With the news of Kobe returning to the practice court, it feels that without any further setbacks, the two-time Finals MVP's return is imminent. So the question now is: with a dozen games in the books, what will be the biggest effect Kobe's return will have on the Lakers offense AND defense? Will it be negative or positive?
The Great Mambino
This roundtable's headline sums it all up: Kobe's return will affect nearly every aspect of what the Lakers will do on and off the court.
Let me preface this by saying that it's extremely difficult to predict just how Kobe will look during his recovery from surgery because very few athletes, let alone NBA athletes, have ever attempted a comeback at such a high profile and such an elite level. Until we see him on the court, there's really no telling just how much athleticism, quickness and strength he'll have left in those legs.
That all being said, I'm going to expect that there will be a lengthy adjustment period for Kobe once he returns. He should be quite a step slower, a combination of his post-surgery recovery and the fact that he hasn't been able to keep to his usual offseason regimen. What this all spells, at the very least, is a disaster defensively. Kobe was--to say the least--a defensive disaster last year. The popular conception is that Bean went full-on "DH", conserving all his energy for offense and regularly allowing opponents blow right past him (this practice is currently known as the "James Harden Special"). He gambled hard on half court possessions and often couldn't even be bothered to stick his arms up while contesting shots. What do you think happens to all of this when Kobe's lateral movement and explosive quickness is compromised? Defensive. Disaster. The real question will be if Kobe is a worse alternative to guys like Jodie Meeks, Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry, whose minutes he'll be taking? None of those players are stoppers exactly, but for all their faults they throw in maximum effort on that end of the floor. I don't know if I can say the same about Kobe's D anymore.
Offensively, Kobe's effectiveness was based on the fact that he was effective just about anywhere. How could a defense trap a guy that had a plan for just about anywhere on the floor? My fear is that as Kobe slowly comes back from what is sometimes a career-ending injury, he'll be a disruptive presence as he tries to find out what exactly he can and cannot do anymore. I suspect that he'll settle in as a fixture on the low post, using his footwork and playmaking to become a force down low, as strange as that is to conceptualize. However, before he gets there, he'll be yet another slow footed veteran that's mucking up the vision Mike D'Antoni has for his offense. Last week, MDA professed that the Lakers aren't slow, but aren't fast--they simply lacked an identity. Usually, I would think that a returning Kobe Bryant would help put the offense into focus. All the complexities of his return--which Drew touched upon in his piece yesterday--will prevent that from happening, perhaps across an entire season.
Honestly, I think the premise of this question is flawed. I suspect that Kobe Bryant's impact on the team's product, its offense and its defense, will most likely be negative, at least at the start. Kobe was a massive defensive liability last year, and that was as a (relatively) healthy man on a team with championship aspirations (LOL) and an alpha-dog fight in the locker room. Kobe should have had the motivation to be one of the team's defensive captains, holding his team and himself to the high standard he knows is part of a championship oeuvre. Instead, he was the worst offender when it came to poor defensive behaviors, and I think the team's morale suffered, in part, because of Kobe's attitude towards defense. So yeah, the idea that he will improve significantly while he's recovering from such a significant injury and learning how to deal with his new athleticism reality, on a team that doesn't have a Larry O'Brien trophy at the finish line, seems a bit ludicrous. And the offense could very well be a problem because Kobe will surely need to re-learn the game of basketball in this new, compromised, body of his. Kobe has never been one to back off or dial back, even when he's struggling with something. Now, Kobe has the biggest struggle of his career ahead of him, and unless his injury has given him a new lease on basketball, it'll be ugly at first as he fights through the re-adjustment period.
But really, what does it matter? Winning basketball games is not the Lakers' #1 priority this season. Nor is losing them. The Lakers #1 priority this season is determining how they want to proceed in the future, from how they want to pursue free agents, to which free agents they want to pursue, to who (if any) of the young guys they've brought in might be worth keeping as a role player in the next iteration of the franchise, to who they want to have coaching the team of the future, and most importantly, whether or not they want to ride with Kobe Bryant all the way into the sunset or cut the ride short now. So it doesn't matter if Kobe makes the defense struggle. It doesn't matter if Kobe makes the offense struggle. What matters is that the Lakers utilize this season to help Kobe get to peak performance, find out along the way exactly what that peak is, and determine whether they can construct a contending team around that peak or not. All while doing so at a slow enough rate so as not to jeopardize Kobe's recovery any further. How will Kobe effect the offense and the defense? My answer is simple: I don't care.
