On the surface, Kobe Bryant's 5.3 assists per-game average doesn't raise many eyebrows. That could be because it's just up from his 4.7 career average, or because we've never considered Bryant much of a passer over the course of his NBA career.
But make no mistake. It's Bryant's passing—not his ability to score in bunches—that will breathe life into this Los Angeles Lakers team as it pushes to make the playoffs this season, even though he continues to post an impressive 27.4 points per-game average.
The Lakers are in the middle of their best nine-game stretch of the 2012-13 season. Behind a spark on both offense and defense, LA has managed to go 7-2 over this stretch and beat Oklahoma City, Utah and Brooklyn—all current playoff teams.
It's no coincidence that this success comes during the middle of one of Bryant's greatest nine-game stretches at passing the ball. Since the Jan. 25 matchup against Utah, in which Kobe totaled 14 assists and 14 points, he's been a passing machine, and the LA offense has improved leaps and bounds because of it.
The next game, he also dished out 14 assists, and the Lakers beat the Thunder on a big stage. As ESPN's Numbers Never Lie reported on Twitter, it likely wasn't a coincidence:
Due to head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and the current collection of Lakers players, that unselfishness needs to continue if the team is going to have any shot at claiming one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
As of Feb. 9, the Lakers sit at 24-27, good for 10th in the West. LA is 3.5 games behind No. 8 seed Houston and a full four games behind Utah for the final two spots. There's plenty of chances to get to that spot, but not enough to take this current success lightly.
Bryant has realized that D'Antoni's offense is about two things: Getting open shots quickly and trust in teammates to get the job done.
It's a far cry from the triangle offense that Bryant has played in for most of his career, and even further away from the ball-dominating offense that he was so successful in when Phil Jackson took his extended leave of absence in the middle of the 2000s.
Still, D'Antoni's up-tempo offense has proven itself again and again on different cities.
In Phoenix, it produced Amar'e Stoudemire, one of the game's best players over a four-year stretch, unleashed names like Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson to the public eye and won Steve Nash two MVPs.
In New York, Carmelo Anthony was learning how to thrive in D'Antoni's system before being injured and giving way to Jeremy Lin, one of the biggest phenomenons of our time as he broke onto the scene in 2012.
Now it's Los Angeles, and this offense has a chance to pull this team into title contention.
If Bryant follows suit, that is.
Before that Jan. 25 game against the Jazz, Bryant had produced just one double-digit assist game this season. Coincidentally (or not), it produced a win over the Rockets. Conversely, Bryant's games without many assists are also a telling story.
In the games Bryant has zero or one assist this year, the Lakers are 1-6. Up that number to include his two and three-assist games, and the record deflates to 1-15.
Even with that piece of evidence in tow, one of the biggest arguments against this conclusion is that Kobe can't be held responsible if his teammates aren't making shots. That was the case on Thursday against the Celtics, as the Lakers couldn't get anything to drop and ended up suffering their second defeat in this nine-game stretch.
It's something Kobe and the team discussed on Friday morning, and he voiced that revelation on Twitter:
While he continues to try to get teammates open shots, it's opening up another characteristic of this offense that needs to be prevalent for success—trust.
If Kobe trusts Earl Clark and Metta World Peace to knock down a three-pointer, they start to have a little bit more confidence in themselves, too.
Will Los Angeles make the playoffs?
Nash will remain his ever-cool self, and that will lead to Dwight Howard getting more open looks in the pick-and-roll offense. As Howard opens up and cools off about his injury and contract situation, things can only get better in LA.
But that all starts with Bryant.
If he's scoring 35-plus per game and the team is losing, it only helps No. 24. If he's averaging around 15 points and eight assists and the team is winning games like it is right now, then everyone wins—especially Bryant, who is in pursuit of elusive NBA championship No. 6.
We know Kobe as a scorer. It's time to meet Kobe the distributor, who has a chance to help turn LA's fortunes around yet again.