Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
In the midst of his team's most disappointing season, Kobe Bryant is somehow providing the best, most efficient, offensive production of his 17 year career, but his defense has become so problematic that he's ruining what could have been a legacy defining season.
Lost in the muck that is the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant is having a pretty good season individually. And by pretty good, I mean possibly the best season somebody his age has ever had. In his 17th season, Kobe Bryant is averaging career highs (in what was already a pretty damn illustrious career to date) in TS% and eFG%, the latter by the sizable margin of more than two full points (52.4% vs. 2008's 50.3%). He's only scored more than this year's 30.1 PPG twice, in the dark ages in which he literally was the entire offensive concept. At the grand old age of 34, at the point in life in which most of the lucky NBA players who have made it that far fall off a cliff, Kobe is having his most efficient season ever.
What Kobe is doing, at his age and experience, is also unprecedented in the history of the league. You can't compare this year's Kobe to Michael Jordan, because Jordan didn't play 17 seasons. He didn't come close to 17 seasons ... between college, baseball, and an early retirement, Jordan played just 12 seasons that count. But Jordan did play when he was 34 years of age, as Kobe is now. And Jordan had a spectacular season in his final year with the Bulls. He scored 28.7 pts, pulled down 5.8 rebounds, and doled out 3.5 assists while leading the Bulls to their sixth championship, and third in a row (again). But, purely on the basis of statistics, Jordan's final season in Chicago doesn't come close to what Bryant is doing. Jordan's shooting that year was a rather pedestrian 47.3% eFG and 53.3% TS, roughly five points less in both categories than Kobe. Jordan averaged a combined 9.3 rebounds and assists, Bryant 9.9. Jordan has the slight edge in PER (25.2 to 24.9) and I'm not really sure how (though I suspect its because of the slower paced league that Jordan played in) but even that difference is marginal enough to be discounted when you stare at the overwhelming case made by the rest of the numbers. Kobe Bryant, at age 34 and with 17 years of experience, is having a better season on paper than Jordan did at age 34 and with 12 years of experience.
And the favorable comparisons to all time greats doesn't stop there. It should surprise no one that if Kobe stands up to Jordan's final championship season, there is no other guard to compare him with. Search for seasons from guards that match Kobe Bryant's efficiency at his age and you get a smattering of stuff from names like John Stockton, Ray Allen, and Steve Nash, but whether you look at overall production (pts, rebs, assists/game) or overall efficiency (PER), nobody else comes close. Expand the search to include forwards and centers, and only Karl Malone has had a season at age 34 that could be labeled better than Kobe's, for his MVP winning 97-98 campaign (Note: Tim Duncan, age 36 is giving him a run this year). Adjust for experience instead of age, and Kobe Bryant would be the first player in his 17th year to have a PER over 24, ever. No matter how you slice it, what Kobe is doing at his age, at his position, and especially at his experience, is unprecedented.
And it's all for naught. That Kobe is having his most efficient, productive season to date as the Lakers have plummeted to unthinkable depths is perhaps the most fitting event that could possibly happen to the ongoing Kobe Bryant debate. There are many reasons for the failure of this team. We've talked about Dwight. We've talked about Pau. We've talked about injuries and bad luck. But only one man is responsible for ruining Kobe Bryant's historic season: Kobe Bryant.
Kobe is not (solely) responsible for the Lakers' struggles. In fact, I'd list the inability of Howard to erase the roster's defensive weaknesses, the crazy injury situation, and Gasol's deterioration, in that order, as the primary reasons for failure on the court. But Kobe is the only person who can ruin Kobe Bryant's historic season, because he is the only one who can invalidate its merits. And Kobe Bryant's defense is completely invalidating his unprecedented offensive success.
To call Kobe Bryant's defense this season bad is to call the Pacific Ocean big, or the sun hot. He hasn't just been bad and he's not just a liability. His presence on the defensive end of the court has actually become a detriment, in the truest sense of the word. And the worst part? He's not failing to play defense. He has willingly decided that he no longer needs to try.
