Defending Kobe’s offensive nature

Posted: January 17, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized

On Saturday night Kobe Bryant scored 42 points in a loss against the LA Clippers. It was the fourth straight game he reached 40. It was the 122nd time  Bryant reached that mark in his career. It was the sixth time in his 16 NBA seasons he put together a streak of at least four straight 40-point games. For comparison sakes – and I’m just pulling a random name here, one that may or may not have been previously used in a Kobe Bryant article – Michael Jordan had two such streaks.

And by my conservative estimate, this game led to the 756th debate about whether Kobe Bryant shoots too much and what it means for the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s certainly not just Lakers fans who engage in these discussions. When Kobe shoots a lot or scores in bunches everyone has an opinion. He’s either the next Jordan or a wannabee, better than MJ or nowhere close. He’s a ballhog or an on-court assassin. He’s everything that’s right with the game or everything that’s wrong.

It’s been this way since he started his career in 1996. This debate over his offensive approach happened when Kobe was a rookie and now when he’s regarded as one of the best players in NBA history. This debate happened when he had a shaved head, an Afro and a receding hairline. It took place when Del Harris coached the Lakers and when Kurt Rambis replaced him and when Phil Jackson took over and when Rudy Tomjanovich came onto the scene – and then left just as quickly – and when Phil returned from Australia and now with Mike Brown on the sideline. The debate happened when he wore No. 8 and when he changed to No. 24. It took place when Kobe was single, when he was married and now when he’s divorced. It’ll take place as long as Kobe Bryant wears an NBA uniform because no matter how much changes on the outside, it’s what’s inside that makes him what he is, for better or worse.

The most important takeaway from those 40-point games isn’t that Kobe hasn’t learned his lessons or still doesn’t play the game the right way. It’s that he’s still physically capable of playing the way that made him a five-time champion.

Kobe Bryant is a scoring machine, perhaps designed in a lab in Italy, fine-tuned in Philadelphia and released in LA. He could be the most explosive scorer in league history. There’s the 81 points and 62 through three quarters when he outscored the entire Mavs team by a point through 36 minutes, but there’s also the game against Memphis when he scored 56 in the first three quarters while the Grizzlies edged him with 59. No one had averaged 40 points in a month since Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain in the early 1960s, until Kobe did it three times – in 2003, 2006 and 2007. Those types of numbers could fill half a book, although the other half would be filled with detractors saying anyone could do those things if they shot as many times as Kobe.

If he was simply a scorer, a guy like George Gervin or Iverson or McGrady, who racks up scoring titles but never wins a title, the criticisms might have a bit more merit. But he is an all-around player, the guy the Lakers depended on to set up the offense when Shaq filled the middle, when Kwame’s bad hands patrolled the paint, and with Gasol and Bynum bumping into each other in the post.

Yet in the end, his greatness ultimately stems from his scoring dominance. It was true during the Lakers’  three-peat and true in their back-to-back titles seven years later. He’s not Magic Johnson. Bryant can put up a triple-double, but his dominant games come when he scores 35 or 40, not when he goes for 18 and 12 assists. The Lakers thrive on those explosions, when they feed off his energy, will and dominance. In those 122 games when he scores 40 or more, the Lakers are 87-35, 10-1 in the playoffs. In the same way, Magic was not at his most effective when scoring 35 or 40 – check out the 1990 playoffs against the Suns when his 40-point efforts went to waste. He dominated with his all-around game; he really could control a game by only scoring 10 points.

Both men have five titles to their credit. Both ways work, no matter how upset purists might get when Bryant begins firing away from anywhere past the halfcourt line. Occasionally Bryant’s shooting falters and you see games like his 6-for-28 effort against Denver earlier this season. Even when it’s going well, every Kobe scoring binge goes about the same way. If he makes one three-pointer another is surely going up on the next trip. If he makes two in a row a third is guaranteed. He’ll pull up with the best midrange shot in the game, even if it’s bounced off the rim four straight times. He still drives to the basket – though doesn’t fly above the rim like he once did – but otherwise he’ll operate in the post, demanding the ball, signaling for it impatiently, his right arm in the air, ready to receive the pass and fire a shot, no matter what the stats say on paper or the fans scream in the stands.

