A couple of weeks ago, our weekly Silver Screen & Roundtable focused on how Kobe will affect the team's offense and defense going forward. Regardless of the different answers from our esteemed writers, the message was uniformly the same: Bryant's return will undoubtedly alter the on-court look of the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers. There is simply no way that a player of Kobe's stature and, hopefully, skill level can take his place on the court and not see profound ripple effects on nearly every area. In my mind, this season will be squarely divided up into two areas--B.K. and A.K....Before Kobe and After Kobe.
That being said, as we're surely about to depart the 2013-2014 B.K. Era, whose on-court responsibilities, defensively or offensively, will be changed most by Kobe's return? And with nearly a quarter of the season gone, who is your B.K. MVP?
The Great Mambino
The obvious answer here is either Xavier Henry or Shawne Williams, who, as we discussed on the Silver Screen & Rollcast a couple of weeks ago, will most likely have their playing time reduced to nil with Kobe's return. However, with regard to the players who will continue to have roles, the answer here has got to be Nick Young.
I've never liked Nick Young--please seek no further evidence than this small forward preview piece I wrote before the season. There are so many things he does that grate on me: his predestined fadeaway jumper on every shot, regardless of whether or not it requires spacing; his improved but still loafing defense; the knowledge that once in motion, a "next pass" is a foolish aspiration; the knowledge that no one should even be wishing for said pass, because Nick Young is a terrible passer; the celebrations on made three-pointers regardless of the execution, score or consequence of the shot. I could go on.
Still, I've been even more surprised at how much less it's bothered me with him as a Laker than it has in the past (surprise, surprise). All those same qualities (well, some of them) leave him as a tremendous bench asset that, if hot, can single-handedly wrest control of games. He's a tremendous spot-up shooter and can break opponents off the dribble like few other teammates can on the perimeter. Other than that, I'm not sure how many other NBA-caliber qualities he possesses.
Therein lies the problem: with Kobe's imminent return, half of those responsibilities will be taken away. Bryant's role as an iso-playmaker is legendary, and I suspect that even coming back from such a debilitating injury, he'll continue to hold that responsibility. It may not be on the perimeter moving inward as we've gotten used to, but I can see Bean backing down defenders in the post more frequently than in years past. With that, Nick Young's role should be reduced significantly.
I'm not sure there is a player who will have not only his responsibilities on the court changed, but his very basketball identity adjusted more by Kobe's presence than Nick Young. To his credit, he has done an awful lot to prove that he's not a remorseless gunner, whether it's getting open shots off curls, giving a game effort towards trying to find lanes to the rim, or trying to tone down the whole "sending up a completely hopeless shot with multiple defenders draped all over him" thing. He's steadily realized that Mike D'Antoni's system will not prevent him at all from seeking the shot totals he craves, so long as the context he shoots in is one that meshes with the offensive flow on the floor. Still, those patented Nick Young sequences are still a thing and to a certain extent, he needs that freedom within the system to fire up shots in order to find whatever personal rhythm makes him tick.
The problem is that when Kobe Bryant is on the floor, you do not continue on with your own rhythm: you subordinate it to whatever he wants to do. We've noted multiple times that Kobe needs to fit into the preexisting framework that the team has ridden to its surprising success this season, but as with Young, it is hard for Kobe to shake who he is on the court. He's still controlling a vast amount of the team's available possessions and judging what he wants to do by how the defense reacts to him. From a more simple perspective, the reality is that Kobe leaves Young with fewer shots to work with and when they're together, there's not exactly a lot of license for Young to freestyle on his own, even it is nominally within the system. Perhaps it would be best for D'Antoni to stagger their minutes as much as humanely possible, a tough task to accomplish considering how important each stands to be to the team's production on the wings. We joked about how the two could co-exist in the offseason, but it's a rather critical issue for the team to sort through at the moment.
As for who the B.K. MVP is, can we give it to anyone besides Steve Blake? Jordan Hill has fallen off recently after a torrid start to his tenure as a starter; Young has had ups and downs and doesn't exactly contribute in any area besides scoring (and the occasional clutch charge); and while Jodie Meeks and Jordan Farmar come close, Blake has been the most important to how the team operates offensively. It was clear last year that he was well-suited for D'Antoni's offense, but this year has taken that to an entirely new level. His probing through the defense helps set up the rest of the offense as the bigs try to get free for cuts to the rim and spot-up shooters become open as the defense attempts to adjust. Blake is the one intimately familiar with how this process occurs and as a result, is consistently prepared to dish out the appropriate passes, as one can see in the rather shocking assist totals he is putting up this year. Farmar's recent resurgence has taken a bit of the pressure off Blake to create so much -- seriously, Blake is basically running marathons out there every possession with how often he moves through the defense probing -- but it is very difficult to imagine the Lakers having this kind of success so far without Blake at the helm. One hates to say it, but Steve Nash's absence gave this team the ability to forge its identity under Blake's auspices and it's certainly been an impressive one.
