That may be small comfort to a team that desperately misses Kobe's offense, but it's the best it can get after losing its best player. The Lakers offense has gone down the tubes, but at least the defense has stepped up.
Kobe has long been considered a lockdown wing defender and, in spurts, he still was this season. But those spurts were pretty rare, and he hurt the Los Angeles defense on more nights than not. With Kobe on the court this season, opponents were scoring over 108 points per 100 possessions, putting the Lakers defense at about 23rd in the league (per Basketball-Reference).
With Kobe off the court, opponents scored under 104 points per 100 possessions, putting the Lakers defense on just about even footing with that of the Miami Heat's (ninth overall). That four point swing is the largest of any Laker getting serious minutes.
The Lakers have posted three straight defensive ratings of under 100, the first time they've done that all season (per Basketball-Reference). It's admittedly a small sample size, and the Spurs and Rockets haven't been at their best lately. But it's enough of a jump to suggest real improvement.
Kobe was a solid defender when he was locked in, but he spent a lot of the season saving his legs for offense. It was an understandable decision, but it hurt the Lakers defensively. He also made a lot of frustrating—and sometimes head-scratching—mistakes that cost his team, most of which were from ball watching or gambling for steals.
Here are a few examples.
This play comes from a late-February game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
J.J. Barea has the ball on the right wing with Steve Blake defending. Ricky Rubio, Kobe's man, is standing in the right corner with Kobe just a few feet away.
As Chris Johnson comes to set a screen, Barea drives and splits Steve Blake and Dwight Howard. Kobe slides into the paint to provide help. Seeing nothing, Barea backs out as Rubio heads towards the right wing. If Kobe returns to Rubio, then everything will be just fine. However...
Kobe stays in the paint, watching the ball and doubling up on Chris Johnson (who's not exactly an offensive titan). Barea swings it to a wide-open Rubio, who's now spotting up for a three.
Kobe comes to contest the shot, but it's too late. Rubio knocks down an easy three-pointer. You can watch the play in its entirety here.
Ball Watching Two
Here's an example from the Lakers' mid-April game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
LaMarcus Aldridge starts with the ball on the left wing and swings it to a red-hot Damian Lillard. Kobe stands in the paint near his man, Will Barton, in order to cut off Aldridge on a potential drive. Dwight stands firmly in the paint between Barton and his own man, Meyers Leonard.
As Lillard gets the ball, Barton flares out to the right wing. Kobe, however, is watching Lillard and starts to step up in the paint.
This is where it gets really curious. Kobe advances all the way past the left elbow, leaving Barton alone for a good five seconds. Dwight is forced to shade between Barton and Leonard to try and prevent both the three-pointer and the backdoor cut.
Lillard finally notices Barton standing by himself and tosses him the ball over Kobe, who's well out of the paint at this point.
Barton steps up and knocks down a contested mid-range jumper over Howard.
From the same game against the Timberwolves, we see Bryant's risk-taking defense backfire.
Here, Rubio advances the ball up the floor, Bryant rushes in unnecessarily for a steal attempt. Rubio puts it behind his back, freezes Howard with a herky-jerky hesitation dribble and then scoops it in for a quick two points. It's worth pointing out that Kobe's always been a bit of a gambler, but he took that label to an extreme this season.
Now let's take a look at the man filling in for Kobe, Steve Blake. Blake isn't the athlete Kobe is, but he's a sound defender who positions himself well and usually doesn't make any glaring off-ball mistakes.
I won't bore you with any breakdowns of Blake sticking with his man off the ball, but I will show you something that Blake's done remarkably well in his match-ups with the Spurs—stick with Tony Parker through on-ball screens.
Ball Screen One
At the outset of this clip, Blake has already run into a tough Tim Duncan screen.
Rather than letting up and hoping that Jodie Meeks will cover for him (as many defenders would), Blake fights through the screen and ends up in position right behind Parker.
As an unsuspecting Parker rises for the mid-range jumper, Blake swoops in and blocks it from behind. Actual blocks aren't all that common from Blake, but he never stops fighting through screens and at least gets his hand in the shooter's face more often than not. It seems like a little thing, but it can make a big difference throughout the course of an entire game.
Ball Screen Two
Here's another sequence of Blake blowing up a Spurs set.
At the start of the play, Duncan has the ball up by the elbow with Pau Gasol defending. Parker is racing in from the right corner with Blake not far behind.
Duncan tosses the ball to a streaking Parker and sets the screen. Blake smartly starts to go under the screen as Parker drives hard to the basket.
Because Blake went under the screen, he's able to get his body in front of Parker, slowing the Spurs guard slightly and forcing him to pick up his dribble.
This allows Blake to not only get his hands on the ball, but for Dwight to provide weakside help and swat Parker's right-handed attempt.
If you look hard enough, you can find clips of any player making dumb defensive mistakes. But for Bryant, they're not hard to find—at least not this season. Stuff like this happened all the time.
You can attribute Kobe's defensive lapses to a number of different factors: age, fatigue, trying to save his legs for the rest of the season/playoffs or even just laziness. It doesn't really matter, honestly. The point is that outside of a few moments of great defense (like the block below, which came from the same Trail Blazers game referenced earlier), Kobe hurt the Lakers defensively for most of the year.
Blake, on the other hand, has been a complete nuisance to other guards in Kobe's absence. He's been solid off the ball, never gives up on plays and is tenacious fighting through screens. Jeremy Lin and Tony Parker have shot a combined 29 percent from the field in their last three games against the Lakers. That's no accident. Blake can play some serious D.
Again, this is just a small silver lining to come out of Bryant's injury. It's not intended as an indictment of Kobe as a whole, because he's by far the Lakers' best player, and the things he accomplished in his 17th NBA season border on the miraculous.
It's just to say that the Lakers have actually looked better on defense with Blake manning the backcourt.
Will that matter all that much when they're only scoring 70 points per game? Probably not. But it at least gives the Lakers something to hang their hats on and is an encouraging step when you stop to think about the team's post-Kobe future.
And as mentioned earlier, that's the best a team can hope for when it loses its best player to injury.
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