The Los Angeles Lakers are now 1-4, Mike Brown is the scapegoat whether right or wrong, and things overall look dysfunctional in Lakerland. Lost in the shuffle of all of the finger pointing and disappointment is how hot of a start one Kobe Bean Bryant has had. Up till the latest defeat at the hands of the Utah Jazz, Kobe has been a surgeon out on the hardwood. 59.7% shooting from the field, 52.9% from deep, 25.8 points per game on 16.8 field goals. That's some quality work right there, cranking his true shooting percentage up to 71% (last season he hit a career low at 52.7% True Shooting) So how has he been doing it? What is the Mamba's secret? Phillip Barnett from ESPN TrueHoop Networks's Lakers Blog, Forum Blue & Gold, and I partnered up and took a look at the film to find out what exactly the Lakers have done to get Kobe off to a great start despite an otherwise disheartening season.
Bringing Howard Out of the Paint - Phillip
Until Darius pointed it out to us earlier this week, I hadn't noticed how much space Dwight Howard was creating by coming up to the high post. In Darius' post, he explains how Pau was able to get some touches in the low post by inverting the bigs for a few plays per game. In the following set, the Lakers ran a 1-4 high set which started off with Kobe entering to Pau on the left wing and clearing out to the opposite side. Pau swung the ball to Nash who then hit Howard in the high post. As Nash clears out Pau comes down to set a down screen for him as Kobe is using a Ron screen to pop out. Already, there is tons of movement in this set which is fantastic. What makes this set unique is that all of the action is happening away from Kobe.
Nash slips as he turns the corner around Pau's screen. He was obviously going to take a hand-off from Howard considering the direction he was going and how high Howard was. My guess is that Nash was going to use the lane created by the spacing to penetrate and either get off a floater or dish to Nash should his man leave him to stop Nash. Since none of this happens, Kobe continues moving toward the ball until Batum turns his head, giving Kobe the opportunity to cut behind him with a wide open lane. Ron was still at the right wing, Howard was still high on the left wing and Pau wasn't exactly on the left block as he tried to help out on the broken play.
The result is a wide open layup for Kobe mainly due to the spacing underneath the basket afforded to him with Howard catching the ball at 17+ feet. Also, Kobe with some weak side movement as the defense is focused on the action surrounding Howard/Nash/Pau really helped to open things up. In years past, you couldn't get that many sets of eyes off of Kobe simply because the Lakers didn't have the personnel to hold the attention of opposing defense. Check out the tape.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/xufIdtiKXqw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Cuts and Defensive Rotation Advantages - Drew
The most noticeable thing Kobe Bryant has done through the season thus far is attack the paint. This has mainly been through the use of cuts, but he has also been driving from the perimeter decisively when the ball is in his hands. Kobe's tendency to go into isolation jab step dance dance revolution mode has gotten a bit out of hand in recent years. It's refreshing to see him willing to lower his shoulder and drive straight to the rim. If he's matched up against a slower defender, like a Matt Barnes for example, he can push right by without an issue and get to the second layer of the defense. The hope has to be, even if matched up against an elite perimeter defender (say, Andre Iguodala, who will body and move his feet to keep Kobe in front of him), Kobe will at the very least draw a foul. Considering how crafty Kobe is at this point in his career, if he get's even a whiff of the rim that's an issue for the other team to account for. Once the defense sinks in to put a body in front of Kobe, the possibilities begin to branch out. A) He still manages to get the bucket B) He is fouled in the process C) He recognizes a soft spot in the defense and gets the ball to the open teammate or D) He misses.
The "good" thing about him missing, though, is that it creates a great chance for an offensive rebound. If the defense is having to rotate and turn their backs to Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, or Jordan Hill the probability of getting an offensive board shoots through the roof. The Lakers' three primary bigs have great offensive rebound percentages, with Hill grabbing an insane 24.8%, Howard with 13.2%, and Gasol gobbling up 10.8% of the available boards. Simply put, if the defense's bigs are having to move out of position, the chances that there is a Laker waiting to take advantage of this and erase the miss are very high. With the Lakers are shooting the ball at 50.3% over the first four games giving them extra possessions will have them putting points on the board in a hurry. Howard, Gasol, and Hill will gladly feast on wide open gimmies at the rim off of rebounds. Here, Kobe completely loses his defender on a backdoor cut. With nothing between him and the rim, the defender that is sitting under the rim with Pau is forced to rotate and try and force a miss from Bryant, which he does successfully. But, leaving Gasol alone under the rim proves to be deadly and it's an easy two points for the Spaniard. While it was a miss in the end for Kobe it was still a good basketball play that led to easy points for Los Angeles.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/CddJhjBRGYU?list=UUyGuXzPIaXICCcCuoKwmd-Q&hl=en_US" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
The Option Read - Phillip
This is a set that the Lakers have run a few times this season. Kobe will set up on the strong side wing with either Pau or Dwight (Dwight in this case) in the low block on his side. As Nash brings the ball up, Dwight moves up the line and receives the ball in the pinch post. Nash enters the ball into Howard and heads to rub off of Howard's right shoulder, Kobe his left.
