With the way Kobe Byrant has played to start the season, there has been a lot of eulogizing his career. You do not have to look far to find the next read on how bad he currently his, how he should retire, and how much of a drag he is on the court in what will likely be his final season.
But this version of Kobe is not how I will remember Kobe. The Kobe I will remember is the one who dominated for a decade and a half, the Kobe who struck fear into opponents simply by walking onto the court.
I’m all for tempering expectations when it comes to young players. Being successful is hard in the NBA. Being successful when you’re not yet even 21 years old is even harder. Players this young not only need to physically mature, but they need to figure out how the strengths they do possess translate to playing against grown men. The same is true of the mental adjustments and getting to the point where they can react to the game in front of them rather than having to think through possessions.
However, just because the learning curve exists doesn’t mean young players don’t show us flashes of what they can become. I remember watching Jordan Clarkson’s first summer league games last year and thinking “this kid has something” even though it seemed like every other possession was him trying to go too fast or not recognizing what the rest of the players on the floor were doing.
This year is no different when it comes to Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell. They are only on the bottom levels of their respective development curves, but when watching them play it’s easy to see they have something to them. This “something” was on full display in Sunday’s win over Maccabi Haifa.
If you haven’t listened to it already, I cannot recommend enough the recent Lowe Post podcast where Grantland’s Zach Lowe had Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck as a guest. The entire podcast focused on Beck’s time as a Lakers’ beat reporter when he worked for the LA Daily News from 1997 through 2004. Beck left the LADN for the NY Times in the summer of ’04, of course, but he recalls his time covering the Lakers fondly and brings great perspective as well as some untold stories that are, for Lakers’ fans especially, essential listening.
I use that podcast as an intro here because one of the many topics covered during their hour-long discussion was Kobe’s reputation as a “gunner”. Lowe and Beck go into great detail about how, while it’s an idea that Kobe now himself propagates, it’s also one which doesn’t do him many favors since it often deflects the proper credit he should receive for an all-around player and, especially, how great a passer he’s been throughout his career.
This is a topic which I don’t think gets enough run in many conversations about Kobe, but it’s something I do feel is important when discussing him as a player. Throughout the majority of his career Kobe has played, positionally, shooting guard but has spent most of his time on the floor as a player who either initiates the offense a la a point guard or has the offense run through him as the primary decision maker. Playing this style has allowed Kobe to flex his scoring muscles — after all, with him handling the ball so much there was little in the way of stopping him from simply shooting — but has also put him in position to show just how gifted a passer he is.
Reflecting on this took me to youtube and, lo and behold, I found this wonderful compilation of Kobe passing clips — all of which come from last season:
Yesterday Kobe announced he had returned to the court to shoot for the first time since having surgery to repair his torn rotator cuff. Today, Kobe celebrates his 37th birthday. I have a feeling before he finds his way to a slice of cake and some gifts to unwrap, he’ll also find his way to a gym to get up more shots. This, more than anything, would seem like be the Kobe thing to do.
When training camp opens in the next month or so, it will be the beginning of his 20th season in the league. Twenty. Years. I get tired just thinking of this number, knowing the day-in, day-out work that’s gone into making him the player he’s been over that period.
Kobe’s greatest legacy, for me at least, isn’t the championship rings. It’s not his status as one the game’s all-time best players. For me, Kobe’s legacy is, despite his wonderful physical gifts and his bloodlines tying him to the league, how he maximized all that talent to reach his ceiling as a player. One can argue if he could have done things differently or played a different way, but one cannot argue he got the most out of his ability to become the most skilled version of himself he could become.
When your nicknames are “Mr. Clutch” and “The Logo” it’s pretty difficult to argue you might ever be considered underrated. Jerry West certainly is not that, but as time passes and the game evolves it is sometimes easy to forget just how good some of the players from previous generations were, West included.
Luckily, youtube exists and we are able to look back and see the ride range of skill and ability some of these players had. Special hat-tip to the Wilt Chamberlain Archive channel on youtube for always bringing the heat, including this career tribute to the long time Laker:
Comparing players from the 60’s and 70’s to players today will always be tricky simply due to how the skills from that era stand up aesthetically to how the players play today. How the guys back then handled the ball, the sophistication of some of their moves, and what can seem like less fluidity in their movement can lead to some people question how good some of these guys really were.
But when you watch the clip above, while some of that might apply to West, what really stands out to me was the complete game he had and how so much of what he was doing back then is found in today’s game.
The one dribble left/right and pull up jumper is a staple of today’s best shooters. The way he rubs off picks or uses a tight handle to get into the creases and finish with a variety of shot types are all things you find from similarly sized players today. The way he jumps into passing lanes, causes deflections, and makes secondary reads to get steals and blocks are all staples of the game’s best defenders.
In other words, let this be your reminder that Jerry West, for any era, was a monster on the court.
If you listen to D’Angelo Russell talk, he will mostly discuss ways he needs to improve. He’ll talk about needing to get stronger, cut down on his turnovers, pay more attention defensively, and on and on. He understands he’s young, is a work in progress, and that he did not have his best showing in Summer League.
