the Lakers’ version of Skyfall.

Kobe Bryant has an Achilles tear and thus will miss the remainder of the 2012-13 regular season as well as a part of the 2013-14 campaign.

No matter how many tributes are painted about the Laker soldier, there just isn’t any way to truly illustrate how painful this setback is for both the franchise and the league as a whole.

In today’s NBA, Kobe Bryant is the Los Angeles Lakers.

But starting tomorrow, it no longer is the case. This isn’t meant in any way, shape or form as a means of minimizing Bryant’s value or importance.

But the saddest thing about his absence is just that: he is no longer a player that can help the team on the hardwood this season.

Although it’s tough to predict if this is even possible, Mike D’Antoni must get the players to regroup for two regular season games. These contests aren’t just about the immediate future, they have a bearing on the franchise’s next steps.

The Purple and Gold must figure things out and band together. It’s an incredibly difficult proposition to ask the guys to “suck it” and go out and win two more games, but make no mistake that’s exactly how Kobe would approach the situation if say Dwight Howard had been the one who had been injured.

As odd as this may sound, the future is now.  The Hollinger Playoff Odds give the Lakers a 79.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Utah Jazz who trail the Lake Show have a 20.9 percent probability of overtaking the final Western Conference playoff spot.

The schedule breakdown for the Lakers:

  • Sunday April 14: San Antonio Spurs
  • Wednesday April 17: Houston Rockets

Both games will be played at home.

This might be a little scary but there’s no way around it. In the 19 minutes the Lakers played this season without Kobe Bryant against the Spurs, the Lakers scored 80.2 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool. Projected over a full season, that’s easily the worst figure in the league.

As it pertains to the Rockets, in 32 minutes without Bryant, NBA.com’s advanced stats tool tells us the Lakers scored 91.9 points per 100 possessions. It’s an improvement in comparison to the numbers against the Spurs, but still worthy of last place in the Association.

The sample sizes are incredibly small obviously.

The Lakers will now have to mix and match and then figure out which lineups work best. It stands to reason D’Antoni will always have either Gasol or Howard on the floor if the team will remain successful.

The sky has officially fallen in Los Angeles. Now it’s time for damage control.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

With the victory over the Memphis Grizzlies (51-25) last night, the Los Angeles Lakers (40-36) are undefeated in the last seven days. They’ve won three games in a row during the stretch and it’s helped solidify their grip on the final Western Conference playoff spot for the moment.

The string of victories started on March  30 against the Sacramento Kings (27-49) and continued on April 2 in a rout of the Dallas Mavericks (37-39).

The Lake Show then took out the Grizzlies on April 5 thanks to a solid defensive effort.

The Hollinger Playoff Odds give the Lakers a 60.5 percent chance of making the postseason. Those are the best chances for any team seeded lower than seventh in the west.

Here’s a quick look at the Lakers’ remaining April schedule courtesy of NBA.com:

Lakers Schedule

Now here’s a breakdown of the remaining games:

  • Games left: 6
  • Home games: 4
  • Road games: 2 (one of them versus Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center)
  • Games versus opponents with .500 record or better: 4
  • Games versus opponents with sub-.500 record: 2

The schedule is relatively tough, but the majority of the contests will be held at Staples Center and one has to like the Lakers’ chances in their home venue.

Given that Mike D’Antoni and company are embroiled in a heated battle with the Utah Jazz (40-37) for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs, let’s see how their schedule shakes out:

  • Games left: 5
  • Home games: 2
  • Road games: 3
  • Games versus opponents with .500 record or better: 3
  • Games versus opponents with sub-.500 record: 2

The Jazz’s final game of the regular season is against the Memphis Grizzlies. In the event the Grizz are locked into their playoff spot at that point, they might opt to rest their core players. It’s a hypothetical obviously, but an important one.

The Purple and Gold has won six of their past 10 games and might be headed in the right direction currently. The best thing the Lakers can do at this point is simply win out.

That would assure them of a postseason berth and a date in the first round of the playoffs with the San Antonio Spurs (56-20) or Oklahoma City Thunder (56-20).

Laker of the Week

Expecting a 17-year veteran to play like your best guy every single night seems like an utterly ridiculous proposition. But Kobe Bryant as well as his teammates probably disagree given Vino’s productivity this season.

