During their most recent games, the Los Angeles Lakers have tasked Kobe Bryant with defending elite point guards Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul. The Lakers found reasonable success with said approach, thus leading to Mike D'Antoni labeling Bryant their new on-ball luminary.
The question is, can Kobe be the Los Angeles Lakers' lead perimeter defender and top scorer simultaneously?
According to Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles, D'Antoni is confident that Bryant is capable of handling the task. It is his belief that the team's recent games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers proved his capability to defend on-ball.
D'Antoni had the following to say about Bryant's future as a lead-guard defender:
"He disrupts the whole offense on the ball," said D'Antoni, who added that Bryant will draw either Brandon Jennings or Monta Ellis when the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. "He's done that a couple games, so we'll continue to milk that one."
Matched up against Chris Paul, Bryant forced the smooth-stroking point guard into 11-of-25 shooting and four turnovers. Bryant also scored 38 points, which suggests he can handle the task at hand.
The Lakers lost that game to the Clippers, 107-102, with Bryant nearly leading a fourth-quarter comeback.
As for Irving, Kobe took on the task of defending the reigning Rookie of the Year. He held Irving to 15 points and three turnovers on 7-of-15 shooting.
Offensively, Bryant finished with 23 points and six assists on 9-of-14 shooting from the floor and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc.
As for the result, L.A. won that game by a score of 113-93. It was their first win of 2013.
In other words, the strategy has been effective. The question is, have the Lakers found a solution to their team-wide woes?
Off-Ball Equals off His Game
When Kobe Bryant is defending off of the ball, he has an undeniable tendency to watch the ball. This results in Kobe's matchup working free from coverage and earning open looks both at the basket and along the perimeter.
When asked about Kobe's tendency to lose sight of his assignment while playing off of the ball, head coach Mike D'Antoni had the following to say:
Mike D'Antoni was asked about Kobe Bryant's offball defense. He hesitated, smiled and then said, "He's good."— Mark Medina (@MedinaLakersNBA) January 14, 2013
The sarcasm is duly noted.
With this being established, one cannot help but wonder: Is it possible that Bryant is incapable of playing defense off of the ball?
Although it appears that way, one would be foolish to believe such to be the truth. The issue for Bryant is that he has been attempting to turn defense into offense too often.
Perhaps a lasting impact due to the influence of Mike D'Antoni.
The true question worth asking is whether or not there is a cure-all.
On-Ball is the Best Cure
The best way to cure Kobe Bryant's off-ball defensive struggles is to keep him on-ball as much as possible.
Bryant played his best defense all season when matched up against Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving. What this leads to is the seemingly factual belief that Bryant is best fit to defend the player who handles the ball most often.
Point guard Steve Nash said it best (via McMenamin's article):
Kobe's a guy that likes a challenge, so to give him a challenge I think sometimes is best for us. Sometimes when he maybe is guarding someone who isn't going to demand his interest, he can wane a little bit. But when we put him in a position where he's challenged, he can be phenomenal.
Nash is spot-on with his evaluation.
Bryant is a 12-time All-Defensive-team selection (nine first-team selections) for his ability to dominate while defending on-ball.
Keep in mind, NBA head coaches are behind the voting and a coach cannot vote for his own player.
Kobe is respected as a defender for a reason.
With all of this being said, it is imperative that the Lakers keep Bryant on the ball as often as possible. He is not only an elite on-ball defender, but this is the best way to keep him focused on the task at hand.
The second Bryant moves away from the ball, it appears as if the perimeter will collapse. The fix is already in place.
Could this be the move that saves the Lakers' season?