Wednesday night's game against the Spurs was probably Kobe's worst defensive display of the season. Since a picture is worth a 1000 words, here's 10,000 words worth of evidence:
Play 1 - Ball Watching
We start off in the beginning of your typical San Antonio Spurs set. Tony Parker has the ball, Tim Duncan is ready to set a screen, and everybody else is behind the three point line. Kobe's defensive responsibility is some Argentinian scrub named Manu Ginobli.
Help defender still helping, original defender has gotten between the basket and the screener. The corner defenders have collapsed to the paint. This is pretty typical stuff. But things are about to get ugly. Take a look at the three pictures we've presented so far. Notice anything? Kobe Bryant hasn't moved ... like at all. He's standing in the exact same spot he was when the possession started. Sorry, I apologize. He has moved. After all, the ball went from the top of the circle to the paint, and he did turn his head to watch that event happen.
Having spent the entire possession being completely ignored, Manu Ginobli picks the appropriate time to run by a completely unaware Kobe Bryant. With the big man covering Parker into the lane and nobody else on the active roster over 6'7", Manu has a completely uncontested dunk.
My favorite part: Kobe Bryant, just enjoying the view as his defensive responsibility lays the ball easily in the basket. Look, people get back doored from time to time. As a defender in a team concept, you are supposed to pay attention to a lot of things all at once, and sometimes you lose sight of your primary responsibility. It happens. It happens way, way too often to Kobe these days, and we could easily grab a few more examples from this or any other game the Lakers play, but that's not the problem. Look at Kobe in picture one. Now back to Kobe here. Now back to picture one. Now back to here. Over the entirety of this defensive possession, Kobe Bryant took ONE step. Kobe didn't get back-doored because he was worried about helping. He didn't get back-doored because he was worried about rotating at the right time. He got back-doored because, on this defensive possession, he chose to be a spectator.
But wait, it gets worse ...
Play 2 - WTF (or The One Man Zone)
Now that we've seen Kobe play poor defense by not paying attention to his man when that man isn't moving, let's take a look at how Kobe handles the basic responsibility of running around when his defensive mark has decides to play a more active off-ball role. In this picture, Kobe Bryant is about to get screened.
Instead of just letting the screen happen, Kobe gets to the other side of the screener (nice work, Kobe!), but Danny Green pulls a switcheroo and runs down the middle with Kobe now on the wrong side of the screener. Not a big deal.
Umm ... OK. Kobe's man is under the basket. The screener has long since stopped paying attention to Kobe, who is at the edge of the paint. I'm no CSI investigator or anything, but the blurryness of Kobe's man makes it look like he's moving pretty fast, and Kobe is ... umm ... not. Yeah, I'm pretty sure Kobe is walking at this point. I'm interested to see what develops.
As the play continues, Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter run another screen/roll action. Antawn Jamison and Steve Nash are dealing with it the best they can. Kobe Bryant's man is running the baseline to get back to the three point line. Kobe Bryant: still not moving. Here's a list of things Kobe Bryant might be guarding at this point:
- The Spurs logo (which has no range, so you play back and wait for it to drive)
- The protagonist in Ralph Ellison's timeless classic, Invisible Man
- A dementor
Well would you look at that ... miraculously, the ball found its way back into the hands of the long forgotten man who was supposed to be Kobe Bryant's defensive responsibility, while Kobe is helping to guard a player who is A) already guarded and B) on the other side of the court. Here's the thing: you could make an argument that what Kobe was doing in the previous frame was acceptable, in a strong side zone type of scheme that we've seen from the Lakers before. It would be a terrible argument, because the Lakers pretty clearly don't play that scheme, but one could at least understand Kobe's concern at seeing two of the worst reputed defenders in the NBA deal with a pick and roll involving Tony Parker. But this frame shows how completely invalid that concept is, because Kobe ends up on the weak side of the ball with no intention to rotate, and his teammates have no idea what is going on (Robert Sacre eventually decided to challenge Green's shot, which obviously went in).
No, instead we have an even more clear example of Kobe Bryant just deciding to stop playing defense in the middle of a possession. It's one thing to do so when your man is stationary, to switch off for the wrong half second and get burned. It's another thing entirely to do so in the middle of a possession in which your man is actively running around the whole time. There is no possible excuse for this. It is brazenly, actively, detrimental to his team's defense.
