[Author's Note: Wondahbap and I both wanted to run similar stories about last night's game, so we've combined it into one piece. You can't have joint authors on SB Nation, but please consider this as coming from both of us.]
Last night, Kobe Bryant eclipsed Jerry West as the greatest scorer in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers. Take a step back and think about what that means. The Lakers are one of, if not the, premier franchises in all of professional sports. This event is akin to somebody breaking the all time hits record as a Yankee, the all time touchdowns record for the Steelers, the all time goals record for Manchester United. It's an extremely big deal, a record that we aren't likely to see broken again in our lifetime. And yet, as it seems to happen all too often with Kobe Bryant, the moment failed to live up to its storybook potential.
That Kobe broke the record on the road is a coincidence, a by-product of the fact that roughly 50% of all records are broken on the road. That the record came in a loss is unfortunate, certainly souring the moment a little bit, but you don't win all the games you play in, no matter how much you want it. But the record also came amidst the frustration of Kobe's second banana, Pau Gasol, and his coach Phil Jackson, who both felt strongly enough about the subject to voice their displeasure with the way the offense was run, as Kevin Ding wrote last night. On a night when Kobe passing the Logo should have had top billing, shot selection and a lack of "pounding the ball inside" are now the story.
This always seems to happen to Bryant. He scores 81 points in a game, and people call him selfish. Same with when he had a higher scoring average than anybody not named Jordan or Chamberlain. He wins the MVP, but he can't win the championship. He wins the Finals MVP, but "maybe Pau Gasol deserved it more". Far too few simply appreciate his contributions and status in the game. And, while their criticisms may be quite valid, I can't help but question the timing of PJ and Pau's comments.
Pau and Phil both wanted the offense to take the ball inside a lot more than it did in last night's game, and looking at the box score, it's hard to blame them. The two players who are the most efficient at putting the ball into the basket, Pau and Andrew Bynum, took 10 shots combined. There's no way that should happen in any game. One can understand their frustration with Kobe, who, between his 28 shots and 13 free throws, used nearly three times the posessions that the bigs used. But I take serious issue with the underlying sentiment behind their statements. Just below the surface is the idea that the Lakers lost last night because Kobe was gunning for the record.
Make no mistake, Kobe was gunning last night. One doesn't take more than 30% of a team's shots without the mentality that every posession is another opportunity to score. There were plenty of questionable shots from KB24, plenty of times when we could all scream "C'mon Kobe, you know better than that!" At no point was this clearer than on the final play of the game. The Lakers didn't need 3 points, and had plenty of time to work for whatever shot they wanted. Instead, Kobe dribbled out most of the clock, only to fling a pass to Ron Artest as Ron Ron threw up a quick 3 that didn't fall. To be honest, it wasn't a horrible decision to go for the win, nor was it a horrible decision to pass to Artest. The Lakers had been tired all night, and overtime might not have gone well for them. Artest had been shooting the ball well all night long. But, one can't help but wonder if Kobe were trying to set up another game winner, to have the storybook ending to his record setting night. You can credit him with not forcing a shot if you'd like to, but don't pretend like he wasn't looking for the opportunity.
However, Kobe was NOT gunning for the record, he was gunning for the win. How many times have we seen this? Kobe saw the team come out listless to start the game. It was the 8th game of an 8 game road trip, the second night of a back to back. He wasn't sure his team would be able to increase their energy level enough to pull out a victory. So he took over. He did the same thing last season, and scored 62 points in MSG to help the Lakers beat the Knicks, just as he's done it so many times before. It's one thing to not appreciate the mentality he takes on in these types of situations, but misrepresenting his intentions is a dangerous road to go down.
And besides, for all of Kobe's gunning, it's not like he's the reason they lost, or even the reason why the bigs didn't get enough shots. Fact of the matter is, Kobe converted 16 of 28 shots. He got to the free throw line A LOT (though his conversion of those free throws left a lot to be desired). Considering the circumstances, and the level of success he was having, I really don't have a problem with his game. It's all the other perimeter shooting that should be the subject of scorn. Lamar Odom went 2-9, with a ton of mid range jumpers. Derek Fisher was at his inopportune shooting worst, 1-6 on the night. Jordan Farmar chipped in with an ugly 2-7 clip, including 1-5 from 3 pt range.
And yet, as good as Kobe was last night, Pau and Phil do have a point. There is something wrong with the Lakers offense this season. It's fallen off quite a bit from last year's powerhouse. As Kelly Dwyer said the other day, there's simply no reason a team with this many weapons should be 9th in offense. This team's ball movement leaves a lot to be desired. Ron Artest's discomfort within the offense is only a portion of the problem. Kobe's shot selection is even less of the issue. But the fact remains, far too often the offense does not run from the inside out, as it should. Even more often, the ball goes inside, kicked out to the perimeter, and the bigs never see the ball again. There are entire games where the number of times the ball gets re-posted can be counted on one hand.
As this one game showed, Kobe's not the entire problem. Derek Fisher is the problem., Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown are the problems. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum not establishing good position is the problem. The entire team is the problem, and therein lies the rub. While Kobe may not be the actual problem, it is Kobe's problem to solve. If the entire team is failing to exhibit the proper behavior in running the offense, it's Kobe's job to show them how. That's the role he's chosen for himself, it's the role he wants. He is undoubtedly the team's leader, and he needs to lead them by showing them what it means to run the triangle properly. He needs to realize that Pau Gasol is absolutely abusing Hasheem Thabeet, and send it down to the Spaniard at every opportunity. Last season, the Lakers had one of the best offenses in the league, and Artest for Ariza isn't what's keeping L.A. from getting it back. Whatever is preventing the offense from firing on all cylinders, Kobe needs to be the one who gets it back in gear. And not by taking another shot.
It remains to be seen how this whole thing ends up. Kobe could take Pau's comments badly, could see them as further marring an occasion that clearly means a lot to Bryant. Or, he could realize that the comments came out of the frustration of losing a winnable game. He could realize that he's finally got a running mate who cares about winning as much ... almost as much as he does. More than at any other time, this is the first indication that there could be cracks in the foundation of the Lakers success. Those cracks could be only on the surface, easily fixed with a little spackle. Or they could be more significant, just waiting for the next big earthquake to come along and cause the whole thing to collapse. Only time will tell.
Under all the angles, the sad truth remains. Last night, Kobe became the greatest scorer in Lakers franchise history, and all he's got to show for it is a loss and team frustration.