More importantly, with the Western Conference’s final playoff spot well within reach in the past week or so, the Lakers needed not only guidance but also assertiveness from their leader.

With Steve Nash and Metta World Peace both injured, it forced Bryant to step his game up all the while dealing with his own nicks and bruises that prevent him from resting for long stretches during games.

Kobe looked exhausted late in the Memphis game last night and even conducted part of the post-game interview with both hands clenching his shorts as he bent over from fatigue.

Make no mistake, the playoffs have already begun in Lakerland and Bryant’s play in this past week is proof. In the last seven days, the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer has averaged 45.7 minutes (!), 22 points, 11.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game on 39 percent field goal shooting.

He might not be shooting the ball well currently, but he’s definitely been the catalyst for the improved play of the team with his offensive contributions and defensive focus.

Black Mamba sir, you are the Laker of the week.

Layups and swats

Earlier in the week, the Los Angeles Clippers hosted the Phoenix Suns in a game that turned into a blowout. During the contest, Clippers play-by-play man Ralph Lawler commented on Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey retirement ceremony and pointed to the amount of retired Laker jerseys hanging in the rafters of Staples Center.

In a brief moment of sheer brilliance and on-air comedy, Lawler acknowledged that Staples Center offered a whole lot of vacant air space in the rafters for Clippers jerseys. Then he gave the viewing audience comedy gold by affirming the stadium only needed room for three additional retired jerseys: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and LeBron James after he joins the team in 2014.

If that doesn’t speak to the difference between Lakers and Clippers, well nothing does.

With the Los Angeles Lakers losing against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight, the Forum Blue and Gold staff broke the game down in this latest installment of 3-on-3.

1. What’s the biggest takeaway from the game in Milwaukee?

J.M. Poulard: Sadly, Laker fans might recognize tonight’s team all too well. It’s the one they’ve seen for most of the early portion of the season that committed multiple turnovers and didn’t get back in transition.

The Lakers coughed up the ball 18 times and gave up a whopping 30 fast break points.3on3 truehoopnetwork

30 fast break points!

Philip Barnett: Sure, the Lakers lost another winnable game, but the biggest take away from tonight’s game for me was the fact that Steve Nash wasn’t healthy enough to play the fourth quarter. Nash said it was a hip spasm that has been a problem since the game against Golden State — which isn’t good any way you look at it moving forward for this team. They’ve already lost Artest for the rest of the season, Jordan Hill isn’t coming back any time soon and guys like Kobe, Gasol and Howard still aren’t 100 percent healthy. He said that he’d likely play on Saturday, but if Nash misses any time for the rest of this season, the Lakers playoff hopes would be in serious jeopardy, if they aren’t already.

Emile Avanessian: The main takeaway from the Lakers’ visit to Milwaukee is that consistently cranking out a full 48 against (in the case of the Bucks, just barely) playoff caliber opposition, under anything less than optimal conditions, is a bridge too far.

At times this season the Lakers have shown themselves capable of going toe to toe with the NBA’s best, but performances like the one we saw Thursday night highlight the difficulty this team will face in securing four wins in seven outings against top shelf competition – or even clinging to their now-half-game edge in the race for the West’s last postseason berth. Despite little contribution from the bench, prolific first half efforts from Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash had the Lakers poised to make relatively easy work of their hosts. However, after a stellar opening 20 minutes, they began to scuffle, allowing the Bucks to trim a 13-point lead to just three by halftime.

After the break, the Nash-less (for the last 17+ minutes) Lakers were done in by the inability to contain Monta Ellis (a near triple-double, with 18, seven rebounds and nine assists), Brandon Jennings (20, including three 3-pointers, and seven assists) and Larry Sanders (13 boards to accompany a career-high 21, 13 of which came in the third quarter), while also struggling to create and convert easy opportunities at the rim. The Bucks turned up the heat as the second half progressed, and on this night the Lakers could not find the extra gear that would have allowed them to prevail. Simply put, with the stakes raised and few soft patches remaining on the schedule, in the absence of Metta, the Lakers’ are ill-equipped to consistently trouble the league’s best.

