His presence on the defensive end of the court has actually become a detriment, in the truest sense of the word.
-Me, last Friday
That's probably the best defense anybody's played on me since I've been in the league.
-Brandon Jennings, last night
These two quotes, communicating messages that could not be more opposite if they were on the poles of a magnet, are about the same person. They were typed/spoken less than a week apart. And they are, or were, both true at the time.
A week ago, this humble scribe saw Kobe play defense so porous against the San Antonio Spurs that he felt the need to write 2,500 words on the subject and back up those words with some fancy pictures and diagrams (At this time, I'd like to apologize for quoting myself, but nobody with actual credibility could manage to spit out the words. Mike D'Antoni, for example, provided a quote regarding Kobe's off-ball defense which requires more ellipses than words to transcribe.) Now, just two games later, I'm ready to sing his praises. Was I wrong to criticize Kobe in the first place? Hardly. Has Kobe somehow transformed from a terrible defender to an amazing one overnight? You could say that.
But this isn't about Kobe's defensive success or merits. This is about an absolutely brilliant piece of basketball strategy, employee motivation and political maneuvering all rolled into one, and about complimenting whoever is responsible for making it happen.
Kobe's defense this season wasn't just a problem because of its on-court consequences. It also placed the team, the coaching staff, and the entire organization in a sticky situation. Do you do nothing as your star player neglects half the game? Do you sit back and just watch the rest of the team follow his lead in failing to prioritize defensive energy ahead of offense? Or do you take action in an attempt to correct the issue? What if Kobe doesn't respond to that action? Do you get more drastic? Do you start calling him out in public? Do you bench him as an example? Do you risk alienating the most important, most influential player on the team in order to serve the greater good?
It was an impossible situation, seemingly with no easy way out. I thought the time had come to risk that alienation, to call things as they were and make clear that, superstar or no, historic offensive season or not, nobody is above being held accountable for their defensive actions, Kobe included. I thought it was the only way to ensure some kind of resolution. I was wrong.
Instead, a solution has been found that provides the best of all possible scenarios. A solution that has Kobe Bryant flying around on the defensive end like a crazy dog, with his team following suit. A solution that has NBA players stunned after a game, wondering what on earth just happened. A solution which doesn't challenge Kobe's role as the leader of this team, but re-affirms it. Most importantly, a solution has been found which doesn't rely on forcing Kobe to take a long, hard look in the mirror and realize that his defensive effort hasn't been acceptable, that he needs to put more effort into an aspect of the game that he doesn't like all that much. Instead, the solution has done something far more impressive ... it has made Kobe Bryant want to play defense again.
For the past two games, and for the foreseeable future, Kobe Bryant will now guard the opposing team's primary ball handler. Its a strategy the Lakers have used before, on a case by case basis. In the past, it has been about mitigating the team's defensive weakness at the point guard position. That weakness continues to exist now more than ever, and it has been exacerbated by Kobe's atrocious off-ball defense. Moving Kobe to the primary ball handler kills two birds with one stone ... if Kobe can do it. Can Kobe do it? Can he guard the quickest guys in the league?
We only have a three game sample size (shoe-horning in last week's Clippers game in which Kobe spent a majority of the contest chasing Chris Paul), but oh what a sample size it is. Kyrie Irving is one of the game's toughest covers, and Chris Paul IS the game's toughest cover. Kobe has defended both of them with aplomb. He didn't shut them down, mind you. Paul went for 30 and 13, and Irving was 7-15 from the field, matching his season average shooting percentage. But, Kobe did cause Paul to struggle in the 4th quarter of that Lakers-Clippers contest - CP3 was 2-6 from the field with no assists and one turnover, and the Clippers offense melted down in the 4th, nearly allowing the Lakers to steal the game. And, though he shot OK from the field, Irving didn't get to the free throw line once, meaning he ended the game with as many shot attempts as points. So, yeah, Kobe can guard the quickest guys in the league.