However, I do care what effect Kobe has on the team's overall morale. If there is one thing that has been surprisingly excellent so far this season, it is the spirit with which the team is playing (except you, Jordan Farmar, c'mon man keep your head up). They've been slaughtered a few times and been beaten a few more, but this team plays hard, they play smart in their own way, and I don't think it can be questioned that they have out-performed the talent that they bring to the court every night. They've been able to achieve all this, in large part, because of a mentality in which nobody is bigger than the team. Therein lies the problem with Kobe's return: He is undoubtedly bigger than the team; literally, in this case. I just talked about how the team's wins and losses from this point forward are irrelevant in comparison to helping Kobe recover the best that he can. Will Kobe be so forgiving of Nick Young's terrible shot selection? Will he get upset when Shawne Williams clangs a three point attempt? The last time Kobe played on a team with so little talent, his answer was to take everything on himself and score 35 a game. He can't do that with this team, both because he will not have the physical capability and stamina to do so and because if he does, it will absolutely destroy not only the team's rhythm, but also its morale.
Kobe's impact on the team morale will be critical this season. He has a history of not being the easiest teammate in the world, and now he has last year's fiasco to overcome in fighting that reputation. I hold Dwight Howard much more accountable for the issues of last year than I do Kobe, but Kobe didn't exactly come out of that situation clean and sparkly, especially when considering his previous rep. All of this matters a great deal, because the only way the Lakers can have their cake and eat it too when it comes to the next couple years of roster building is to convince one or two of the league's finest stars that they want to come play with Elder Statesmen Kobe. If Kobe can't show the ability to fit in with this team, it will go a long way towards proving he wasn't the problem last year. If he can't, the Lakers will have to give serious consideration to the fact that they may need to choose between loyalty to the Mamba, or increasing their odds at landing the next big superstar. I think we'd all prefer them not to have to make that choice.
Kobe's main effect is going to be on offense and while one should err on the side of having an elite player on that end helping things, there is a legitimate possibility that he has a negative effect off the bat. The Lakers' offense hasn't necessarily been good so far this year -- 25th in offensive efficiency -- but when things are going well, the ball is being shared in a highly egalitarian manner as the basic flow of the offense seeks the best available shot. Kobe Bryant has been many things in his career, but a guy who engenders an egalitarian shot selection he is not. Unless Kobe exceeds the career high assist rate he had last season, there is going to be a rough transition period in which the total possessions are redistributed and guys have to figure out how to fill a new role next to a ball-dominating perimeter player. How does Steve Blake react when he is no longer the primary ballhandler and doesn't have the freedom to act off the dribble as he has been doing with great success the past few games? Does Jodie Meeks curb some of his aggressiveness and go back to more of a passive spot-up role whenever Kobe is on the floor? And as we joked about in the summer, can a Kobe and Nick Young pairing last without the Kobe death glare from Utah last season resurfacing every other possession? Even Hill, who tends to create a good portion of his offense by attacking the boards, may have to adjust to a new pick-and-roll partner who probably doesn't have close to the same synergy that he currently enjoys with Blake and Farmar.
Lest we forget, a big portion of the problems last year was caused by players returning from injury at irregular intervals and forcing an already confused offensive identity to readjust to new personnel. For a guy like Kobe who defines a huge portion of what you do on offense, this is especially the case. Now, let's be clear: Kobe is in the end going to help the offense because great shot creators tend to do that in this league, but the reality of how shaky this aforementioned transition goes is entirely dependent on his approach to his return. The team has settled on a certain rhythm and identity that has them punching way above their weight class; you don't beat the Clippers or the Rockets without this being the case. Kobe's goal is to figure out how to best integrate himself into this framework without subsuming it under the needs of his individual game. This doesn't mean that Kobe should stop the occasionally ball-stopping stuff he's made a career on such as his perimeter isolations or elbow area post-ups, as the team can work around those things. It does mean, however, that Kobe needs to do some of the stuff that has made the offense click in recent games. There's no reason he can't get a half-dozen points per game off the ball on Meeks' baseline cuts, dish a similar number of assists to his partners in the pick-and-roll, and give Blake some room to run the show from time to time as he takes attention away from the play on the weak side.
