Archives For Kobe

After The Gold Rush

Dave Murphy —  April 18, 2013

There’s an oft-used saying, ‘it’s a tough act to follow.’ You don’t want to be the band that takes the stage after the last band just totally shredded. Or the comedian that follows the guy who had them rolling in the aisles. Phil Jackson was a tough act to follow. Just ask Rudy T, ask Tim Floyd, ask Mike Brown.

Mike D’Antoni could have been the guy that simply followed Brown, they might have given him the keys to the city. But Jackson was back in the picture and for the most obvious of reasons – he was probably the best man for the job, having delivered great riches in the past. D’Antoni’s preferred system of basketball wasn’t suited for for the All-Star roster he inherited and it certainly wasn’t suited for a revolving door of injuries. A pretty rough season followed.

The Lakers lost another giant recently, someone whose greatness defined the team’s identity and direction. Kobe Bryant rounded the corner on Harrison Barnes and headed for Achilles surgery and a new found hobby of tweeting. Who knew?

Things can turn on a trifle as someone used to say. The loss of Bryant was both stunning and surreal and a couple hundred epic articles dropped over the next 24 hours and observers burped and patted each others backs and headed to the sink with the dishes, ready to rinse and wash and move on to the playoffs. In this particular narrative, non-Laker fans could afford to be magnanimous with their sympathy – you guys always have next year. Or not.

A funny thing happened at the tail end of the regular season. In the absence of certain giants and expectations, a team began to form their own ad hoc destiny. You can’t really label them bad news bears, not when fronted by Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. You also can’t pin the month of April on the loss of Kobe and some new found freedom. The Lakers went seven and one and five of those games saw Kobe playing insane minutes and carrying much of the load.

Sometimes, you just have to watch. One of Mike D’Antoni’s pet phrases is ‘letting the ball find the open man’. He has no ownership of the concept, it’s as old as the game itself, a guiding principal in the sport, sometimes honored and often ignored. Over the last two games, the ball has found new movement out of necessity. Guys are getting touches they didn’t get before. And who would have guessed that Andrew Goudelock would get a call-up and join Darius Morris on the floor during pivotal minutes in a seed-defining win?

It’s not simply the loss of Kobe that has caused a change in the team’s philosophy. Steve Nash has been out of action and may suit up on Sunday against the Spurs, depending on the results from two recent epidurals. Will his return put a damper on Steve Blake’s resurgent play? There are no simple answers.

To say it has been a season of adjustment is saying just a little. There have been recent moments that show an interesting unity however. A time out and coaches interact with their players. Dwight’s chatting with Bernie Bickerstaff, Chuck Person makes a point with Metta World Peace. D’Antoni calls the guys to gather and they’re paying attention. A group that has seen little time together on the floor goes back out there and gets some stops. Games are won ugly but they’re won. And the Lakers are in the playoffs with the seventh seed and if nothing else they’ve earned the right to keep playing.

Spring is regarded as a time of renewal and hope. It’s not always pretty, it follows in the barren footsteps of winter after all. The NBA season is too long for the health of its players. It affects all teams and the San Antonio Spurs will be heading into the first round with issues of their own. For the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s a transitional era in ways that are sometimes willfully ignored. Their earth has been mined and harvested, it is in need of replenishment and the new CBA has thrown a few obstacles into the mix. It’s not to say you can’t use your remaining assets though or that you can’t use them well.

The past, present and future of the Lakers has coalesced for the moment – it may not be the most stable of circumstances but there is at least some acceptance – from a head coach willing to let his team play to its strengths to a team willing to share, no longer bound to a singular voice. The expectations game will be back in the summer, one way or another. For at least this moment however, it’s simply the game of basketball.

Sunday night marked the arrival of a new, long-term houseguest in Lakerland – the ghost of roster future.