This is not always going to seem like a great idea. The man is 34 years old. There will be nights where Kobe gets torched, nights where he doesn't have the legs to properly fight through all those screens. His offensive production will likely suffer, his efficiency will descend from the other-worldly back to where it has been his entire career, just good enough (or bad enough, depending on how you look at it) to allow for vigorous debate as to the wisdom of his shot attempts. And he will need to play less minutes to have even a remote chance of keeping up the energy he has displayed thus far (A huge kudos to Mike D'Antoni for pulling Kobe at the four minute mark last night while leaving Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in a while longer to ensure no late game shenanigans). There will come a point where wanting to meet the challenge will run head first into playing four games in six days, a night when the challenge doesn't seem quite so new or exciting, a game in which we will be reminded that Kobe has been playing basketball for 17 years and Father Time is the only person against whom defeat is inevitable. We will need to forgive these nights, and ignore them unless they become so frequent that it becomes necessary to challenge whether the idea is still beneficial. For now, Kobe has proven capable of handling the challenge.
And if he can handle it, he should, because guarding the primary ball handler appeals to Kobe's single greatest quality, his competitive nature. Kobe likes to score, and Kobe likes to win, but neither of these things is Kobe's favorite thing to do. Kobe's favorite activity in all the world is to beat YOU, whoever you are. There's a subtle difference between winning and beating somebody. Winning, in a team sport, is simply the act of doing your job collectively better than another team. There is glory in winning, even individual glory, but it lacks the catharsis of dominating your opponent, of knowing you are responsible for his failure, and having him know it, too. Kobe feeds off of that catharsis. It's why he likes the ball in his hands on offense, why he likes scoring so many points. It's why he doesn't particularly care for off-ball defense these days, and why his defensive effort tails off even more when facing a player that lacks credentials. Kobe lives for the challenge of staring into somebody's eyes and consuming their soul.
Now, Kobe can have that challenge every night. He can have the responsibility of shutting down the guy who makes the offense tick. He can know that his defensive effort is providing an important contribution to the act of beating the opponent. Having that responsibility ensures a level of engagement that running around and chasing Danny Green just doesn't present. Best of all, It puts Kobe in position to lead his team by example while doing something he likes to do.
I'm not sure whose idea this was. In the past, when the Lakers have implemented this strategy, it has been at Kobe's request, and it is certainly possible that is what happened here. A man as smart as Kobe is has to know that the effort he was providing on defense was unacceptable, and this could have been his way of re-charging his own defensive batteries, a self-'Jedi mind trick' similar to all those "grudges" Michael Jordan was so good at drumming up. It could be his way of re-prioritizing his defensive effort without actually acknowledging the need for the re-prioritization.
My great hope, however, is that Mike D'Antoni was the genesis of this new defensive strategy. That Coach Mike saw the problem we all saw, and came up with a solution as diplomatic as it was effective. One of the highest tenets of management is to encourage success by putting those in your charge in the best position to succeed. If D'Antoni is capable of coaxing Kobe Bryant, one of the most stubborn superstars ever to grace the NBA, into a position from which he is more primed to be successful, then MDA is a great manager. If D'Antoni came up with an idea to maximize Kobe Bryant's defensive talent while at the same time ensuring Kobe Bryant's effort, then he is a great coach. And if he got Kobe to buy in to the idea, whether it included a conversation about how Kobe's previous effort was unacceptable or not, then D'Antoni is a great communicator. If the idea for the Lakers' new defensive strategy originated with the man who is ostensibly in charge of all the Lakers' strategies, there can be no doubt that man is capable of leading a team full of superstars on the path to success.
One of these two men, either Kobe Bryant or Mike D'Antoni, came up with this idea, and then sold it to the other one. We can't be sure who did what. What we can tell is this: Whoever decided that Kobe might better serve the team by guarding the opponent's primary ball handler is a genius, and he just might (though it's far too early to tell) have saved the Lakers season.