Kobe Bryant has had a terrible defensive season until quite recently. Against the Cleveland Cavaliers Sunday night, Kobe hassled Kyrie Irving into a 15-point performance. Against Brandon Jennings on Tuesday night, Kobe hounded the young point guard into 12 points on four made field goals.
This is a new role for Kobe Bryant, though we saw some foreshadowing back when Cleveland beat the Lakers on December 11th. Kyrie Irving was having a fantastic night, until Kobe was sic'd on him:
Much of the focus was on how Kyrie had claimed that he could beat Kobe back during the summer, and not on how the Lakers could employ this as a strategy against smaller players. The reigning assumption is that Bryant should struggle against fast point guards, but it hasn't played out that way so far.
This is a broader story, and it goes beyond Kobe Bryant. Coaches around the league are getting increasingly comfortable sticking a wing on a point guard. Usually, you'll see this at the end of games.
Last season, you could see this strategy in instances when Gregg Popovich deployed Danny Green against Chris Paul and when Mark Jackson unleashed Dominic McGuire against the very same point guard. Though quick, the defensive length clearly bothered CP3.
The Lakers are desperate on defense, having sunk to 17th in defensive efficiency this season, down from their 14th ranking last year. Dwight Howard was supposed to fix these defensive issues, but he's obviously hobbled due to back surgery. Over the course of this year, Kobe's been an awful off-the-ball defender, compounding L.A.'s deficiency problem.
In challenging Kobe Bryant to aggressively pressure the opposition's primary ball-handler, Mike D'Antoni might have found a way to improve his team's defense and keep his star player engaged off the ball. Without accusing Kobe of boredom on the defensive end, he has appeared to be not wholly engaged on D.
There is a cost to almost any strategy, and this one presents some issues for L.A. Kobe Bryant is 34 years old, and aggressive pressure requires an incredible effort. Kobe might suffer offensively for the energy he's expending on the defensive end.
Also, a high-pressure defensive concept often results in a high foul rate. Tony Allen gets into foul trouble frequently, as the cost of doing business.
Third, the extra expended energy on defense might put Kobe Bryant at risk for injury. This comes with the caveat that Bryant may indeed be a robot, but if he is indeed human, this strategy could test his limits.
Right now, the Lakers might not have any other choice. Their season is close to being finished, and they must claw for any advantage available. Given the situation, the new strategy seems like a sound one.