As everyone surely knows by now, on Tuesday night, the Lakers defeated the Golden State Warriors, owners of the best record in the NBA. This would be news no matter how it happened, because Los Angeles is one of the worst teams in the league. The fact that it happened without Kobe Bryant though, the highest paid Laker as well as a lightning rod for both unearned praise and cheap shot criticisms, has predictably led to much schadenfreude and bleating among Bryant's many critics. But are the Lakers really better off without Kobe Bryant, as some would use this victory as well as his on-off court statistical splits or other various stats?
In a word: No. As many have pointed out both this season and since his two-year $48 million extension was signed, Kobe Bryant the basketball player is no longer worth an average of $24 million a season. This extension was given mainly to Kobe Bryant, the one man marketing campaign and Staples Center marquee seat filler. However, just because Kobe is no longer worth around 37 percent of his team's cap does not mean he is a worthless basketball player.
Numbers do not exist in a vacuum, and one that must be factored into Bryant's ineffectiveness this year is his 35.8 percent usage rate. Such high usage by a 36-year old veteran in his 19th NBA season while returning from not one, but two major injuries is basically unprecedented in NBA history. While Kobe is not blameless in such usage -- he is the one making the final decision to pull the trigger on all these clank -- it is hard to fault him for doing so when considering the punch-less starting lineups he has played significant minutes with, as well as the lack of any effort to by the offense to set him up rather than letting him always be the table setter. Of Bryant's 225 made field goals this season, an astonishing 148 of them have been unassisted according to NBA.com. That number does not factor in all of the missed shots that Bryant has felt the necessity to create for himself, but it should go without saying that a more even distribution of assisted and unassisted field goals would help him exceed his current level of play.
This is where some blame for Kobe's struggles, and the Lakers as a whole, must be laid at the feet of head coach Byron Scott. By frequently placing Bryant in lineups where he is the only real scoring threat, combined with the Lakers stagnant off ball movement where the other four players are just watching to see what Kobe does, has predictably made it nearly impossible for Bryant to score at an efficient clip.
While Scott should not take the Lakers' performance against the Warriors as some repeatable feat, most could see that playing lineups where the entire playbook did not consist of pages that said "Get the Ball to Kobe" led to a more varied and dangerous offensive attack. What did Scott think of all of this? From Baxter Holmes of ESPN's game recap:
It did give Scott a blueprint that he could take to Bryant as proof that team basketball can help the Lakers compete.
"It was great to have a game like this to make that case, just so he knows," Scott said. "We're still going to lean on him, but we don't have to as heavy as we are. That's kind of the message."
But why do they have to lean on Bryant? Didn't Tuesday prove that they don't need to lean on him? That he can just be one cog?
"[Tuesday] was one game," Scott said. "Again, you're looking at one game instead of the whole season or a smaller sample, let's say 20 games or 30 games. We do have to lean on him at times. He's one of the best players that's ever played in this game."
If we take these quotes at face value, Scott saying the Lakers do not have to put so much of a burden on Bryant is encouraging for those who do not like seeing him struggle on the court so much, and do not want to see him break down again before his current (and likely last) contract expires. Scott is also correct that the Lakers would likely need to lean on Bryant at times. They just cannot lean on him at all times as they have been, and that starts with Scott instilling a culture and offense that does not ask Kobe to do everything. Kobe has shown enough flashes of his skills this season to demonstrate he can still be effective.
The Lakers are not a better team without Kobe Bryant, just this high usage version of him. But the argument that Bryant either needs to play a lot and do almost everything, or simply sit out games with no in-between was always a facile one. Let him sit out for maintenance, sure, but when he is in the lineup, Bryant needs to have his role and minutes reduced. Only time will tell if Byron's change of heart on this critical issue for the Lakers will stick.