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The One Massive Problem with LA Lakers That Kobe Bryant's Return Won't Fix

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The One Massive Problem with LA Lakers That Kobe Bryant's Return Won't Fix
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers are struggling, and there seems to be some sort of underlying belief that everything will magically get better when Kobe Bryant returns to the lineup.

Whenever that may be. 

Nov. 15 or not, Kobe's arrival is not going to be a panacea for the Lakers' maladies. There's too much going wrong on the defensive end of the court, and that won't be easy for him to fix. Failure to stop penetration—and points, for that matter—has derailed the early portion of the Lake Show's underdog campaign, and it's starting to overshadow the positive developments. 

Right now, there must be something in the water at the Staples Center. 

After all, the two teams allowing the most points per game in the NBA both call that arena home. The Los Angeles Clippers boast the highest mark at 112.5, and the Lakers aren't far behind at 109. If you look carefully, you can see smoke rising from the jerseys of every player who steps onto the court while sporting an away uniform. 

Once adjusted for pace, things aren't much better. 

According to Basketball-Reference, the Lakers are allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which is the No. 26 rate in the league. This would be at least manageable if the offense were operating at a high level, but the Lakers have been outscored by just over eight points per 100 possessions, so you can throw that potentially optimistic view out the window.

Everything came to a head against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 5, when the Lakers just completely forgot that they were supposed to slow down the other team.

In the 123-104 victory, Dallas shot 52.1 percent from the field and made 13 of their 27 three-point attempts, prompting Mike D'Antoni to tell the Associated Press (h/t ESPN) after the game that "we (the Lakers) don't come out with the same grit and determination."

As Mark Medina wrote for the Los Angeles Daily News: "The microphones set up near the rims here produced rhythmic noises that explained how the Lakers walked off here with a 123-104 loss Tuesday to the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Swish! Whoosh! Bank!"

Everything centered around Monta Ellis, who scored 30 points and dished out nine dimes while shooting 11-of-14 on his field-goal attempts and turning the ball over once. In what effectively serves as a microcosm for the entire season, Ellis completely exposed the Lakers' lack of perimeter defense. 

After the game, the dynamic 2-guard made it sound remarkably easy. "The lane was wide open, so I just attacked," he said to the AP, "and when they came over, I passed the ball, and that's what we wanted." There was no reason to disagree, which Steve Nash confirmed when he spoke about how easily Ellis got into the heart of the defense. 

It actually was that easy.

Don't worry, we have photo evidence to back this up.

All screenshots from NBA.com's video archives.

In this situation, it only takes the Mavericks swinging the ball around the perimeter to get the Lakers discombobulated. With the ball passed from Ellis to Jose Calderon to Dirk Nowitzki, all the defenders have backed up instead of keeping pace with the rock. 

As a result, Dirk can swing the ball over to Monta Ellis, who capitalizes on the open space you saw in the first screenshot

Once he starts driving, the Lakers don't know what to do. 

Steve Blake can't stay in front of him, and neither of the closest defenders can afford to help out too much; they're still tied to the three-point threats in the corner and at the top of the key. 

At this point, there's too much pressure on Jordan Hill, who is essentially picking what he wants to happen. If he stays put—as he does—Ellis is scoring. If he slides over, there's an easy dump-off pass as soon as Ellis penetrates into the lane. 

And Ellis scores. 

But let's take a look at a pick-and-roll situation as well. Once more, the perimeter defense is shoddy, and the interior stoppers are put into a tough spot. 

In this play, Ellis rolls around Dirk's screen and is quick enough to leave Blake in the dust. 

As he starts driving into the painted area, he's at a clear advantage. Not only is there open space, but he's essentially running a four-on-three fast break with two three-point threats flanking him, one on either wing. 

What exactly is Shawne Williams supposed to do? 

He chooses to stop the ball, but that just results in an easy pass to Samuel Dalembert, who finds himself all alone at the rim. 

It's been a consistent problem for the Lakers, and it's allowed opposing guards to just torment them each and every game of the 2013-14 campaign. 

Let's take a look at the combined numbers for each of the five opponents' starting backcourts to open the season: 

Team Players Points Shooting Numbers Assists Turnovers
LAC Chris Paul and J.J. Redick 28 10-of-25 14 2
GSW Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson 48 19-of-29 7 2
SAS Tony Parker and Danny Green 27 13-of-24 7 1
ATL Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver 36 15-of-28 8 2
DAL Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis 42 15-of-20 14 2

 

That's just embarrassing. 

Not only have teams consistently shot well and tracked up both points and assists, but no starting backcourt has recorded more than two combined turnovers against the Lakers thus far. Things are just...easy when squaring off with the Lake Show. 

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Unfortunately for the team, Kobe isn't going to remedy this. 

The Mamba does a lot of things well.

Throughout the 2012-13 campaign, he proved that even with old age creeping up on him, he could function as an elite primary scorer and still change his playing style on a whim to become one of the best facilitating guards in basketball. He can occasionally play lockdown individual defense, and he's a great rebounder and leader. 

But Kobe is not a great defender at this stage of his career. 

He was reemed by critics last year for his lackluster efforts playing help defense, and for good reason. It was atrocious, as Kobe was often content to watch players fly by as he stayed right next to his man. There was no effort to rotate, nor was there much emphasis placed on trapping. 

Basketball-Reference has some pretty telling numbers here. 

With the Mamba on the court during the 2012-13 season, the Lakers allowed 108.1 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, that number plummeted to 103.8. And seeing as he spent so much time next to Metta World Peace and Dwight Howard, the two best defenders on last year's roster, that's especially problematic. 

So, what happens if Kobe comes back and plays a similar style? Is it actually possible for the L.A. defense to get more porous? 

Probably not, since it can't get much worse. The problems start with the perimeter defense, and there's a trickle-down effect that's messing with everything else. Kobe can actually make it marginally better because—as Brandon Jennings can attest to—he's still capable of buckling down and stopping one opposing guard at a time. 

Still, it's time to manage expectations after a poor start to the year.

Can Kobe fix the Lakers' defensive woes?

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The Lakers are 2-3, and they haven't looked all that promising. Wins over the Clippers—who must have been caught by surprise—and the Atlanta Hawks aren't going to guarantee anything close to a playoff spot.

Don't think that Kobe is going to come back and function as some magical deity who can immediately fix all of L.A.'s problems. He might give the team an established No. 1 option to handle the scoring load, but defense is another story.

And it's not a story you'd want to read to your kids at night.  

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