Both Nash and Kobe reach Howard at the same time, effectively setting screens on the man guarding the other guy (Nash screen's Kobe's man and vice versa). As both men start to turn their respective corners, Howard makes an option to hand the ball off to one of his guys, which is Kobe more often than not. Again, with Howard being brought out of the high post, Kobe essentially has an open lane as he attacks the basket.
By the time the defense starts collapsing on Kobe, he's already began his gather toward the rim and is laying the ball in by the time defenders start to jump. Check out the clip below and see how the design of this set was to get Kobe an easy bucket around the rim instead of having him take a jump shot.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/EAqu-8TWRaw" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
The Sneaky Spaniard Screen (SSS) - Drew
The cutting and driving Kobe has been doing is really just a pretty bow to place on the gift that is Kobe Bryant the offensive player. His skill set is still remarkable in his 17th season in the NBA. While he has been getting high percentage looks around the rim, he remains a threat from almost anywhere on the court, in any situation. In this play Matt Barnes is matched up with Kobe Bryant in a half court set. For the majority of the night Kobe had attacked Barnes by driving through to the rim. Because of this tendency, Barnes clearly prepared to play Kobe one to one and expected another drive. Then, boom, he's blindsided by a HUGE screen from Pau Gasol.
With the space created from the screen, Kobe immediately takes advantage of the mismatch created with Blake Griffin having to rotate, and gets up a fall away jumper that is nothing but net. The variety of ways the Los Angeles Lakers can utilize Kobe Bryant is key in keeping the opponents off balance. Work him off ball in cuts, hand-offs, in the post, and off of screens. Defenders already know they have to deal with a mixed bag of tricks against Kobe in one on one situations, but layer in the macro game of using different ways to get him those looks makes this an even trickier slope to scale. Blake Griffin does a good job of switching onto Kobe and preventing him from getting into the paint, but giving Kobe that much space to operate in generally means he will find a way to score. Just too skilled without anyone pestering him.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/7OrBdLcSsuc?list=UUyGuXzPIaXICCcCuoKwmd-Q&hl=en_US" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Read, Cut, and Read - Both
Drew: This cut from Kobe is just a flat our pretty basketball play. Metta World Peace is one of the most maddening Lakers right now, his up and down play leaves me shaking my head and laughing at times, but he puts this pass right on the money for Kobe. Tayshaun Prince is caught with his pants down essentially while he looks at MWP attempt to dribble around in the corner and Kobe immediately cuts through the key. This play really drives everything home, to me. Kobe again cuts off ball and it forces the defense to shift their bigs to try and account for it. The layup went down, but if it had missed, Dwight Howard was in prime position to swoop up the offensive board and get an easy put-back basket.
Phillip: Like Andrew said, this was just a fantastic play. Ron obviously wasn't going to get anything in transition there, but Kobe made a great cut on the secondary break and Ron made an excellent pass that slipped right behind Tayshaun Prince. What I enjoyed about this, and what we've seen Kobe take advantage of a few times this year, is Kobe using his old habits to take advantage of defenders. More often than not, Kobe would prefer to pop out or hold off his man around the perimeter and extend an arm to receive a pass. Knowing this, Prince is playing a lot higher than he should trying to prevent the kick out to Kobe. Bean slips right behind Prince and receives the ball from Artest in stride to get an easy lay in.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/q8atCgIwOAk?list=UUyGuXzPIaXICCcCuoKwmd-Q&hl=en_US" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
The Princeton offense features a great deal of cutting and motion, but it also drives home basic basketball principles. Kobe Bryant has looked rejuvenated and like the much more efficient superstar shooting guard I projected not too long ago. It's unlikely these numbers maintain throughout the stress of an 82 game season, but the fact that the possibility is there for him to produce at these levels for, say, 4-7 game stretches is a great sign for a team that is much more concerned with the micro management in a playoff series as opposed to the macro outlook of a full season. There will be games and moments where Kobe takes over and applies the usual hero ball tactics. It's just who he is. But the hope is with the positive results this style of play has reflected so far can carry on and create good habits for not only Bryant, but the team overall. Many thanks again to Phillip Barnett from Forum Blue & Gold for collaborating with us here at Silver Screen & Roll.
Follow this author on Twitter @BallReasons