2. Thoughts on Pau Gasol’s play tonight?

J.M. Poulard: Gasol looked like a bully at times on offense tonight, punishing Ersan Ilyasova on the low block. He hit him with a left hook, a reverse layup, a fall-away jumper and an overpowering basket right at the rim.

Defensively though, Pau was a huge liability. According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, most of the lineups the Lakers have used this season featuring Pau Gasol without Dwight Howard have been abysmal on defense. And this was obvious tonight.

The Bucks attacked the Spaniard repeatedly in the pick-and-roll with Howard on the bench and they produced scores with relative ease in these situations. Couple that with the three-guard lineup and the paint was wide open.

Philip Barnett: If I had to give him a grade, I’d give him a C+/B-. Since his return from injury, the game against the Timberwolves was easily his best showing. Tonight’s game was his second best, but wasn’t nearly as good as the game in Minnesota. I was more impressed with his passing acumen more than anything else, but he was able to get into the flow of the offense for a few possessions, knocked down a couple shots and finished around the basket.

Emile Avanessian: Pedestrian.

After a first half in which he played a vital role in building a double digit lead, Pau Gasol was relegated to little more than bit player status after the break – more appropriately, after Steve Nash’s back forced him to call it a night. Pau did connect on half of his twelve field goal attempts en route to 12 points, he did grab nine rebounds and hand out three assists, and he did hold Ersan Ilyasova to just four rebounds, but there is a case to be made that of the ten starters on both teams, only Jodie Meeks turned in a less impactful Thursday night at the office.

Pau’s opposite number (Ilyasova) outplayed him offensively, scoring 20 points (including a stealthily huge 3-pointer just before halftime) and swiped possession from the Lakers four times and, more importantly, with a sweep of the season’s penultimate back-to-back well within reach and Nash indisposed for the remainder of the game, Pau did not make a single meaningful second half play. Far be it for me to lay the entirety of the blame for Thursday’s come-from-ahead shortfall at Pau’s doorstep, but I would be remiss to ignore his conspicuous silence at the game’s vital moments.

3.  The Lakers faded late in the fourth quarter because…

J.M. Poulard: They simply could not make shots. Antawn Jamison was the only player to convert more than one field goal in the fourth quarter against the Bucks.

Everybody else struggled from the field.

Kobe was a mere 1-for-5 in the final period and complicated matters a little by forcing a few isolations. He invited the double team but only attracted Pau Gasol’s defender, which for the most part was a win for Milwaukee given that Pau camped out on the perimeter.

In the same breath, Bryant himself gave the Lakers a fighting chance by virtue of all the fouls he manufactured. Kobe attempted 10 freebies in the last quarter alone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Philip Barnett: The turnover issue has gotten out of hand in the last two contests. The Lakers recorded 15 turnovers in the first half of the game against the Timberwolves. Tonight, the Lakers recorded eight in the third quarter, which ultimately decided the game. The Lakers made a short push early in the fourth quarter, but didn’t lead again in the last seven minutes of the game. Had the Lakers kept things a bit cleaner in the third, their fourth quarter woes might not have come to fruition. Other than that, it was pretty much a matter of young legs v. old legs. The Bucks essentially ran them out of the building in the last half of the fourth quarter. Couple that with some bad shots, and you have a Lakers loss.

Emile Avanessian:            The Lakers simply lacked the horses to go the distance against a quality opponent. Kobe characteristically tried to engage Mamba, but his effort fell short. This, combined with the absences of Steve Nash and Metta, and with no one markedly outperforming expectations, is little more than a one-way pass to disappointment in Lakerland.

Records: Lakers 12-14 (11th in the West). Warriors 18-9 (5th in the West)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 106.6 (5th in NBA), Warriors 104.9 (7th in NBA)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 102.2 (15th in NBA), Warriors 102.0 (14th in NBA)
Projected starting lineups: Lakers: Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Devin Ebanks, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard
Warriors: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee, Festus Ezeli.
Injuries: Lakers: Steve Blake (out), Jordan Hill (questionable); Warriors: Andrew Bogut (out), Brandon Rush (out).