In the absence of Kobe Bryant – a scenario initially not expected to come to fruition for handful of years – all eyes will be on Dwight Howard to recapture his MVP form of years past and anchor the team at the both ends of the floor. In short, after having the luxury to allow Howard to acclimate to his new surroundings and battle back from injuries at his own pace, the Lakers now need their franchise center to act the part. Sunday night marked Howard’s first game as the team’s long-term anchor, and Dwight delivered, devastating the Spurs to the tune of 26 points, 17 rebounds (6 offensive) and three blocks (plus a dubious goaltending call on a Tim Duncan hook I the lane), flashing his once-unrivaled speed and power in the post, and truly dominating on the glass. The result from a team perspective was no less encouraging, as the Lakers, in the maiden voyage without their superstar and leader, took a major step in sealing the postseason berth has at times seemed so elusive, with a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

However, Dwight was not alone in elevating his game in Kobe’s absence. Steve Blake turned in crowning performance as a Laker, connecting on four of eight 3-point attempts en route to 23 points, to which he added five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals. Providing a much-needed spark off of the bench was Antawn Jamison, who kicked in 15 points, burying three of five 3-pointers himself, and grabbed six rebounds in 20 minutes of burn. Lending additional support were Jodie Meeks, who despite hitting just three of 11 shots, hit a massive pair of 4th quarter 3-pointers, as well as Pau Gasol, who simply could not get a thing to drop. However, despite a putrid 3-for-17 showing from the field, Pau left a positive mark on the game with 16 rebounds (5 offensive) and three blocked shots of his own.

It must be said that the Spurs were far from their best on Sunday night, with just two (Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner) of 10 players that took the floor making at least half of their shots. Duncan, though outquicked by Dwight in the early going and unable to keep him off of the glass, played a fantastic game, scoring 23 points on 11-of-22 shooting (including a pair of thunderous throwdowns in the second half), grabbing 10 rebounds, handing out four assists and swatting three shots. Of historical significance, with his final bucket of the night, the greatest power forward the league has ever seen ran his career tally to 23,759, good for 22nd on the NBA’s all-time list, two points ahead of the previous holder of that distinction, Charles Barkley. Unfortunately for Duncan, who, like pre-injury Kobe, is more than a decade and half in and still playing some of the best ball of his career (24.4 PER, 21.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes and career-best defensive rebound and block rates), he received little support from his normally reliable running mates.

Chief among the struggling Spurs were Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who shot a combined 2-for-15 from the floor (1-for-10 for Parker, 1-for-5 for Leonard) and combined for just 12 points, though it worth noting that the duo combined for 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Also, despite managing a double-double of his own (11 and 10), Tiago Splitter missed eight of the 13 shots he attempted, more than a couple of which were seemingly easy layups. Danny Green managed an identical 5-for-13 from the field, hitting just two of seven 3-point attempts, while Nando de Colo, Cory Joseph and DeJuan Blair managed just four points on 2-for-11 shooting. Now, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect two of the Spurs’ top three starters to shoot worse than 15% from the field while one of their starting bigs blows numerous chances at the rim, but a fair amount of credit is owed to the Lakers’ perimeter defenders, who challenged the Spurs’ on their 3-point attempts, forced an inordinate number of long 2-point jump shots and, in perhaps the greatest testament to their performance, held the Spurs to a single unsuccessful corner 3-point attempt.

That the sustainability of some of the offensive efforts can be called into question, and the Spurs did little to help themselves in a game that was certainly winnable are true, but tonight, wholly irrelevant. With the playoffs in the balance, in the absence of their emotional talisman and offensive catalyst, the Lakers put forth excellent effort at both ends, and ultimately had enough to gut out a massive victory against an elite Spurs team playing for its own playoff positioning, setting the stage for a win-and-you’re-in showdown with the Houston Rockets Wednesday night at Staples.

 

It’s been about 12 hours since word hit that Kobe Bryant suffered what looks to be a torn achilles tendon. And, to be completely honest, I’m still struggling to form fully developed thoughts on the idea of him suffering this type of injury.

