(Editor's Note: It's my pleasure to kick this week off by introducing a new member of the Silver Screen and Roll family. Starting today, the man who goes simply by Basketball Reasons joins us as a front-page contributor. For a while now I've been a big fan of his identically named blog and his @BallReasons Twitter feed, which I recommend everyone follow, and I'm thrilled he's come to ply his trade on our site. He's smart as hell, loves the Lakers and knows his basketball, so if I say so myself he'll fit in splendidly around here. Enjoy this debut essay of his, and please give him a warm SS&R welcome! ~Dex)
""These," he said gravely, "are unpleasant facts; I know it. But then most historical facts are unpleasant."" - Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
The good, the bad, the ugly; a trio of words that aptly describe the 2011-2012 season for Kobe Bryant. Another game, another night of triple pump fakes, reverse pivots, fadeaways, and hands in the face to conquer. When the shots were going down it was an impressive display of the exceptional basketball skill Kobe has amassed, but relying on high degree of difficulty shots to sail through the lace net was a losing bet. Nothing came easy for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers last season, but that will change. Oh, how it will change.
Over the last decade Kobe Bryant has averaged less than 20 shots per game only once, that being the 2003-2004 season. With Dwight Howard at center running pick and roll sets with that Steve Nash character, you can expect a high amount of offensive touches heading that direction. What that means is those 23 field goals a game Kobe drudged through last season will decrease in quantity. He hasn't shot 23 field goals or more since the dark days of Kwame Brown and Smush Parker prior to Pau Gasol's arrival. On that note, in his 16 years in the league, 23 field goals attempted per game through a season ranks as the third highest in his career. What this translated into was the lowest true shooting percentage as a professional for Kobe, a lowly .527. The second lowest true shooting percentage in his career came during the 2001-2002 season, where he shot .544 (a number he also compiled during his rookie season). His career average? .554. Sure, he was in position for the scoring title all year, but in the context of being in the middle of his own historically inefficient season, how much was that even worth? No matter, with a decreased responsibility within the offense, a few key personnel changes, and a new offensive philosophy, Kobe Bryant is primed to have one of his most efficient seasons yet. Let's look deeper after the jump.
With the talent the Lakers have gathered, and the offensive system being implemented around him, there is simply no reason for Kobe Bryant to play caretaker for the the Lakers' offense as he did last season. The contested jumpers poured in (or rimmed out) and eventually came to a screeching halt in the second round. For the second straight year. He placed the burden squarely on his own shoulders, and now more than ever as the new generation of superstars poke their heads out and see the sunlight he eclipsed from them for so long, it's become clear he can't do it all alone. Early in the season it worked well. His field goal percentage was respectable and the four straight 40 point games were a testament to a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant. Through the first 20 games of the season, Kobe put together a field goal percentage of 45%. A small sample size, but a respectable number to kick start the Lakers' season. The next 20, however? 41%. In the final 18 game stretch of the regular season he moved the needle up just a hair to 42%. And finally, through the playoffs, he was shooting at 43%. His season started off strong, but it slipped away. Far enough to become a career low. The game plan has changed now, literally and figuratively, for Kobe and the Lakers. Less will, in fact, be more.
Andrew Bynum put up 13.3 field goals per game last season, and many felt that he should have had more offensive touches to help balance the offensive scheme. Surprisingly, Dwight Howard came in only a tick higher at 13.4. The difference, however, between the two when it comes to possessions, is in the free throws. Bynum averaged 5.8 free throw attempts last season, while Howard was sweating at the line 10.6 times a night. With his aggressive offensive nature and ability to finish strong at the rim defenses don't have a choice but to foul Dwight Howard. What this means is while he may average a similar amount of field goals as Andrew Bynum, the numbers overall reflect why Dwight is more than just 13 field goals attempts per game to this offense, and why Kobe will have the ball less than ever. Get the rock in Dwight's hands, force defenses into foul trouble, and in turn open up the rest of the floor. This only happens if Howard is putting up a raw field goal attempt in the low 20's, which is a departure from the Kobe lathered, Bynum sprinkled, offense in itself. By that philosophy alone there will be less instances of Kobe having to work through his defender only to put up a tough shot. Putting the opposition into the penalty early and often will turn into a Thanksgiving feast of efficient, easy, points for Kobe Bryant. His 7.8 free throw attempts per game from last season may remain stagnant, as many of his free throws came from drawing contact on said forced shots, but cutting back on force ups and going to the line on non shooting fouls will turn Kobe's efficiency upward while also working to preserve his body through the last leg in his career.