The Lakers Coming in: After surviving a nail-biter earlier in the week at home against the Charlotte Bobcats, the Los Angeles Lakers are owners of a three-game win streak and will be looking to improve on it tonight at Oracle Arena.

The team is still facing questions as it pertains to its rotation mind you, as evidenced by Antawn Jamison’s bagel in the minutes column against the Bobcats.

Devin Ebanks was the nominal starter against Charlotte but only saw five total minutes of playing action while Kobe Bryant (43 minutes), Jodie Meeks (39 minutes) and Darius Morris (29 minutes) played some heavy minutes. In addition, with Metta World Peace now playing power forward off the bench, does this mean the Jamison experiment is over?

The biggest news undoubtedly has to be that Steve Nash is scheduled to play tonight, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles, and this might certainly be the boost of optimism the needs after a fairly slow start this season. But again, this leads to more questions concerning the rotations — let’s not kid ourselves though, it’s Steve Nash that’s coming back here! — as well as the amount of minutes that Nash can play and whom he plays them with.

Tonight’s contest will at least provide some temporary answers.

The Warriors Coming in: The Golden State Warriors have won eight of their past 10 contests and just recently took apart the Bobcats at home by double digits thanks in large part to their 14-of-27 shooting from 3-point range.

Stephen Curry is playing some great basketball this month, but so is David Lee as evidenced by his 23.2 points per game, 11.8 rebounds per game and 3.6 assists per game on 59.6 percent field goal shooting in the month of December.

It’s worth noting that Lee had a triple-double last night against Charlotte; a performance that highlighted all of his skills.

With that said, the Warriors have lost seven of their last eight meetings to the Lakers and will want to finally tilt things back into their favor.

Warriors Blog: Warriors World covers the Golden State Warriors as well as the rest of the league on occasion. A preview of tonight’s contest by me from the Dubs’ vantage point can be found here.

Keys to the game: The one area of the game that absolutely bears paying attention in the contest tonight has to be rebounding. Indeed, the Los Angeles Lakers are second in the NBA in rebounding rate while the Golden State Warriors are third.

Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard will obviously play a huge role on this front, but it’s also important for Metta World Peace to snatch a fair amount of rebounds considering that he will more than likely be matched up against either David Lee or Carl Landry.

The starters should hold their own on this front, but the Warriors’ bench might narrow the gap much like they did the first time both of these teams played on November 9th, as they grabbed 23 of the 47 rebounds the Dubs accumulated.

In addition, the Lakers’ defense will have to make some tough decisions in their pick-and-roll defense, because the Warriors love to use David Lee as a pressure release point at the top of the key when defenses rotate. The end result is that the Florida product can take the open jumper, put the ball on the floor if a slow-footed big man is defending him or simply swing the ball to the open shooter where the Warriors are converting 42.1 percent of their treys in the month of December according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool.

Golden State will stretch the court by occasionally playing Jarrett Jack, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson all at the same time; which tends to open up the driving lanes and allow the Warriors to create high percentage shots. NBA.com tells us that the Warriors second most used lineup of the season features Curry, Jack, Thompson, Landry and Lee; and that unit produces 110.9 points and 29.3 assists per 48 minutes on 50.6 percent field goal shooting and 42.7 percent 3-point field goal shooting.

This might be one of those instances where D’Antoni is obliged to play MWP on the perimeter a little to ensure there is enough proper ball pressure being applied on ball handlers to ensure the Lakers do not lose containment on the perimeter and allow a multitude of open looks from deep.

With that said, if we get away from the stats, there are two facets that immediately come to mind in this contest:

I. The Lakers have always played well in Golden State. Lakers fans typically show up in every venue, but Oracle Arena usually has a large contingent; but one wonders if the team’s resurgence equates to more Warriors fans showing up; and also whether this new Dubs team rises to the occasion to play a team that’s had their number seemingly forever.

II. With Brandon Rush out for the year, the Warriors do not have one single player on the roster smart and disciplined enough to make life tough for Kobe Bryant other than Draymond Green. Seriously, Kobe has pretty much had his way with all of the Warriors players, but Green’s size and defensive IQ might earn him some minutes covering the Black Mamba; but otherwise it stands to reason that Bryant will have one of those nights where most of his jumpers look easy.

