Kobe Bryant Poised to Deliver MVP Season in Mike D'Antoni's Offense

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2012

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives on Tyreke Evans #13 of the Sacramento Kings at Power Balance Pavilion on November 21, 2012 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When the going got tough for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant got going. And with Mike D'Antoni now at the helm for Los Angeles, the Black Mamba hasn't stopped going. 

In fact, he's gotten even better.

Though the Lakers continue to experience an excess of ups and downs, Bryant has been sensational—MVP-esque, in fact. He's averaging 27.3 points to lead the NBA in scoring, converting a jaw-dropping 53.1 percent of his shots from the floor and 41.8 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc—both career highs.

As impressive as those stats are, though, this is more about what Bryant is going to continue to do under D'Antoni.

Since Mike Brown's permanent replacement has entered the fold, Kobe has yet to attempt fewer than 15 shots in a game—something he did twice in the first five games of the season—but he continues to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. He's also helped himself to his first triple-double in more than two years.

Coincidence? Not at all.

And neither are the performances he's had since D'Antoni began gracing the sidelines. In Magic Mike's first two games on the bench, Bryant is averaging 31.5 points on 54.2 percent shooting. He's also continued to shoot the ball at a 40 percent clip from downtown.

We've grown accustomed to Kobe's lucrative stat lines over the last 16 years, but he's a career 45.3 percent shooter and never converted on more than 46.9 percent of his attempts for the season. 

Yet here he is, at the age of 34—a time when most athletes have already tapered off—dominating in a more effective manner than ever before. Bryant is still attempting the least number of shots (17.8) per game he has in 13 years, but he's scoring at a rate that is nearly two points above his career average.

The time for exuding cautious optimism has come and gone. It's still early in the NBA season, but Bryant has continued this level of production for more than 10 games, amid bouts with a nagging ankle injury and alongside two other superstars in Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard That's no fluke.

Instead, let's accept it for what it is—Kobe being Kobe. Not the Kobe of old, per se, but a revitalized version that is thriving under D'Antoni. 

Coach D has not asked Bryant to do anything other than what comes natural. He has not tried to implement a creativity-crippling Princeton offense. He's given the ball to Bryant and told him to shoot, and pass if he needs to. 

Most importantly, though, his system has spread the floor in ways that Brown's blueprint never could. Bryant is the team's most potent scorer, but teams simply cannot afford to suffocate him the way they would like in fear of leaving someone else wide open.

Bryant has never seen so many open looks, open lanes and one-on-one's in over decade. If only takes minutes of watching a Lakers game to see that this offense is built for Kobe to dominate.

Even in a morale-killing loss to the Sacramento Kings, Bryant's ability to flourish under D'Antoni was obvious. He dropped 38 points on just 20 shots, nine of which were three-pointers. He wound up connecting on a season-high five of the latter.

We've certainly seen all different types of Bryant over the course of the years, but never a Bryant this efficient. 

He leads the team in points scored, assists and steals per game, which is impressive, but nothing new. However, after Dwight Howard—whose entire offense has come with nine feet of the basket this season—Kobe is leading the team in field-goal percentage as well.

This is a player who finished seventh in field-goal conversions on his own team last year. Seventh, and now he's second. That's a little thing we like to call a transformation.

And it's a transformation—as the numbers dictate—that has only been furthered under D'Antoni, and one that is going to keep evolving.

Within this offense, Bryant is no longer an erratic leader—he's a greater source of certainty than he's ever been before. His value from a leadership perspective has always been high, but it's never been this high. So high, in fact, that it's more troubling than ever to consider where the Lakers would be without him.

Los Angeles started cold, but Bryant didn't. What if he had? What if he wasn't clicking on all cylinders and leading the playmaking charge while Steve Nash was on the sidelines? What then?

Fortunately for the Lakers, Bryant entered playing the best basketball of his career at a rate of production that has only become more fruitful since D'Antoni took over.

Few would have thought that a league MVP candidate could emerge from a group as talented as the one currently in Los Angeles. On a team of so many stars, how could one prove to be indispensable?

We asked that same question when LeBron James took his talents to a stockpiled South Beach, and look what happened two years in. The Miami Heat would not have won without him, just like the Lakers can't and won't win without Kobe.

Bryant's performance is indicative of the player he's become, not of an athlete playing above his head. That very transformation has made him more valuable than he ever was before.