Then there's Steve Nash taking the reigns as primary ball handler. Less forced basketball from Kobe, and the opportunity to play his natural role as a shooting guard, will do wonders for his game. Nash will change the entire dynamic of the offense on his own; his ability to create for others is uncanny. Commit to hedging and he will pick you apart with a pass. Sag off the pick and he will put up an easy jumper. Or he could turn the corner on the pick entirely, penetrate, and either finish or hit the open man. Kobe will benefit from having a point guard who will not only create for him, but also take on the responsibility of keeping the offensive flow. The Kamenetzky brothers over at Land O' Lakers recently interviewed Mike Brown, who was willing to divulge this tidbit about the offense, and newly minted "quarterback" Steve Nash.
"The way that we'll put it together, Steve's going to have an opportunity -- he's going to quarterback the team -- and so he's going to have an opportunity to come down the floor every possession and in early offense play pick-and-roll if he wants to. It's up to him, based on where he decides to take the ball or a call that he makes or an action that he does, it's up to him to get us into some of the looks of the Princeton offense."
Kobe Bryant benefited from being assisted on a paltry 44% of his field goals overall, and 45% of his jump shots. Considering that 88% of Kobe's offense came from a perimeter jump shot, this is an area of his game that will receive a drastic makeover and ultimately raise his percentages across the board. Last season Steve Nash averaged 10.7 assists per game. 375 of his 664 total assists resulted in either a 3 point field goal, or a jump shot. In fewer words, he averaged 5.6 assists per game that converted into a successful perimeter field goal. In comparison, Ramon Sessions only averaged 2.4 perimeter assists per game with the Lakers last season. Quite a margin between the two point guards, both in talent they were working with, and what they did with it. Nash will have no problem keeping Kobe engaged on the offensive end, and knowing how demanding of a presence he is, will undoubtedly find ways to feed the Black Mamba. This will be a departure from having to either create for the offense or isolate his man off the dribble. Each basket was a half court grind, and there were few windows of opportunity for the Lakers to exploit. This resulted in Kobe having to be the guy to take the shot for the offense, even if it wasn't ideal. Goodbye to that, hello Nash and Princeton.
Ben Rosales wrote up an excellent overview of the Princeton offense and how it will affect the Lakers. Looking specifically at Kobe, though, this should be an excellent offense for him to execute within. The offense gives Kobe a structure to perform within while the ball is out of his hands. Kobe will have a brick wall of a pick setter in Dwight Howard to free himself while running Princeton sets, which should set him up with an open look or a path to the basket. With the offensive weapons the Lakers will have on the court at any given time, defenses will find it difficult focusing on Kobe. Especially with an offense designed to keep all defenders on the move till a weak link in the chain snaps.
The other ideal aspect about the Princeton Offense is that Kobe will be able to operate around the post as a staple of the system. Kobe one-on-one off the block is an area of the game in which he excels like few others. His craftiness and recognition are tools that few defenders can stay on par with, and when Nash calls for a Princeton set, it's likely that Kobe will find his way to that portion of the court. There are going to be many angles in which Kobe Bryant will be able to attack and exploit defenses, leaving defenses having to choose between poisons. That's the beauty of the Princeton offense. In theory, the Lakers should seldom settle for a contested shot. Easier looks at the basket are going to turn Kobe into a surgeon on the basketball court; the aid of a systematic offense will be an ally to raising his efficiency and lowering his field goal attempts. As it goes in life, quality over quantity, and the amount of quality looks Kobe will be getting should make the Lakers blush if they watch game film of the offense they glued together last season.
So, let's recap: One of the best point guards facilitating the offense and creating for him, a mobile center in Dwight Howard setting screens and keeping defenses honest, and an offense designed to promote intelligent basketball that will also be freeing up Kobe to operate in his sweet spots. Happy 34th birthday indeed, Mr. Bryant. This is a wonderful development, an oil change to push that fully paid off car just a little longer. Sure, the platelet therapy did wonders for Kobe last season, but before the Lakers could reach their final destination, the check engine light had flickered on. All they could do was take the nearest exit in Oklahoma City, push their smoking jalopy into the shop, and hope to get back on the road in better shape. Luckily for them, Mitch Kupchak is an expert mechanic, and he left the engine purring like a kitten. Take the wheel now, fellas, there's plenty of driving to do still. This has left only one question I can't help but ask from the back seat...
NBA season, are you here yet?
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