As soon as the ball tips on October 30th in a game against the Dallas Mavericks, Kobe Bryant will have officially suited up for his 17th season in the National Basketball Association. Amongst a bevy of league milestones, the senior statesman Black Mamba will be shooting for his eighth NBA Finals appearance and his sixth championship. There are dozens of articles that will inevitably cover Bryant's latest conquest of various historical achievements, but for the purposes of this post, we'll stick to the task at hand: who besides Kobe Bryant is going to step up at shooting guard this year for the Los Angeles Lakers?
Through Bryant's five championship runs, number 8-turned-24 has had plenty of adequate 2-guards backing him up, a group that includes Sasha Vujacic, Mitch Richmond, Shannon Brown and Brian Shaw. However, the options behind Kobe have never been explosive offensive players, and this year shouldn't be much different. Jodie Meeks, and one of either Darius Johnson-Odom or Chris Douglas-Roberts will have their numbers called by Mike Brown, hopefully not to the coach's dismay. With other players such as Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill coming off the bench to fill the voids of scoring, ball handling and defense, respectively, Kobe's subs will be simply asked to hit open jumpers, play passable perimeter defense and keep the team from falling apart when the 14-time All-Star takes a much needed break for his aching...everything.
Much like C.A. Clark's positional preview for centers, this shooting guard preview could be subtitled "Kobe Bryant and the poor suckers that have to back up one of the greatest ever at his position". Let's see what we're working with here:
Before training camp, the main questions pertaining to Bryant were if he would be able to mesh with his two new all-world teammates and how much will he regress in his age 34 season. Six games into training camp, it seems that Kobe's answered the latter half of that question with a resounding "not one bit...you think you're talking about Smush Parker?" That last part was speculation...but probably accurate.
Bryant has been one of the lone bright spots in the Lakers 0-fer this preseason, dropping over 20 points in a quarter last week against the Jazz, looking like he'd be ready to play a Game 7 tomorrow. Offensively, there seemed to be little change from the Bryant we saw last May that was able to score at will, albeit slightly less efficiently than in years past. Looking at how spry he's been thus far, I have little doubt that the Mamba's regression will come at the creeping, Brook Lopez-like glacial pace it's been at since his early thirties.
More disconcerting could be Kobe's unwillingness to sacrifice shots and offensive spotlight in lieu of both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, who have their own separate ways of becoming the offensive sun around which the entire team revolves. It's still difficult to say how Bryant will deal with it, seeing as the three have shared the court for less than 30 minutes during actual competition. Last night's game is an extremely small sample of what's to come, but based on the 12 shots a piece for Howard and Kobe, as well as the 11 for MWP and 8 for Pau Gasol in nearly identical floor time, I'm slightly more encouraged that this unit will come together quicker than expected. No. 24 is saying all the right things, and seems to relish the fact that he'll no longer have to orchestrate several different roles on the team. Instead, he'll be asked to perform the duties of a regular 2-guard: defending and scoring.
I suspect that Kobe's numbers will dip to their 2003-2004 levels, the infamous season that keeps casting its ugly shadow over this analogous 2012-2013 squad. Much like when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined forces with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe's shots dropped to just a hair over 18 per contest, with his scoring settling in concert at 24 ppg. Both numbers have been Kobe's lowest between the 2000-2001 season and now. However, unlike 2003-2004, we're dealing with a much older and wiser Bryant, who will hopefully take his declining offensive presence as a way of preserving his batteries for the postseason, rather than the begrudging martyr who would constantly make everyone aware of how much he was sacrificing in 2004. Conversely, Kobe's assists and turnovers (or lack thereof) should improve, seeing as he'll be handling the ball less when initiating the offense and instead in transition situations or while in the flow of a more complex half-court offense. Of course I don't expect everything to work like a finely-tuned engine to start with, but as the months pass and the season ends, I would be shocked if Bryant wasn't a Western Conference All-Star and a member of 2nd or 3rd Team All-NBA.
Out of every facet of his game, I'm most concerned about Kobe's defensive presence on the court. I'll hand it over to my colleague Mark Travis, who summed it up pretty succinctly in his Lakers defense post a few weeks ago:
Here's the thing about Kobe: When he's not guarding someone that will actively posses the ball, he's pretty awful. According to Synergy, of players that guarded at least 200 spot-up possession last season, Kobe gave up the fifth most points per possession (LeBron was right behind him at sixth). For whatever reason, he loses focus when he's on a spot-up shooter and does a poor job closing out.
