Why Kobe Bryant's Return Will Force LA Lakers to Forge Their True Identity

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 19, 2013

USA Today

The world's most famous Mamba can decide when he slithers back onto the court in his purple-and-gold skin.

According to B/R's Kevin Ding, Kobe Bryant has full medical clearance and can now begin all basketball-related activities. There still isn't a specific date pinpointed for the much-anticipated return for the Los Angeles Lakers, but it can't be too far off. As Jordan Hill told NBA.com about his teammate: 

He looked real good. He was going real hard. I thought he wasn’t going to be able to go that hard but he was really pushing it. And, I know he’s not ready yet but he’s coming along and he should be ready pretty soon.

When Kobe strides onto the court, the Lakers will finally be able to forge their true identity.  

They've created a makeshift one while the superstar has rehabbed his injured Achilles, one based on fast play, three-pointers and plenty of ball movement, but that's going to be thrown out the window as soon as Kobe is ready to go. 


A Change of Pace

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 12:  Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts from the sidelines during the game againts the New Orleans Pelicans at Staples Center on November 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Harry How/Getty Images

There are two conflicting ideologies at work here. 

On one hand, the Mike D'Antoni system asks for lots of ball movement, shots with plenty of time left on the clock and one of the quickest paces in the league. It's the reason he's become known for the "Run-n-Gun" offense and the "Seven Seconds or Less" system. 

And that's been no different in 2013-14 than it was during his infamous tenure with the Phoenix Suns a handful of years ago. 

D'Antoni asks the Lakers to run, run, run, and that's exactly what they do. So far, only the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers have been averaging more possessions per 48 minutes. 

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 14:  Head coach  Mike D'Antoni of the Los Angeles Lakers motions from the bench as Kobe Bryant #24 comes up the floor against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on December 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User exp
Rob Carr/Getty Images

But on the flip side, the Lakers are set to get back their unquestioned star player. It's not like Kobe is some role player who will be forced to adapt to the system currently in place; he's the superstar in Los Angeles. 

Chris who? Blake who? Pau who? 

No one in Tinseltown has more status and star power than Kobe. If he were playing Guitar Hero, he'd spend the entire song getting extra points as the crowd cheered, and he wouldn't even have to point the neck of the guitar toward the sky. 

However, the Mamba is coming off an Achilles injury, one that will require him to work his way back into the flow of the game a little bit at a time. It's a devastating injury, one that saps explosiveness and must be treated with caution. 

Do you really want Kobe to be running at a break-neck pace right when he returns to the lineup? If something's gotta give (and it does), it'll be the speed of the offense. 

Take a gander at how fast Kobe's teams have played throughout his career, starting in 1998-99 when he scored nearly 20 points per game and first became a focal point of the offensive system: 

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Notice anything? 

The 98.8 possessions per 48 minutes that the Lakers are using now are wayyyyy above Kobe's career-high mark. And that's not going to be a recipe for success, as he'll not only be playing outside his comfort zone, but also risking a setback in his return. As NBC Sports' Kurt Helin writes, "You are introducing a new dynamic to the team and one that doesn’t necessarily fit with the running style seen so far."

D'Antoni will still have the Lakers push the pace. There's no doubt about that. But he won't be asking them to play at such an extreme speed. 

Someone has to compromise, and it'll be the mustachioed coach.

It has to be. 


More Emphasis on the Charity Stripe

CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 8: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots a free-throw as teammate Steve Nash #10 looks on against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena on February 8, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User ex
Kent Smith/Getty Images

Ever heard of the four factors? 

They're a set of advanced statistics that attempt to show how effective an offense (or defense) is playing: effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free throws per field-goal attempt. In layman's terms, they portray how well a team shoots, takes care of the ball, generates second-chance opportunities and gets to the charity stripe. 

Here's how the Lakers stack up against the rest of the league thus far:

Graphic created with Infogr.am.

Any guesses which areas have caused the Lake Show the most problems thus far? 

While the team shoots the ball fairly well and minimizes turnovers, it has trouble crashing the offensive glass—even with Jordan Hill in the lineup!—and can't get to the foul stripe with any sort of frequency. It's the latter area that Kobe can help with. 

Thus far, only the New York Knicks and—somewhat shockingly—the San Antonio Spurs are less adept at earning freebies, but that's about to change when the Mamba returns to action. 

Last season, he earned 0.392 trips to the foul line per field-goal attempt, courtesy of Basketball-Reference. That outpaces most every major contributor in 2013-14 by a rather large margin: 

  1. Xavier Henry, 0.500
  2. Jordan Hill, 0.439
  3. Nick Young, 0.344
  4. Steve Nash, 0.261
  5. Jodie Meeks, 0.241
  6. Pau Gasol, 0.216
  7. Jordan Farmar, 0.156
  8. Steve Blake, 0.126
  9. Wesley Johnson, 0.094
  10. Chris Kaman, 0.063
  11. Shawne Williams, 0.043

While Henry and Hill in particular have done a nice job drawing contact, neither of them have the ball in their hands enough to make a huge impact. It's more important that the primary handlers, guys like Nash, Blake and Farmar, aren't getting to the stripe with much frequency. 

