Which Version of Kobe Bryant Do LA Lakers Need in 2013-14?

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Which Version of Kobe Bryant Do LA Lakers Need in 2013-14?
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Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers

Heading into the 2013-14 season, the Los Angeles Lakers will need a new version of Kobe Bryant in order to enjoy a successful season.

Any conversation that starts with Bryant must invariably lead to a discussion about his Achilles injury. It is questionable whether he will be ready for the start of training camp, but he has been shattering the recovery timetable, which is a great sign for the Lakers.

One might wonder if he will be physically limited when he returns, but after looking at the effects of the injury on other players, it seems Bryant has a great chance of regaining his old form given the adjustments he has made to his game during his career.

The 2-guard is arguably the greatest scorer of his generation and he was quick to provide reminders of this during the course of the 2012-13 campaign by reaching the 30-point threshold 35 times.

However, his point totals often mask his gifted playmaking skills. Bryant’s ball-handling, coupled with his grasp of defensive concepts, allow him to orchestrate the offense and generate high-percentage shots for his teammates.

This ability is a both a blessing and a curse for the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer. When he chooses to call his own number, he is labeled a gunner. On the flip side, there have been instances where he has chosen to get his teammates involved and it resulted in murmurs creeping up about him quitting on his team.

This explains the fascination with Bryant’s shot count. In his lone season playing with Dwight Howard in Los Angeles, much was made about the fact that the Lakers had only won 18 of their 43 games when the two-time Finals MVP attempted 20 field goals or more.

The context that resulted in Bryant’s numerous shots was often ignored. There were times where he fired up far too many contested jumpers, but there were also situations where he dragged an anemic offense out of a funk and gave it life.

When addressing Bryant’s effectiveness as well as his contributions to wins, one must look at the process when the picture gets painted as opposed to merely admiring the finished product.

For instance, two weeks removed from the 2013 All-Star Game, Bryant rescued the Lakers from a surefire loss against the Toronto Raptors. After spending the bulk of the contest setting up his teammates (he registered 12 assists in the contest), he shifted his focus in the fourth quarter to scoring.

He bailed out the Purple and Gold with an array of off-balance shots on his way to a 41-point outing that resulted in a victory. That version of Bryant is incredibly dangerous, but it is also typically quite predictable.

Still, the former league MVP mixed and matched his game enough on that night to keep Toronto defenders guessing. Earlier in the season, Bryant had a six-game stretch in which he averaged double-digit assists and helped the Lakers win four of five games.

With everyone getting in on the action, opponents simply could not key in on Bryant and it afforded him a few one-on-one opportunities. Still, he was masterful at keeping his teammates involved during the run and it produced wins.

That five-game sample size is obviously quite small but it highlighted an important aspect about the team: The Lakers are better when Bryant does not have to carry the entirety of the offensive load.

In the 35 games that Bryant played and attempted fewer than 20 shots, Los Angeles won 24 games. Granted, that could be a product of randomness, thus perhaps looking at a bigger sample of data is more fruitful.

Save for the 2009-10 and 2011-12 seasons, Bryant has averaged fewer than 20 field-goal attempts in victories since the 2007-08 season (that is the same year the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol), according to NBA.com.

The evidence suggests the Lakers are better off when Bryant displays his brilliant all-around game. Grantland’s Zach Lowe echoed those sentiments towards the conclusion of the 2012-13 campaign:

Noah Graham/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant dishes off after a drive.

Games like this are a reminder of how fantastic an all-around offensive player Bryant is, and how devastating he can be when he adds just a hair more diversity to his game. He doesn’t have to go into all-out distributor mode, passing up shots almost for show; he just needs to optimize three or four choices per game to go from “top-10 overall offensive player” to “devastating force on another level.”

On the other hand, when Bryant is merely hoisting up shots, defenses often ignore his teammates and send additional help his way. It may be difficult for some players to confront Bryant on this topic but former Laker Antawn Jamison shared with ESPN LA radio that the 2-guard welcomes the feedback:

Kobe will tell you, he’s like, “Look, you guys as my teammates, yell at me. Let me know that you’re open because I’m so programmed.” And this guy has told me this “I see nothing but that basket. You could be open. It could be three guys on me. But the only thing I see is that basket. So, you have to tell me, Look, I was open. Or yell at me in mid-play.”

Bryant’s willingness to advise his teammates that they must call out to him when they are open is admirable but it also suggests that he is not always in the habit of looking for them even when he is seeing a swarm of defenders.

That is fascinating within itself. The 17-year veteran can seamlessly switch from high-volume scorer to maestro, but there are times where he simply struggles to marry both mindsets.

This will have to change going forward. The Lakers need a new version of Bryant heading into the 2013-14 season, one that the league is probably not equipped to deal with: the 2004-05 Joe Johnson version.

Before the world goes up in flames in protest of comparisons involving Bryant and Johnson, in no way am I saying that the Brooklyn Net is a better player than the Hall of Fame guard.

What I am stating, though, is that Johnson was a great combo guard while playing with Steve Nash during the 2004-05 campaign with the Phoenix Suns. Johnson’s role was simple and yet vital to the success of that Suns team.

D’Antoni relied on his shooting guard that season to make open shots, assume some ball-handling duties and play the role of backup point guard. He deferred to Nash on offense and allowed him to run the team.

That Suns team sported the best offensive efficiency in the league because of their crisp spacing and ability to attack the interior. Johnson was instrumental to the offense because of his shooting and his offensive repertoire.

He beat defenders off the dribble for scores and went to the block when confronted by smaller defenders. This is right up Bryant’s wheelhouse provided he is willing to sacrifice his customary amount of touches.

Indeed, this requires Bryant to transition to somewhat of a lesser role in the same manner that Tim Duncan did with the San Antonio Spurs. The change in philosophy may be controversial, but it also removes the offensive burden that the Lakers all-time leading scorer has shouldered since Shaquille O’Neal left town.

Bryant and Nash flashed some great synergy together at times when the 2-guard played off the ball. Nash is such a willing and gifted passer that his backcourt partner will routinely find himself in scoring position with the ball coming his way.

One of the most forgotten aspects of Mike Brown’s final season in Los Angeles is that Bryant got a multitude of easy looks at the basket simply by moving around the floor when his teammates had the ball.

Bryant beat defenders with cuts, screens and backdoor plays. Once Nash was lost for a long period of time because of his broken leg, the coaching staff put the ball in Bryant’s hands.

Thus, when D’Antoni came in and succeeded Brown, he kept the same game plan and used the five-time champion as his de facto point guard. Let’s not forget that Bryant will always be able to get shots off and burn defenses, especially late in the shot clock.

However, using him as the secondary option (he would still be the first option of sorts, but just not primary ball-handler) will allow his teammates to shake free by setting screens for him and also get them involved in games.

Nash has excelled at getting the best out of his players offensively in the latter stages of his career and it is quite fair to assume he will do so again in 2013-14 with Bryant embracing a reduced role.

After spending six seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, Nash returned to the team that originally drafted him (Phoenix) in the 2004 offseason and helped it produce the best offensive efficiency in the league for six consecutive seasons.

D’Antoni was Nash’s coach from 2004-05 to 2007-08 and helped lay the blueprint for that league-leading offense. There is no reason to believe his coaching staff cannot reproduce that once again.

With Bryant dialing his offense back and allowing Nash to play quarterback, the Lakers will become a quick-hitting, spread pick-and-roll team that consistently challenges the best defenses in the league.

It all hinges on the talented scorer’s willingness to morph his game once again to fill a new role for the Lakers.

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