To place the entire weight of Los Angeles' failures upon his shoulders would be unscrupulous, yet to exonerate him from any blame in the matter would be equally improper. Everyone on the Lakers, from Kobe to Dwight Howard to Pau Gasol, has had a hand (or two) in this fiasco.
But where blame for their shortcomings can be dispersed, credit for Kobe's abrupt evolution cannot.
While 34-year-olds and 17-year veterans are supposed to be past evolving and adjusting, Bryant has proven to be an exception. His transition from serial shooter to the primary playmaker has sparked an uprising in the Land of Make Believe at a time when we all thought the Lakers would be forced to do just that—make believe they could win.
Over the last two games, Bryant has averaged 17.5 points, nine rebounds, 14 assists and—get this—11 field-goal attempts. If that's not noteworthy, I'm not sure anything is.
Including the last two contests, Kobe has taken fewer than 15 shots just six times, and he's averaging 21.6 attempts a night on the season. To say he's taken on a new role would be a gross understatement. And to attribute the Lakers' recent coupling of victories to anything other than this new role would be utterly incorrect.
Though Bryant would have us believe (via J.A. Adande of ESPN.com) that Los Angeles' newfound embrace of collective confrontation is the driving force behind the team's sudden rise to competency, Gasol has other ideas.
"We're doing a real good job of holding each other accountable," Bryant said. "That makes a big difference."
"When he distributes the ball like that, guys are ready to catch it," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said. "He sets everybody up and sets up such a good energy on offense and it carries over to the defensive end. It's worked great."
That encumbrance of accountability Los Angeles has accepted is making an enormous difference. But Bryant's sacrifice, his consensual metamorphosis, is making an even bigger one.
Regardless of the part Bryant elects to play, he's going to find himself enshrouded in double- and triple-teams. His 16-plus years of tactical tendencies precedes him, so the increased coverage of his every move isn't going anywhere.
But the ball is.
When Kobe dribbles himself into suffocating defensive sets, at least one other player is open. When he attacks the paint, travels east and west or simply puts the ball on the floor in general, defenses take exception and, subsequently, action.
Bryant himself has always taken action of his own as well. Known to possess a keen sense of court vision, he's no stranger to dropping a well-placed dime. He's also no stranger to hoisting up contested shots aplenty.
To that end, he's been a part of the Lakers' problem.
Steve Nash himself admitted (via Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com) that Bryant has an innate proclivity to lose "faith" in his teammates and take it upon himself to do everything. Absence of trust, specifically the credence Kobe had in this team, has long been Los Angeles' greatest downfall.
Arash Markazi @ArashMarkazi
Steve Nash: "I think sometimes Kobe loses a little bit of faith in his teammates and goes into scoring mode."1/28/2013, 12:17:19 AM
If Bryant's confidence in his brethren was unconditional, he wouldn't have been compelled to ask if Dwight Howard disliked the idea of playing alongside him. And he certainly wouldn't have felt the need to heave 20-plus attempts toward the rim on a team with four perennial and offensively dominant All-Stars.
The Black Mamba's faith in this convocation has now been restored, or rather, created. With every contested shot he passes up in favor of an open Nash, Gasol or Howard, his allegiance to this outfit grows. With every adjustment he makes to better the team, his genuine conviction in Los Angeles' cause becomes apparent.
With every out-of-character performance, Kobe's comprehension of what it's going to take for this contingent to succeed grows.
Nothing about the Lakers' tumultuous season makes sense, nor can their poor showing be attributed to one tangible failure.
A 21st-ranked defensive attack has hurt them. Gasol and Howard's lack of assertion on offense has hurt them. Refusing to buy into each other has hurt them. A multitude of inadequacies has hurt them.
But none of those deficiencies have crippled this team more than their inability to accept an absolute commitment to sacrifice.
On a team where stars are more common than role players, individuals are going to have to make concessions that they not only accept, but embrace. Gasol needed to find purpose on the bench. Howard needed to understand he's now a big fish in an even bigger pond. And everyone needed to forget about stats, roles and individual accolades in favor of winning.
That starts with Bryant.
Had Kobe been making this type of sacrifice all along, had he been publicly receptive to change the entire season, Gasol and Howard wouldn't have had a leg or peg to stand on when griping about the compromises they were being asked to make.
While Bryant has readily demanded the blame for this season be put on his shoulders, he's attempted to combat said blame the only way he ever has—by relying on himself, and no one else.
Admirable though it may be, this isn't what Hollywood needed. It needed him to establish a happy medium. Over the past two games, he's done just that, and already the Lakers have begun to change their tune, none more so than Howard and Gasol.
The two big men were easily the most displeased of Los Angeles' bunch, but after the team's victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, their eyes (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com) appeared to have been opened:
"I think guys were just worried too much about their own situations and their own issues," Gasol said bluntly, when asked what has changed since the air-it-out team meeting in Memphis. "When you start doing that, it takes away from the team.
"With the personnel we have, we have to understand that our numbers and our stats are going to be lowered. There's a certain level of compromise and commitment that we all need to accept. Once we do that, things will work out well."
"It just didn't happen. I wish it would have," Dwight Howard said. "It took us to fall on our head and run into a couple roadblocks for us to see it."
Not to belittle Howard's epiphany, but it took more than a "couple roadblocks" for the Lakers to understand. It took Bryant's willingness to lead by example, it took him assuming a "whatever it takes" stance for this team to recognize anything at all.
That very recognition, that very form of leadership is what the Lakers have been missing. Are we supposed to believe it's some sort of a coincidence that Kobe's transformation is followed up by one from his teammate's? Only if we're daft beyond reason, which we aren't.
"When the leader of your team is unselfish like that, when he sets a tone like that, it's contagious," Gasol (via Shelburne) said. "And it keeps us doing the right thing out there."
Darn tootin' it does. Even Howard, whether he admits it or not, looks to Kobe for subtle guidance. He's the one with the five rings, with nearly two decades of experience and with the fate of this franchise in his hands. He has the ability to inspire and perpetuate change more than anyone in Tinseltown.
And for those already placing bets as to when Bryant will phase out his freshly crafted position, consider this: All Kobe has ever cared about is winning, and now that a recipe for said priority has been successfully concocted, why would he remove the most vital of ingredients?
He wouldn't, he shouldn't and he won't.
I won't go as far as to say Bryant is going to put up a near triple-double every night, but you'd better believe he's aware that the Lakers are 8-4 when he dishes out seven or more assists and that they remain undefeated (3-0) when he drops 10 or more.
Again, why would he change that? Why would he stray from a winning formula, especially when (via Sam Amick of USA Today) he's happy:
"It's trying to evolve and figured out what we need as a ballclub," Bryant said of his new style. "Instead of me being a finisher, I'm just really facilitating and drawing the defense in and making plays. I game-planned for it, and it seems to be working."
Bryant's not one to deviate from his own game plan in general, let alone when it's "working." He knows what his presence does to opposing defenses, and he understands what that same presence can now do for his teammates.
It's been just two games, yet those two games stand for everything the Lakers need to stand for—self sacrifice.
Those two games have been the most important contests of Los Angeles' season.
"I think he likes (playing this way)," D'Antoni told Amick. "I think he's happy as hell."
Just as the Lakers are now winning.
And as long as that doesn't change, this composite version of Kobe isn't going to, either.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.
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