A lot of the answer depends on how Kobe Bryant comes back; will he look to distribute more, or to go into scoring mode? That said, I think the guy whose responsibilities will change the most is Steve Blake. As things currently stand, Blake has the ball in his hands the vast majority of the time he's on the court, as a point guard should. But, with Kobe back in the fold, it seems unlikely that Blake's majority ownership of the ball on offense will change. The ball will find Kobe, and whether Kobe then gives the ball to other people or keeps it mostly for himself, Steve Blake's role in the team will already be changed, especially if and when the other Lakers PGs come back and Blake is fighting for minutes in a 3 PG rotation with a ball dominant Kobe Bryant in the mix as well.
As for B.K. MVP, I believe it is written into Kobe's contract that the Lakers best player must be a shooting guard at all times, because I'm giving the nod to Jodie Meeks. He's the team's best shooter overall (although nipped at the finish line by Xavier Henry, of all people, from three point range) and he has completed the single strangest and most impressive transformation from one year to the next that I think I've ever seen from a role player. Guys like Jodie, as far into their careers as he is, do not change their game significantly, and yet Jodie's newfound ability to finish at the rim makes him nearly unrecognizable as a player. Meeks was so bad at the rim last year that his failures spawned memes. Now, outside of maybe Wes Johnson or Jordan Hill (two superb athletes with great size), there is literally nobody on the team you would rather have charging at the basket in transition.
This is a tough one because, if I've learned anything with Mike D'Antoni over the last two seasons, it's impossible to tell what the final rotation will look like once Kobe comes back. There's a large chunk of the roster -- Xavier Henry, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson -- that are about to lose playing time even if Kobe plays limited minutes. Meeks has been great this season and is playing with confidence unheard of, Henry has been a pleasant surprise and is fresh off a career night, Young has both OOH and UGH moments and Wesley Johnson is doing well to good to I daresay great at times.
Someone's getting their minutes cut for the Black Mamba, though, and that someone is going to have a lessened role in the offense specifically. I think you can peg that on Swagimus Prime, who will end up having no leash to dribble around in isolation with Kobe back on the court.
My before Kobe Most Valuable PERSON -- I'm changing it up -- is Mike D'Antoni. The fact that the Lakers are playing .500 ball is pretty incredible no matter how you want this season to shake out. The team plays hard and is an absolute joy to watch. The loss to Portland stung a bit, but only because the team came back from a huge deficit and played well enough to make you believe they could pull off a dramatic comeback victory. There's still a lot of room to grow on both ends of the floor, but the boys in purple and gold are playing hard and D'Antoni deserves a ton of credit for guiding the team to this record.
This is without Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. If you need evidence that the "system" can lead to incredible things when guys "buy in", just look at Steve Blake who will undoubtedly be the most lauded "Before Kobe MVP" in this discussion. He's shooting a career-high 42.9 percent from deep and averaging a career-high 7.7 assists per game.
Kudos, Mike D'Antoni. You don't get nearly enough of those.
Although I have some concerns that Bryant's return will ruin the chemistry and innocent enthusiasm of guys like Young, Henry, and Johnson have, I am more focused on how his presence will benefit Pau Gasol. Gasol, similar to Blake, has been asked to shoulder much of the on-court burden, especially when the offense gets stagnant. There have been too many occasions where the ball gets thrown to Pau eight to ten feet from the basket and he is the forced to back his man down and put up a good shot in a matter of seconds. Just as Bryant's efficiency in the past has been somewhat affected by having to bail the team out on multiple possessions throughout the game, Gasol is experiencing much of the same. That's not to say that he isn't having a solid season, but shooting below 42 percent for player of his skill and size shouldn't be anywhere close to that mark. Gasol knows how to play with Bryant better than anyone in the league. The primary reason (personality clash) that leads me to worry about Bryant's negative impact on someone like Nick Young is the same factor that suggests that his return will, without a doubt, make things easier for Gasol on offense.
Steve Blake is the most deserving of the B.K. MVP. Heading into opening night, Blake was already expected to step up his production due to Bryant's absence; throw in Nash's injury and the team ultimately expected Blake to help make up for what's lost with both Bryant and Nash out. Although that's nearly impossible for one player to do, Blake's superb distribution on offense, as Ben explained above, and above-average ability to stay with his man on defense is the number one reason this team is hovering around .500 without Bryant. In 31 minutes per game, Blake is averaging 10 points and nearly 8 assists. If I'm not mistaken, Blake is currently sixth in the league in assist to turnover ration (3.45). The assist totals might just be a result of him having the ball in his hands more often than not, but a roster filled with youth and shooting needs exactly what Blake has been providing: stability. With Jordan Farmar sustaining a hamstring injury Sunday night vs Portland, Blake's contributions to this team, before or after Kobe, is irreplaceable.