Finally Some Rest For the Weary Lakers

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Most of the big NBA news comes out of L.A. this year, in both the Clippers (34-16) and Lakers (22-26). The Clippers have been noticed for their unprecedented successes and the Lakers for their similarly unprecedented failures. Aside from learning this week that the Clippers have expressed an interest in Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics (37 years old, 14.8 ppg), the big news comes from Lakerland this week. Why, might you ask? Did Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant finally deck each other? Is Pau Gasol headed out in some stunning trade? Did Mike D’Antoni say something inspiring at a press conference? Nope, none of the above. The Lakers found their game, ladies and gentlemen, and probably in the last place anybody would have looked.

You know that old yarn about Kobe Bryant not passing enough? The man has led all shooting guards in assists every year for about a decade, but let’s focus on right now. The Lakers had a team meeting in Memphis, during which Kobe asked Howard if he had a problem playing with him. The meeting got loud, and it appears that it managed to clear the air enough to get the weary teammates focused on winning. The Lakers lost in Memphis, but the next game showed a new-look Laker team.

Before we proceed, there are two things that one could know for certain in the NBA before last week. Number 1: Steve Nash is an incredible passer (5th all-time in assists with over 10,000, 7.8 apg for his career). Number 2: Kobe Bryant likes to score (one of five people ever to score more than 30,000 points in his career, fifth all-time in scoring). Proceed with care, do not be shocked…

How are the Lakers winning their games? Kobe Bryant is now doing Steve Nash’s job, and Steve Nash is somewhat doing Kobe’s job. Shocker. In his first game as a quasi-point-guard, Kobe recorded 14 assists, one shy of his career high. And then against OKC? He did it again, 14 assists, all the while scoring in double figures and grabbing eight or nine rebounds in each game. In the next game he played similarly well, scoring in double figures and posting 11 assists and eight or nine rebounds. This newer playing style (let’s call it “sharing is caring” basketball) has seen remarkable team play: against OKC, Kobe, Gasol, World Peace, Clark and Nash, all scored in double figures (similar results occurred against Utah, with Howard scoring in the 20’s). Asked if passing so much was a conscious decision or something that was discussed beforehand, Kobe answered that it was just something he decided to do, since the team needed the ball spread around a lot more. He’s shown a greater degree of trust in his teammates over the last few games, forgiving teammates for their missed shots by giving them the rock again for another try.

So why is it so effective to have Bryant doing this rather than just to let Nash do what he’s always done? Well for starters, Kobe’s a few inches taller, giving him better court vision and making it a little harder for him to be blocked. Plus, the man is incredibly strong: when he’s on the move he’s a lot harder to stop than the smaller Nash. The main reason, however, is that Kobe is truly becoming a double edged sword. Since the expectation is that he is looking to pass now, it would be tempting if not practical to give him more space on the defense since you wouldn’t normally need to worry about him scoring; indeed, most pure passers get very light coverage. Unfortunately for the competition, however, Kobe still does like to score, and is very good at it. So the end result is that you can’t smother him like you normally would (since he wants to pass now), but you also can’t leave him open (because he loves to shoot).

Now the expectation at the beginning of the year was that Kobe would shoot marginally less than he has in the past, instead ceding shots to Howard, Nash, and Gasol for a well-rounded attack. He initially did so, but as the Lakers record worsened and injuries plagued the roster he was forced to be the prolific shooter he has been for most of his career; indeed, he led the league in scoring for about two months and set an NBA record 10 straight 30+ point games over the age of 34. However his retreat back to the original game plan and subsequent “above-and-beyond” effort to pass has made the Lakers once again a deadly weapon to be reckoned with. Only time will tell if they can sustain it long enough to make it into the playoffs, as they currently sit in 10th place.