A lot of attention will also be devoted to how Kobe shakes up a rotation that had begun to settle on something approaching stability. Thankfully, there's little Kobe can do to stop the next most important player on the team in Hill from getting the minutes he deserves, although he will change the playing time of a good portion of the squad's wings. Xavier Henry, who has not managed to follow up his seemingly breakout performances with any measure of consistency, is the most likely causality here, and both Meeks and Young are going to see their minutes curtailed as well. Seeing that Meeks and Young have been some of the key sources of production recently for the team along with Blake, whose role is likely to change significantly, we have a problem here. It is incumbent on Kobe to not only replace (and surpass) their production, but to ensure that everyone can still operate at a high level with him in the fold.
We haven't even gotten to Kobe's defense, a part of his game in which he essentially abandoned any pretense of caring about last season. No one is asking Kobe to act as the primary stopper and check someone like Kyrie Irving all game as he has in the past, but he also needs to at least appear as if he gives a damn about this end of the floor. It doesn't require that much energy to stay next to his man, not lose him through one screen, and not pass the buck to a bewildered teammate who is in no position to help. This isn't as big of a deal as his offense because Kobe isn't exactly replacing any defensive stalwarts at his position, although Kobe can easily make it noticeable by demonstrating how big the difference between "average" and "complete liability" is. Again, the scheme doesn't have to demand a whole lot out of Kobe here: it just has to be something appreciably above zero.
All of this presumes that we're dealing with a Kobe who is still performing at an elite level, of course. The scariest possibility -- or not if you want the Lakers to hop back onto the tanking train -- is that we have a still limited Kobe who hasn't accepted the reality of the situation and is still demanding a prodigious usage rate even when he no longer possesses the ability to be efficient with all of those possessions. Hopefully this isn't the case and Kobe has spent most of his rehab stewing over ways to turn whatever he can get out of his body into tangible results on the court, but the worst thing Kobe can do is to wreck the current offensive identity by essentially using entire contests to shoot himself back into form. That's not just bad for the offense -- and the defense if he feels it necessary to "conserve energy" for an already limited offensive production -- it's detrimental to a team chemistry that seems to be looking exceptionally good as of late. Should D'Antoni have to spend press conferences making excuses for Kobe's poor play and his teammates privately fret over how Kobe's presence has destabilized what was a pretty good thing going on, it's not going to produce positive vibes for a club that needs to be positively bathed in them going into a monumental offseason for the franchise.
I'll go the other way and play devil's advocate a bit. I think Kobe will immediately help the offense. I don't suspect he'll be as dangerous driving to the rim -- an area he was phenomenal in last year and was one of the season's pleasant surprises -- but he'll still be able to put in work around the low block and mid-range. As mentioned repeatedly this season, the Lakers offensive efficiency doesn't even reside in the "kinda good" neighborhood right now, so I think it'll only go up. Part of the problem has been not knowing where the offense will funnel through at times, leading to the team having handful of players who are scoring at least 10 points but less than 14.
It's actually kinda humorous looking at the Lakers' leading scorers. It's obvious they need "that guy" to come in and be a reliable threat on offense. I expect -- and I'm stupid for having any expectations but hey that's what we do -- the team will ease him into minutes. That will be key as he learns what he can, and can't, do comfortably. The Lakers' don't have to feel pinched to play Kobe roughly all of the minutes. Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson can all soak time at either small forward or shooting guard, and the team isn't in a win at all costs death race.
On defense. Well. Common sense says this is the area where Kobe will most negatively effect the team. He's been a cause of eye rolls for the past few seasons, getting particularly bad last year, but this could be even worse now as he's completely out of game shape. It's not that any of those other guys are defensive stoppers, but for the most part they still exert a ton of energy on defense even if ineffective. This goes back to my point above -- limiting his minutes and playing him sparingly while he rounds into shape is going to be the most important part of integrating him into the team and the game of basketball.
Either way, I can't wait to see him make his return. Very excited to watch Kobe Bryant do his best to prove doubters, and injuries, wrong.