I’ve seen Kobe hurt before. The list of injuries he’s suffered and played through is endless — a torn labrum, severely sprained ankles, mangled fingers, a torn ligament in his wrist, a fractured nose, and on and on it goes. He’s been something different than human in his ability to battle and fight through. It’s part of what’s made him Kobe; one of the reasons that he has universal respect even from those who openly root against him.

This is different, though. Seeing him clutching at his lower leg, that look on his face — not of determination to battle through, but of knowing something was really wrong — was something unseen to my eyes before. He’s really hurt this time and the impact it will have on what’s left of his career is unknown. Will he play again? If so, when? How well? Have we seen the last of the Kobe Bryant we know?

Where he goes from here remains to be seen. On his Facebook page he spoke openly about the doubts he has about coming back strong and the fire that burns to do just that. Kobe, more than any other athlete of our time is complicated that way. He’s been the ultimate yin and yang player. He’s the guy with the genius level basketball IQ who sometimes makes the plays that make you scratch your head. He’s the ultimate solo artist who will throttle an opponent with fantastic team play. He’s the guy who offers the most biting critique only to later put his arm around a teammate and offer sage words of wisdom. It seems the players he is most frustrated with are the ones he respects the most; the ones who physically challenge him are the ones he wants by his side in the trenches.

In the past few months Kobe has talked about the mental drain of continuing to compete at the level he has been while wondering if he could continue to do it. The next day he’d remark how he could play for 5 more years if he wanted. This injury will challenge him in new ways and only he will be able to know how much he has left to give to try and get back to the court.

What this means for the Lakers is clear. They’ll still function as a team because they still have several very good players. Losing Kobe hurts in many tangible (and intangible) ways, but they can and will adjust. They’re professionals, after all. But Kobe was their best wing player and, for pretty much this entire season, their best player overall.

He carried their offense in a variety of ways and replacing his production will be nearly impossible. Replacing it from the wing, will be impossible. The Lakers simply don’t have the players to do so. Whether they make the playoffs or not — and I bet that they do — they’re worse off and whatever hope they had of challenging a top seed is now nearly gone. I expect they’ll compete hard and still challenge, but you don’t lose your 5-star general and become a better army. The team will close ranks and try their best and that will lead to some wins but it won’t be the same. It just won’t be.

I think Dwight Howard will try to fill the void of production, that Pau Gasol will take up the mantle of leadership, that Steve Nash will return and play his brains out (that guys is competitive too, you know). I think that team will still be entertaining and fun and a lot of things that we’ve wanted them to be all season. But they’ll be it without Kobe and that, for me at least, will be hard. And strange.

The quest for blame is on and I understand the sentiment. When things go wrong we want to know why. We ask and answer the question ourselves and then react accordingly.

Mike D’Antoni’s name will ring out as the culprit here and while I can relate to throwing blame in his direction, I don’t do so myself. Yes, one of his chief jobs is to manage a player’s minutes and to protect them from themselves. This is especially true of the super-competitive players who, if left to their own decision making, will play through whatever their bodies will tolerate. Kobe’s body can tolerate more than others and I do believe that D’Antoni could have been better at managing the situation to try and keep Kobe from playing to the level of fatigue he reached this year.

But Kobe wanted to play and the Lakers needed him to play. That much is not arguable. There wasn’t the luxury of rest when every game mattered so much. Do you rest Kobe now when there’s no guarantee the rest will even be applicable towards your ultimate goal? If the Lakers don’t the games they do with Kobe in the game for so many minutes, they don’t qualify to play the games where that rest matters. What then?