But when Kobe is assigned to someone who will actually handle the ball on offense, he's still a very respectable defender. One of the main reasons the Lakers were able to capture the 2010 NBA Title was Bryant switching on to Rajon Rondo while poor Derek Fisher chased Ray Allen around for 40 minutes a night. The Lakers implored a similar strategy earlier in the playoffs that year when Bryant guarded Russell Westbrook instead of Thabo Sefolosha. Bryant guarded 41 pick-and-rolls during the 2012 post-season and he held his man to 21% shooting in those situations. Keep in mind, the majority of those possessions came against James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Ty Lawson, so that's a pretty impressive stat. Kobe also held his man to 34% shooing in isolation situations during the regular season.
So when Bryant is given a tough assignment, he can still be relied upon to produce at an above average level, or, at the very least, an above (insert Laker point guard here) level. Switching Bryant onto the opposing point guard still appears to be the Lakers best course of action when they reach the post-season, though such a strategy may not work against the Thunder when they have James Harden in the game.
I couldn't agree more with Mark's assessment. The key here is that when Kobe chooses, he's still capable of being a slightly less than elite defender. However, we're talking about scenarios where Kobe's had to focus a great deal of energy on being a scorer and playmaker, in addition to adding to the team's defensive schemes. This season, Kobe will be surrounded by arguably the most talent he's ever played with. I'd suggest that with a playmaker like Nash, a post defender like Howard and shooters like (hopefully) Meeks, Jamison, Metta World Peace and Blake, he'll be able to put more energy towards defending than he has in recent years.
There seems to be a disease that's had an ice-cold death grip for just over ten years on downtown Los Angeles. It's the tragic "Can't Make a Shot in Purple & Gold" epidemic that's run rampant on new Lakers imports since Staples Center opened its doors.
For reasons I can't quite explain, it seems that every single "dead eye shooter" that the Lakers have acquired in the past 10+ years have suddenly lost their abilities to shoot from distance. Much like the "Joe Torre Relief Pitcher Graveyard", the Lakers organization is where sharpshooters come to die a painful, Bill Plaschke rant-laden death. Let's look at the list: Jason Kapono, Vladimir Radmanovic, Steve Blake, Von Wafer, Mitch Richmond, Glen Rice...and the list goes on.
Jodie Meeks might be the next man to feel the icy chill of this affliction. Aside from one explosion in the fourth quarter against Utah and a solid 15 minute stretch last night, Meeks has shown a pretty terrifying inability to hit an open shot, after shooting 36% and 40% from the 3-point line the past two seasons. The former Kentucky Wildcat was signed by the team to a two-year, $3 million dollar deal hoping that he'd be able to step in for Bryant as a source of instant offense off the bench, led by, you guessed it, his dead-eye shooting. As we covered in our Silver Screen & Roll Podcast Episode #2 this past week, Meeks has simply looked like a "cut candidate" based on his performance.
Of course this is only the pre-season, and if teams and players were judged on how they played in these nearly meaningless games, then the Lakers (0-6) would be headed for the lottery and the Golden State Warriors (5-1) would be NBA Championship material. Giving Meeks the benefit of the doubt in acclimating himself into a completely different offensive system and role in LA, I'm optimistic about his prospects for the year. He'll be playing largely with a second unit of Antawn Jamison, Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and either Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol. I'd expect that offense to revolve around lots of screens and cuts, with Dwight or Pau attracting a great deal of attention in the paint, and the other four getting more open looks all around the perimeter. Meeks has to merely be a catch-and-shoot guy, which is (supposedly) one of his specialties. It's always hard to predict how well a shooter is going to perform, especially a young shooter, but with all the attention LA's bigs will be attracting inside, Meeks will have every opportunity to succeed. Hopefully his pre-season performance is just a matter of adjusting to a new team rather than a sign of things to come.
Darius Johnson-Odom/Chris Douglas-Roberts
In just about a week's time, one of these two guys won't be on the team. Either way, I wouldn't expect the law firm of Darius Johnson-Odom or the competing law firm of Chris Douglas-Roberts to get much court time. Coach Mike Brown hasn't suggested that he'll use the Popovich-ian strategy of sitting his veterans during the season for rest purposes, so unless there's a major injury to either Kobe, Nash or Meeks, DJO and CDR probably won't see much court time. Douglas-Roberts has been the more impressive thus far, which isn't entirely a surprise considering his previous NBA experience in Philly and Jersey. I predicted that Johnson-Odom would probably make the team, while my podcast co-hosts Ben R and Basketball Reasons contended that the former Memphis Tiger would make the squad instead.
Regardless, you're looking at two great young athletes, who are both more comfortable finishing at the rim than stroking it from long. Johnson-Odom I suppose has slightly more upside than Douglas-Roberts, but again, both are covered in "break in case of emergency" tape. There's a reason why CDR wasn't in the NBA last season and DJO was a second-round draft pick--they're both limited players. Still, the Lakers should be happy that the team has a difficult decision to make between two guys that the team would love to keep.