When Kobe comes back, so too does the team's attacking nature. 

We already know he'll be bursting to the basket and spending plenty of time racking up points one at a time. But once the whistles start blowing, the hope is they won't stop. An attacking mentality can be contagious, especially once the referees have gotten into a foul-calling mood. 


Less Ball Movement

During the pre-Kobe portion of the 2013-14 campaign, the Lakers have been all about ball movement. The rock swings from side to side. It gets tossed into the paint and back out, all in search of the best shot possible. 

After all, the ball moves faster than a defender can. 

It's part of the reason that D'Antonio has always been able to make good players look like great ones on offense and serviceable ones appear to be high-quality role players.

It's also the type of ball movement that doesn't sit well within a Kobe-centric offense. His shows tend to resemble those of the New York Knicks, who run so much through isolation sets, whether it's Carmelo Anthony shooting the ball or Raymond Felton touching it incessantly. 

You can see that discrepancy in the number of touches per game the most prominent players receive, as shown by NBA.com's statistical databases:

RankLakers PlayerKnicks Player
1Pau Gasol (68.3)Raymond Felton (75.7)
2Steve Blake (67.7)Carmelo Anthony (70.7)
3Steve Nash (57.2)J.R. Smith (49.0)
4Jordan Farmar (49.1)Andrea Bargnani (42.2)
5Jordan Hill (35.8)Pablo Prigioni (38.2)

Beyond that, the data gets blurred because we're dealing with role players. But the difference should already be clear.

Look at how the Lakers trend downwards rather gradually. Each of their four most-involved players fall in between 'Melo (No. 2) and J.R. Smith (No. 3). 

That, in a nutshell, is a ball-dominated offense vs. one centered around ball movement.

And does anyone think that the Lakers are going to maintain that type of distribution once their All-Star 2-guard is back on the court? Of course not!

If you're in search of any evidence, look no further than last year, when D'Antoni leaned heavily on Kobe for offense. According to Basketball-Reference, Bryant's usage rate was 31.9, amazingly enough a step down from the two years just prior.  

This season, no one on the team has a usage rate greater than Chris Kaman's 25.2. Take a look at the progression of usage rates last year and this season (among players making significant contributions): 

1Kobe Bryant (31.9)Chris Kaman (25.2)
2Dwight Howard (22.2)Pau Gasol (24.8)
3Pau Gasol (20.5)Jordan Farmar (24.7)
4Jordan Hill (20.2)Nick Young (22.8)
5Antawn Jamison (18.7)Xavier Henry (21.8)
6Steve Nash (17.8)Steve Nash (20.1)
7Metta World Peace (17.5)Jordan Hill (18.7)
8Jodie Meeks (16.7)Jodie Meeks (17.2)
9Darius Morris (16.2)Wesley Johnson (17.1)
10Earl Clark (15.7)Steve Blake (14.5)

The offense just shifts when Kobe is on the court. It's inevitable, and that's pretty evident just comparing the top usage rates in 2012-13 to the leading candidates in 2013-14. 

Is this a good thing? 

Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on how effective Kobe is as a scorer. Frankly, that's something I don't have too many concerns about, but Derrick Rose has shown that it's important to temper the expectations. Due to the inherent needs for ball movement—there's no more Dwight Howard this year—he'll take a decline as a scorer, but that's due more to the system than anything else. 

When Kobe is back on the court, the numbers will resemble something in between the two columns in each of the above charts. Relying on him as an isolation scorer who can carry a team is foolish, but asking him to handle combo-guard duties is not. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 1: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball and calls a play against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the game on February 1, 2013 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
David Sherman/Getty Images

The Lakers don't need Kobe to be 2012-13 Kobe, taking on the scoring burden no matter who's on the court. There are enough solid options and a quality offensive system in place already, so that's not necessary. 

But they also don't need for him to imitate Steve Nash. While it's nice to have a great facilitator out on the court, Steve Blake is already handling that responsibility just fine. 

Again, it's all about compromise. 

Kobe has to strike a balance between carrying the scoring burdens and maintaining the offensive flow that has allowed the team to hang tough in his absence. D'Antoni has to find the middle ground between the break-neck paces he loves and the slower ones that suit the Mamba. Everyone has to compromise between settling for good shots and attacking the basket so they can end up at the free-throw line. 

Without that balance, the front office might have no choice but to compromise its integrity and begin subtly trying to tank. 


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