And this is how the Lakers have won five titles. Now, with a new coach, a bunch of new players and old ones with new mental wounds, this is the only way the Lakers will win a title this year. The Lakers need Kobe Bryant to be one of the two or three-best players in the game to have a chance at the title. Last year he wasn’t. In 2009 and ’10 he was. This year? He’s shown he might be at that level again.

What are the Lakers’ other options?

Much of the dismay over Bryant’s shot attempts comes from those who feel Bynum and Gasol must carry a bigger load on the offense. And they probably should. Bryant almost always settles down and finds that perfect balance, whether it comes during the end of the season like it did in 2001 or throughout the season like it did in 2002. The bigs will get involved. But a team that primarily relies on Bynum and Gasol – or even wants those two to equally share the scoring duties with Bryant – is not a championship contender, not at this stage of their careers.

Gasol is not the same player he was two years ago, whether it’s due to age, wear or the Mike Brown offense that has him standing 20 feet from the basket. Bynum shows signs, but he remains raw in far too many ways. When a double team approaches him in the post, he’s like frightened prey being swarmed by a pack of lions. He pivots and holds the ball above his head, until he brings it down and has it swiped. He’s not the most willing of passers and certainly not one of the best.

The rest of the roster? Well, Lamar Odom is gone. No matter how much he struggles in Dallas, he was the only other Laker who could create off the dribble or get the team into the offense. He’s gone, replaced by the likes of Josh McRoberts, a great hustle guy who plays tough defense and rebounds and runs the lane for the occasional dunk. You’d love him as a teammate. You’d hate to watch him do anything else on offense.

Derek Fisher remains the ultimate warrior, a great leader, a guy I still want out there in the two minutes, even if I don’t want him for the first 46. But to say Fisher’s game is in decline is to do an injustice to that word. It’s more  like his game is in an advanced stage of decomposition. Fisher’s backup, Steve Blake, is out several weeks with a rib injury. And even though Blake was playing much better than he did in his first season with the team – when he resembled a hyperactive sophomore point guard with a dorky haircut who’s overwhelmed the first time he steps on the court during a varsity game – he’s hardly in a neighborhood that includes names such as Rose, Rondo, Paul, Westbrook, Nash or anyone else who can actually create shots for himself or teammates.

Matt Barnes starts at small forward and hits some shots and knocks down some opponents and that’s it for him. Then there’s Metta World Peace, who’s become more of an entertaining novelty act than a top NBA player. As he comes up short on layups and long on 3-pointers, as he struggles to stay with quicker forwards while he attempts to bully smaller ones in the paint, it’s become obvious he’s now as far removed from his Game 7 heroics in the 2010 NBA Finals as he is from the infamous night in Detroit in 2004. If you gave 100 NBA scouts 100 years to scour 100 countries in an attempt to find the worst offensive basketball player in the world, they’d never find one who is as inept as World Peace in 2012.

No, if the Lakers are going to win a title it’s going to be on the backs of an improved defense and the injured shooting wrist of Bryant.

In the summer of 1986, Pat Riley famously asked Magic Johnson to take over more of a scoring role with the Lakers, as Kareem Abdul-Jabber – the 39-year-old captain and all-time leading scorer – took a bit of a backseat. Kareem agreed with the change. Magic came through with his first MVP season as he increased his scoring average while still leading the league in assists. Some believe Kobe has to do a similar thing with Bynum. Step aside a bit, let the young kid take over the main scoring role, work the ball from the inside out. Again, they do need to do that in doses and Bryant has shown he knows this. Even this year he’s averaging 5.9 assists a game. The difference is Magic Johnson was ready to take over that role. Kareem couldn’t dominate like he did in the early ’80s or even like he did in the 1985 NBA Finals. Magic had improved his game with the junior skyhook and his improved push-shot jumper. And in the wings they had James Worthy swooping in or posting up. These Lakers don’t have those options.

These Lakers do have one of the best players in NBA history, and a guy who has shown that he is still one of the best in the league today.

Kobe Bryant might shoot the Lakers out of the playoffs this year. But even in 2012, their only hope of winning a championship is if he shoots them to the top.

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