This is why the situation was lose-lose. The hole was too deep and the team had to fight too hard just to get in a position to qualify for the chance to reach their goals. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but it was. Fault for that lies with everyone. With the players for playing poorly enough to lose all those games. With the front office for building a roster so dependent on a select few, aged players. With the injury bug who feasted on the Lakers all season. And, yes, with the coach who was too stubborn and sacrificed long term thinking for the types of short term returns that were needed to try and, ironically enough, get back to where the long term view could be taken.

It’s been a sick season that way and there is no remedy for it. So blame who you want, just know that whoever you blame isn’t alone, as there’s plenty to go around.

After all these words, I still don’t really know what to think about it all. Kobe and I are close in age. In a way, I’ve always related to him simply because we come from the same time and have been influenced by the same things when it comes to the game we both love. He’s one of the best to ever play the game and I’m just a guy observing it all from a distance, but that distance between us has been closed through my television, the internet, and a press pass or two.

His career likely isn’t over, but it feels like an era is. The era where I could depend on seeing number 24 (and before it number 8) take the floor under every conceivable circumstance certainly is. For that I’m incredibly sad, but also tremendously appreciative. I got the chance to see one of the very best ever do what he does best. I also saw him go down swinging, competing his hardest, performing at the some of the highest highs he ever has.

And in a way it’s fitting. Cruel and undeserved, but fitting nonetheless.

The Lakers won a game but lost their leader.

In a cruel twist to an already unbelievably hard season, Kobe Bryant made a move he’s made a million other times in his career but collapsed to the ground in the process. The news of of the injury is not good:

If true — and based off Kobe’s comments after the game, it seems like the MRI will only confirm what he knows to be true — this news is simply crushing. As a fan of the game of basketball I’m extremely saddened to see such a great player go down with this type of injury. As a fan of the Lakers, I’m devastated.

I’ll have more on thoughts on Kobe later, but for now I can only say it’s somewhat fitting that the greatest warrior I’ve ever seen play this game went out on his shield in a game against the team called the Warriors.

That’s all I’ve got for now, folks. I will have more at some point tomorrow.

Dwight Howard is the Lakers’ defensive anchor. Since the all-star break, he’s been flashing the dominance on that side of the ball that he’s built his reputation on. With this version of Dwight Howard, the Lakers’ defensive ceiling is raised several notches simply because of his ability to move in space, contest shots, and still recover to the paint to rebound. A player that big and that active can make up for a lot of the short comings of his teammates.

But Dwight Howard can’t do it alone. In fact, that’s been one of the main downfalls of the Lakers’ defense this year. Even when Dwight wasn’t playing as well as he is now on defense, he was more often than not in a position that approximated where he needed to be within the team’s scheme. The problem was, his teammates were not. So while Dwight tried to slide around the floor and contest shots with his normal enthusiasm (sometimes more effectively than others), his mates often left him on an island on the back side to guard multiple players and work the defensive glass. This is too much to ask of a fully healthy Howard, much less the diminished version we saw for the better part of the season.

For the Lakers to tighten up their defense, then, they need the players who surround Dwight to do their jobs more consistently.

Due to the issues of the roster, the Lakers will never be a team who’s great at denying dribble penetration. They simply employ too many players who lack the lateral quickness and athleticism to slow players who attack them in isolation or when coming off screens. Though they work hard, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison, Pau Gasol are four players who are often targeted in isolation and attacked off the dribble. Further, Kobe, Earl Clark and Jodie Meeks can lack awareness when guarding in space and can give up lanes to the rim. That’s every player (not named Dwight Howard) in the Lakers’ rotation and all are prone to giving up dribble penetration to their man.

Understanding this fact means that what’s most important to the Lakers’ team defense are the rotations that happen once guys get into the paint. As mentioned, Dwight has mostly done his job this year (as has Gasol, though he’s nowhere near the deterrent that Dwight is) at stepping up and challenging shots. But it’s the guys who play behind Dwight (the wings and the other big man) who need to better be in position as helpers to challenge plays near the rim and rebound defensively.

This is where Kobe Bryant matters a great deal.

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