Over the course of his 16-year NBA career, Kobe Bryant has established himself as one of the greatest players in the history of the league, and the only shooting guard who can even be considered to approach the level of Michael Jordan.
The 6’6” Bryant has spent the duration of his career as a shooting guard, and he's enjoyed quite a lot of success at the position.
It’s hard to imagine him at any other slot, as apart from rare spot minutes at point guard and small forward, Bryant has served almost exclusively as a shooting guard throughout his career.
But if the Lakers are to be the best they can be next season, Bryant may need to slide to the small forward position. A position currently occupied by Metta World Peace.
While Metta World Peace has had a productive NBA career, his production has tailed off significantly in his last three seasons with the Lakers. World Peace shot under 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range last season, and his trademark defense is not what it once was.
The good news: The Lakers brought in a talented young alternative in Jodie Meeks.
The bad news: He's only 6'4", and therefore incapable of defending opposing small forwards.
However, Meeks may not be as much of a defensive liability as most think.
Meeks is not known as a great defensive player, but he ranked No. 1 among shooting guards in opponent PER last season, holding opposing 2-guards to a mere 8.5 PER, according to 82games.com. Granted, opponent PER is not a flawless statistic, and it can be impacted by team defense (Philadelphia was the third-best defensive team in the NBA last season), but at the very least, it’s clear that Meeks is an above-average on-ball defender, and at best he's an outstanding one, on the level of players like Dwyane Wade and Ronnie Brewer.
Although clearly highly effective against shooting guards, Meeks cannot equal World Peace’s size and strength, and he is incapable of guarding opposing small forwards. However, Bryant has the size to defend small forwards, and he might consider switching over to that position late in his career, much like Michael Jordan did during his final seasons with the Washington Wizards.
The Black Mamba is still a good defender when he chooses to be, and with Nash around to help him run the offense, Bryant should be able to expend more energy on defense. Furthermore, Bryant might fare better against small forwards anyways at this stage in his career. Against opposing 3s, Bryant’s dwindling lateral quickness would become less of an issue, and he would be able to rely more on his strength and experience.
It would by no means be ideal to force an aging Bryant to defend explosive young small forwards like Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Rudy Gay, and in these cases, World Peace remains the most logical option. But Bryant has proven his ability to effectively defend most small forwards, and the benefits of playing Meeks over World Peace could be substantial.
Meeks is a 37 percent career three-point shooter, and his all-around shooting ability greatly exceeds that of World Peace. This proficiency makes him an ideal fit next to Steve Nash. Nash has an uncanny ability to draw the best out of pure shooters, as seen through the success enjoyed by players like Raja Bell, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley in Phoenix, and it seems likely he could have a similar impact on Meeks. And while it could be argued that Nash's presence should improve World Peace's production as well, World Peace is far past his prime while Meeks is just entering his.
It's unlikely that Meeks usurps World Peace's starting role, as the latter has a significant advantage in terms of experience and is useful as a stopper against opposing stars. However, the benefits of inserting a pure shooter amongst L.A.'s already stacked starting lineup are impossible to ignore. Meeks would find himself drowning in the inevitable open looks that would stem from playing alongside future Hall of Famers Nash, Bryant and Dwight Howard, and his presence would make the Lakers' already formidable offense that much deadlier.
It would be a crime to play Meeks any less than 24 minutes per game next season, and in order for that to happen, Bryant will need to spend a significant chunk of his minutes at the small forward position. World Peace should maintain his spot as the Lakers' starting small forward, but Meeks should be given the opportunity to play heavy minutes not only behind but also alongside Bryant. Bryant is more than capable of holding his own at the small forward position, and with Dwight Howard lurking in the paint, any defensive drawbacks from substituting Meeks for World Peace would be negligible.
The Lakers have the opportunity to surround Nash with one of the most potent scoring lineups ever assembled. And that is an opportunity they cannot afford to ignore.