Tonight’s game certainly should prove to be entertaining and high paced, which could potentially produce a lot of fireworks.

Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet.

Statistical support provided by NBA.com.

If you’ve followed the career of Kobe Bryant, you’ve seen him have a multitude of so-called rivals at the shooting guard position, all of which he’s outlasted and obviously bested at one point or another.

The “rivalry” with Tracy McGrady was fun and it’s a shame that it didn’t last longer, and Vince Carter also could have given the Black Mamba a run for his money but didn’t seem interested enough in his own greatness and thus we were robbed there as well.

Allen Iverson provided a great potential nemesis given the contrast in styles, but his size made it as such that he would never defend Bryant in a million years on the hardwood.

That’s left us with Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade, who all at one point or another gave Kobe a terrific matchup and made things both interesting and entertaining for us as fans.

But there is one guy who has been waiting for perhaps the longest time ever to finally get a crack at Kobe. Heck, he’s gotten a few chances here and there, but never the chance, not until today.

James Harden.

The left-handed guard has been victimized by Kobe on more than one occasion, be it NBA floor, or summer league play. And each and every single time, Harden has barked at him and refused to back down.

The one lingering problem that he had was that he could never pay Bryant back because he wasn’t primary option on his team and thus didn’t have the possibilities of just attacking the superstar whenever it best suited him.

For instance, in last year’s playoffs, Bryant tortured Harden in both the pinch post and the low block despite the fact that Harden did one of the best defensive jobs ever seen on KB by anyone not named Bruce Bowen. But Bryant’s singular offensive talent just made Harden look like a petulant fly that kept reviving itself only to consistently land on a windshield. Making matters even more frustrating was the fact that Bryant got the opportunity at times to hide himself defensively and rest by defending the likes of Thabo Sefolosha or even guarding Harden away from the ball.

But tonight?

Best believe that James Harden has remembered all of those times Kobe baited him, talked trash and well, owned him.

It’s worth noting, Metta World Peace will probably spend the bulk of the minutes defending Harden, but on those rare trips when Harden sees Bryant on him in the half-court, he will assuredly be thinking about the opportunity that’s finally fallen before him.

In an interesting twist of fate, Kobe Bryant is leading the league in scoring at 26.9 points per game, but James Harden is right on his heels at 26.7 points per game and might want to narrow that margin tonight against the Mamba.

And if he does?

As fans, we should all be better for it, because matchups of marquee shooting guards are slowly becoming a thing of the past; especially when considering that Kobe’s career will soon be coming to a close.

It might not sound at the moment like a bitter old rivalry at the moment, but it definitely has the makings of one…

And we’re all lucky for it.

The Ever Efficient Kobe Bryant

J.M. Poulard —  November 14, 2012

Prior to the start of the regular season, I predicted that Kobe Bryant would have his most efficient ever season shooting the ball. His health will probably be a concern until he retires given the toll his 17-year career has taken on his body and thus it stands to reason that his physical skills will continue to erode, but the difference this season in comparison to previous ones is simple: Bryant no longer needs to carry the entirety of the load, and he is playing like it.

The way I saw it, the acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard would mean that Kobe would get more opportunities to simply stand around on offense and watch things unfold as opposed to being part of every single offensive possession or worry that a play might be doomed without his involvement.

Last season, the Lakers often seemed lost when Kobe went to the bench because it meant that either Andrew Bynum or Pau Gasol would see swarms of defenders attack them since the purple and gold lacked good knockdown shooters or other players capable of creating good shots for themselves on a consistent basis.

But this season? Forget having any chance of putting the clamps on Kobe Bean.

He is playing just about the same amount of minutes, but he has been less of a dominant fixture as far as handling the ball so far this season. His usage rate (percentage of possessions he uses up) is down from 35.7 to 28.8 thanks in large part to Dwight Howard’s dominating presence in the paint. Bryant now gets more opportunities to play away from the action and then cut to the basket where he can simply catch and finish with defenses worried about D12’s damaging plays on the low block (our very own Phillip Barnett and Andrew Garrison from Silver Screen and Roll wrote an amazing piece on this last week, you can find it here). Also, Bryant has been masterful at running hand off plays or back cuts with his big men — particularly around the high post — where he has simply caught the ball and exploded to the basket. Add it all together and Kobe is shooting a career high 55.1 percent from the field, albeit in eight games.