On that possession, the Lakers would actually be better off if Kobe just said "Fuck it, I'm not crossing half court." At least then, one of the Spurs players would have had to worry about getting back to Kobe in the event of a made or missed shot. That worry, however small, would have had a more desirable defensive effect than Kobe's decision to just chill out near the lane mid-possession. You've probably heard people say "So and So is detrimental to his team's defense" before. They mean that the guy is so bad defensively that his team would be better off if he was replaced by somebody else who is more capable. But here, Kobe Bryant is literally detrimental to his team's defense, as in they would be better off defensively with just four players, because at least then they'd know they only have four players to defend with and could prepare accordingly.
The most frustrating part in all this madness? How clear it is that Kobe is choosing not to play defense. This is not about a lack of ability. Just the other day, Kobe went toe to toe with the single hardest cover in the league, Chris Paul. He held Paul to 2-6 fourth quarter shooting as the Clippers offense nearly melted down enough for the Lakers to steal the contest down the stretch. On the ball, the man can still defend very, very well when he wants to. Off the ball, he's been doing stuff like this for years, but now its gotten so ridiculous that it can no longer be ignored.
I get that the man is old, and may not have the energy to be a top notch two way player these days. I get, and can even agree with, the concept that the Lakers need Kobe to expend most of his energy on the offensive end of the court. If Kobe were just failing to close out on shooters, always going under screens, or gambling on steals, these misdemeanor defensive crimes could be forgiven. Believe me, as a fairly obese person who still manages to play full court basketball once or twice a week, you can play lazy defense and still be moderately effective. He doesn't have to go 100% on the defensive end. 80% can go a long way if you know what you are doing, and Kobe does. But he's not giving 80%. He's giving (maybe) 50%, and taking entire possessions off. It is completely unacceptable. Somebody has to call Kobe out on this. Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Mike D'Antoni, somebody has to tell Kobe that he needs to change this behavior. And if he doesn't (for all we know, and hope, this talk has already occurred), they need to go public. They need to throw in some kind of sly comment about how its hard to play defense four on five. If Kobe pulls that one man zone bullshit again, he should be benched. Kobe Bryant must be held accountable.
That Kobe Bryant, undisputed leader of this team, needs to be held accountable for horrific effort on defense tells you all you need to know about why this team is playing the way that it is. If the team's defense is terrible, it is because the team's leader is very clearly stating with his play that defense does not matter. If the team lacks chemistry, it is because it is tough to like and respect a guy so clearly hanging you out to dry on the defensive end. If the team's effort is inconsistent, it is because the team's leader only tries half the time. If nobody is doing the little things, it is because the team's leader isn't doing anything he doesn't want to do.
One of the most popular compliments to give Kobe Bryant is to talk about how he never gives up. Even when his team is losing, even when things look bleak, he still gives it everything he's got. He's a fighter. All of that remains half true, but his defensive effort, regardless of the score, is so bad that it bathes the whole concept in hypocrisy. You can say that Kobe Bryant never gives up, even when things look bleak, if you are paying attention to one side of the court. If you pay attention to the other side, Kobe Bryant gives up before the game even tilts in one direction or the other, for no apparent reason. When it comes to defensive effort, make no mistake: Kobe Bryant is tanking.
For many apparent reasons, the Los Angeles Lakers have been an abysmal failure to this point. Because he is in the midst of one of the greatest offensive seasons a man his age has ever produced, Kobe has rarely been discussed amongst those reasons why. At the same time, because the Lakers have failed dramatically, his spectacular offensive season is not getting nearly the attention you would expect, especially considering that he's doing it by reversing all the criticisms that have previously been thrown his way. But, when your team is losing (especially when they weren't supposed to), individual merits don't shine quite as brightly.
Unless things turn around, when history looks back on this ill-fated season, it will be said that one of Kobe Bryant's finest years, perhaps his best year ever, was wasted. One has to wonder if history will remember that Kobe Bryant also did the wasting.
Thanks to Drew Garrison for providing the visual evidence.