Despite D'Antoni's Arrival, LA Lakers' Potential Still Hinges on Kobe Bryant

Howard RubenContributor INovember 23, 2012

Kobe Bryant is in a zone—there is only one place for the Lakers this season and that's at the top of the NBA heap.
Kobe Bryant is in a zone—there is only one place for the Lakers this season and that's at the top of the NBA heap.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers could have hired the Dalai Lama, Donald Trump or even Phil Jackson.  They would still be Kobe Bryant's team.

Bryant, while welcoming Dwight Howard this summer, said as much.  Until he leaves or retires and turns the baton over to D12 or whomever it happens to be, Kobe Bean Bryant remains the first, last and final word when it comes to the L.A. Lakers.

And, as good a coach as Mike D'Antoni is—and he's very good—the potential for the Lakers to move deep into the playoffs and possibly win a championship this year rests with No. 24.  Based on his early-season performance, Kobe and the Lakers are headed in the right direction despite a pedestrian 6-6 record.

None other than Magic Johnson did not hesitate when a reporter for the L.A. Times asked him about Bryant and his place in the pecking order.  "Kobe is the leader as of today, and this year, and whenever he's playing, because he's been there, he knows how to win, he knows how to perform in the clutch moments.

"Dwight needs to learn how to do that.  Will it ever be Dwight's team?  Yes, someday it will, but right now this is Kobe's team. Make no mistake about it."

D'Antoni, if he didn't already know, found out quickly during the second quarter of the Lakers' 95-90 win Tuesday over Brooklyn, his first as head coach.  Kobe had just picked up his second foul of the game and D'Antoni sought to bring him out.  Bryant waved off his replacement and kept on playing. 

Kobe was in charge again Wednesday night in Sacramento, only this time the rest of the team did not give him enough support and the Lakers lost a sloppy game to the Kings, 113-97.  Bryant scored 38 points on 11-of-20 shooting and is at 27.3 ppg on 53 percent shooting for the season, an effort worthy of MVP consideration.

D'Antoni knows this is Kobe's team but he also knows the 34-year-old cannot sustain such an incredible pace for the entire season, telling reporters after the Kings game: "The guy is almost 50 years old, my God.  We can't rely on that.  We've got to come out and play."

The loss to Sacramento, the third on the road for the Lakers this year, was telling in just how much the team needs to gel on many levels, not just as admirers of their teammate, Kobe Bryant.  Dwight Howard took just four shots and had seven points.  Gasol had just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting.

"The ball didn't move," D'Antoni said via the Los Angeles Times.  "Everybody wasn't sharp.  It was like we were wrestling in mud.  I'm serious.  The first half, I was in shock."

For the Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals and win a title—and that is their only goal—the entire team, including starters and bench, must consistently do what is expected of them.  Kobe is doing his part and when the others chip in, the results can and will be there.

In the absence of point guard Steve Nash, out with a foot injury for at least another week or two, Kobe has become more of a floor general even with second-year PG Darius Morris on the court.  He is also averaging over five assists though he is turning the ball over four times per game.

Before losing and looking sluggish against the Kings, the Lakers were starting to show life and a cohesive energy while winning five of their previous six games.  The strong play by Bryant on both ends of the floor gave multiple opportunities to his teammates, and they mostly were converting. 

What was glaring about the loss to the lowly Kings was how ineffective the Lakers' big men were in the paint.  Sacramento outscored L.A. 50-22 in the paint, another sign that Howard and Gasol need to control that area or the Lakers will drop from contender to mediocre bystander. 

Metta World Peace has looked more like vintage Ron Artest this season.  In the best shape of his Lakers career, MWP is finding himself open for long shots and this year he is making them.  He's also using his 260-pound frame to drive for layups and is a much more integral part of the offense.

With Bryant more efficient and finding open shots for teammates like MWP, the 33-year-old small forward has started with a 13.4 points-per-game average, the best for him since he played for Houston in 2008-09 and averaged 17 for the Rockets.

Despite shortcomings on the bench, the Lakers have assembled a strong nucleus that is capable of going far into the playoffs this year.  MWP and Howard have performed well while Gasol has been inconsistent among the starters.

A healthy Steve Nash will significantly improve the Lakers' backcourt, whenever that is.  The chemistry between Nash and D'Antoni goes back to their time together in Phoenix, where Nash played eight seasons and was a two-time league MVP.

Bryant, who played under D'Antoni at the Summer Olympics in London, should have no problem fitting into the new system.

"I just don't see that being an issue," Nash told's Marc Stein.  Kobe's a natural scorer. He can score in any system. If we had Kobe in Phoenix, it would have been a two-guard-centric offense. Kobe's going to run plenty of pick-and-rolls. Kobe and I can run pick-and-rolls together.

"I think he looks at Mike like he's also been one of his coaches for the last four, five years (thanks to their time together with Team USA). He feels very familiar with all of this. There's going to be plenty of ways for Kobe to score."

And that will be key to the Lakers making a run for their 17th world championship.  It's that simple.