But, even though Russell clearly could have played better, the flashes of what he can be were there. His court vision is sublime and his ability to see plays developing ahead of time got his teammates a lot of good looks over the team’s five games in Vegas. And while his shot wasn’t as accurate as it could have been, in the team’s final LVSL game against the Jazz, he got the hot hand and showed off some of the shot making that earned him All-American honors after his lone season at Ohio St:
What stood out to me most from the barrage of made shots is how effortlessly he shoots the ball. The ease in which he rises up and simply flicks the ball is a beautiful thing. In fact, it’s this motion and smoothness of his jumper that left me almost totally unconcerned with his shooting percentage in the Lakers’ previous four games.
What also stood out to me, however, was how often Russell was creating his own shot off the dribble and how this really is only one aspect of how he can score. While at OSU, Russell did great work off screens and also showed he could be a fine spot up option. In Vegas, the combination of the sets the team ran and his role as the primary ball handler didn’t allow these other parts of his game to shine through. Come the regular season, though, when he’s on the floor with Kobe and as he gains more chemistry with Clarkson and Randle, I do believe he’ll get to expand the ways in which he scores.
That’s down the line, though. For now, watch Russell cook in the video above again. He ended his time in Vegas the way we all like to, with the hot and hand and cashing in.
One of my favorite parts of the old Lakers’ telecasts on KCAL Channel 9 was Chick Hearn interviewing players from the Lakers and the opposing team. The interviews would often air during the pre-game or halftime show and would always give some insight or an anecdote that you likely weren’t going to get from anywhere else. Credit Chick who, along with his brilliance as the game’s best play by play man, was also as personable and pleasant as could be when chatting with the players.
Some good stuff in this clip, but the thing that stands out is Kobe’s youth and, even at only 18 years old, the charisma and charm that, along with his prodigious talent, made him one of the league’s most popular players very early in his career. This clip also brings out a fair amount of nostalgia. This was before Phil Jackson, before the heartbreaking playoff losses, before the championships, and before the feuds that saw it all end. This was just the beginning.
With Kobe’s career nearing its end, it really is something to see him so young, so long ago, as a bright eyed rookie. In a way it makes me sad. It also makes me feel extremely grateful that nearly 18 years later he is still wearing the purple and gold. Oh, an by the way, that night against the Spurs on the 2nd night of a back to back, Kobe started his second straight game and scored 19 points on 6-12 shooting to help the Lakers win their 5th straight game.
(H/T to Andy Kamenetzky and Jon Weisman for the clip)
Training camp is only two days old, but I’m already thirsting to see what this group of players looks like on the floor together. Luckily, the fine folks at Lakers.com are of the same mindset and were nice enough to gift us all with some highlights from the scrimmage portion of Wednesday’s practice session:
Understand that these are clips pieced together from a lot of stop and go action where the coaches will intervene to use a particular play or two as teaching moments. This may allow an offensive player to get the type of position he may not otherwise or a side’s defense to get set and bottle up a certain action.
Even in saying that, though, it sure is nice to see actual basketball.
A couple of quick takeaways:
*Over the last couple of days, when asked about his health, Kobe Bryant has said that he “feels like (himself)” multiple times and the brief clips seem to reinforce that idea. He’s moving well, seems to get good elevation on his jumper, and made a decent defensive play on Nick Young by sliding his feet fairly well and recovering at the end of the action to get his hands on the ball. He also had couple of nice possessions working in the post and his footwork looked clean and precise. Again, these are spliced together clips that do not give us an entire picture of what Kobe fully looks like over the course of a full session, but these plays do start to lessen concerns that he is not 100% physically right now. Considering where he was at this point last year and how he looked when he first got back into game action after the season began, this is a very positive thing.
*Steve Nash also looks to be moving well. I do not want to overplay the significance of this since, as we all know, Nash’s problems aren’t so much how he plays when healthy, but whether or not his health is sustainable. But it’s nice to see Nash running fluidly and making some of the plays you know a healthy Nash is capable of making. The fading jumper he hit wasn’t anything to get super excited about, but it did show him extend for a loose ball and then create some needed separation to get his shot off against his man. These are skills Nash has mastered over his career, but also ones that have not always been at his disposal over the past two seasons due to his diminished health.
*Whether it was just the nature of the plays selected to highlight or indicative of what the team will try to do regularly, the team sure did seam to try to push the ball up the floor. Nash and Lin both like to play in the open court, so it would not surprise me if they tried to play with more pace than Scott’s team have been known for in the past. I’m not making any declarations at this point, but this will be something to watch for when the exhibition games start.
Overall, there’s really not a lot of deep analysis to be made here. Again, it’s a scrimmage with a fair amount of stopping the action and specific teaching moments from a coaching staff who is just starting to learn about the group they have (as well as the players learning what the coaches want). But, I’d be lying if I said watching the guys get up and down the floor and finish some plays didn’t get me itching for more.