Given the small sample size, should this be viewed as a fluke or perhaps a trend for the remainder of the season?

I would side with trend.

The Black Mamba is one of the most devastating shooters — especially off the dribble — in league history, but his willingness to at times force up long contested shots or simply get caught with the rock in his hands late in the shot clock have long contributed to his field goal percentage looking pedestrian at times. The difference this season mind you is that the Laker superstar has done much less of this than in recent seasons. Once again, we are looking at a small sample size, but Kobe has completely altered his shot selection thanks in large part to the personnel around him.

The long-range 2-point shot has always been a huge weapon for Bryant given his ability to rise and take the jumper when the offense bogged down and the paint clogged; but this season he has decreased these attempts in favor of getting the ball to the rack. Hoopdata tells us that the former Lower Merion star is averaging 2.6 long-range 2-point shots, which represents a career low for Bryant (the site started tracking this data in 2007). He hasn’t stopped shooting the ball though, he has instead replaced those inefficient shots with the most efficient ones: attempts right at the rim.

According to Hoopdata, the perennial All-Star is attempting a career high 6.7 shots right at the rim. For the sake of perspective, his highest figures prior to this season came in both the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, also known as seasons in which he was still an athletic marvel. Some might say that Bryant is following in the foot steps of what Dwyane Wade — and to some extent LeBron James — accomplished last season, in reducing his amount of long-range shots, but that would be inaccurate. Wade reduced his 3-point field goal attempts in favor of slightly increasing his amount of mid-range jumpers whereas Bryant has morphed into a rim attacker.

For the sake of perspective, have a look at some notable players that generate shots at the rim and where Kobe fits amongst them so far this season :

Player

Shots at rim per game

Dwight Howard

7.9

Zach Randolph

7.5

James Harden

7.7

Carmelo Anthony

7.0

Kobe Bryant

6.7

LeBron James

6.0

As you can see, Bryant compares favorably to interior players as well as some bigger, taller and stronger perimeter players; and yet he is right up there with them despite his advanced age. The Black Mamba should be at the stage of his career where he floats out to the perimeter and tries to do most of is damage from there, but instead, he has other ideas with respect to spots where his attempts come from.

The change in his shot selection has been assisted by the decreasing rapidity to which defenses have rotated to him because of the tandem of Howard and Gasol. Consequently, Bryant is attacking faster and spending less time with the ball in his hands trying to anticipate how he is going to be defended. The stats bear this out as well.

MySynergySports tells us that last season Kobe spent 27.9 percent of his possessions in isolation situations, and his field goal percentage in such instances stood at 37.3 percent, which isn’t much of a surprise since he often ended up settling for a tough contested jumper after a plethora of pump fakes. This season he has been much better in this respect. According to MySynergySports, Bryant is only utilizing 17 percent of his possessions in isolation situations, and is shooting a blistering 56 percent from the field in these scenarios. Even his post up opportunities have somewhat diminished as he has focused on mixing up his game and striking from all over the court. He is spotting up more (yes, he’s getting more open looks), is much more involved in the pick-and-roll and getting more transition opportunities.

Kobe Bryant, at the tender age of 34 years old, is reinventing himself as a player and taking the ball to the basket more, at an age where these attempts should be progressively decreasing with each passing season. The knock on the superstar throughout his career has been that he has been quick to put up low percentage shots, but far too often the context of some of his attempts were simply ignored. This season, he’s made the necessary adjustments to take advantage of defenses as well as the gifts of his teammates. The scariest thing for the rest of the league is that Kobe’s efficiency might actually improve (!). Most of the Lakers regular season games have been played without Steve Nash, which seems incredibly relevant given the amount of open shots he helped Kobe generate in the preseason.

Between the Lakers’ poor record to open up the season, the firing of Mike Brown, the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, the James Harden trade and the Knicks undefeated record, Kobe’s shooting figures has flown under the radar; and yet one could make the argument that it should be one of the biggest stories of the season given that it’s happening so late in his career.

At some point, the Lakers will have a winning record and this will become a huge topic of conversation, but why wait until then right?