Los Angeles Lakers fans are hoping to see Kobe Bryant back in uniform for the start of next season after an agonizingly long layoff. No one knows how two major injuries—a ruptured Achilles tendon and a fractured knee—might affect his style of play.
We do know, however, that Bryant has certain old-school preferences.
In an ESPN LA article by Dave McMenamin in January, the veteran shooting guard bemoaned the fast-paced finesse game that’s now in vogue, admitting that Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is at least partially responsible for the league-wide shift:
"It's more small ball which, personally, I don't really care much for. I like kind of smash-mouth, old-school basketball because that's what I grew up watching.”
During his recent end-of-season exit interview, D’Antoni himself spoke about the evolution of the game, per Lakers.com:
I do think the game is changing and it has changed. Some of the hard part of coaching is trying to drag people over to the next side. People are comfortable with doing business a certain way… It doesn’t mean there’s no place for a post-up player or the mid-range game. It’s just not what is dominant today and will be.
While D’Antoni’s future with the team is less than certain, his comments seemed to find resonance with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, also per Lakers.com:
I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s changed. The rules today promote that style of play… The idea of a two-point shot doesn’t even come up in a conversation with some coaches. That’s just the way it is today. Will it be that way 10-15 years from now? I don’t know. It is entertaining, it’s fun to watch and players love to play that way. I think it’s here to stay.
There’s no lack of variables heading into the summer. A roster needs to be built from the charred ashes of a lost season, a coaching decision needs to be made and we don’t know what Bryant will look like from a physical point of view as he heads into his twilight years.
If D’Antoni stays, will he find some middle ground with the aging superstar or will he stick to his purist small-ball ways? If a coaching change is made, will Bryant be catered to through a post-driven system or has that ship sailed?
Bleacher Report reached out to Darius Soriano who runs Forum Blue & Gold—the Lakers team page for ESPN’s TrueHoop network. Soriano believes Bryant will be able to operate in most any offense, finding his stride as a scorer, but that he’ll be most effective as a post player and even more specifically, operating 18 feet and in, especially when isolating:
His pet spots will probably still be the elbows and the shallow wing where he can work his triple threat game and use his jab-step to free up space to shoot his mid-range jumper. Off that shot, he can then force defenders to crowd him and, with his footwork, still be able to get a step on his man to get into the lane. His ability to finish inside and draw fouls are what will be an open question, though. Does he have the lift? Will he have the strength? My guess is he'll have enough, but it remains to be seen.
As for systems, I don't think one exists that would really put him in these positions consistently. It will be more about the types of plays a team runs to get him to these spots. I imagine we'd see lots of screen actions and HORNS sets that position him on the weak side to start a set or already plant him at the elbow, would be best for him at this stage.
We’ve seen all types of Mamba over the course of 18 seasons from the ball-happy gunner to more of a system player under Phil Jackson. This past season, he was even asked to run the point. It was far from ideal for someone coming off Achilles surgery but there weren’t a lot of alternatives, given that Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar were all injured and watching from the bench.
That experiment lasted just six games before Bryant went down with a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau—the bump where the top of the shin meets the knee. As it turned out, it was the last game of his 2013-14 campaign and symbolic of one of the strangest seasons ever for the Purple and Gold.
If the coaching system remains as is, what should we be watching for? Soriano points to Bryant’s well-known love of having the rock in his hands, while hoping he doesn’t have to expend too much energy early in the clock:
An interesting thing to watch will be how much he's asked to handle the ball to start a play. In the past, he'd start a lot of possessions with the ball in his hands and either run a P&R or simply dribble into a preferred spot on the floor where he could go to work. In a less structured style of play—like MDA’s "ball finds energy" type of offense, he'd have the freedom to do stuff like this and it wouldn't be an issue.
If D’Antoni stays on, I'd imagine these same freedoms will exist and they'll meet in the middle somewhere so that Kobe can operate with the ball in his hands to start sets while also working off it enough so he's not expending so much energy being the creator of offense for the entire team so often.
After all the wear and tear, after more than 54,000 minutes of basketball not counting international play and All-Star games, after all the surgeries and grueling practices and obsessive workouts, how much more can a body take? Bryant will have had a nice long rest when he finally suits up again, but he’ll also be 36 years old.
As we all know, of course, there’s no putting Bryant back in the bottle once he's on the court and feeling it, or, if he feels that his teammates aren’t doing enough. And therein lies another unknown—the Lakers ended the season with eight unrestricted free agents on the roster, as well as Nick Young who is expected to opt out of the second year of his minimum-salary contract.
One saving grace is the team’s top-10 pick in the upcoming draft. How will that plus the summer free-agency market affect how Bryant is used next season? Soriano says a lot will depend on who those teammates are:
A ball dominant guard or wing flanking him will put him off the ball more, regardless. If that player is a shot creator, Kobe can still work as a spot up shooter or find his way to the post on ball reversals. Ideally, I'd like to see him work more this way than as a ball handler above the arc where his teammates are flattened out and he has everyone in front of him. Kobe works best from the wing with the floor tilted towards him where shooters are spotted up diagonally and where cutters can slash behind defenders who are ball watching.
My hope would be whoever coaches the team next year recognizes these things and works with him to put him in these positions as often as possible rather than always asking him to handle the ball up high where he can be turnover prone.
Bryant is heading into his 19th season and the league has changed considerably during his long tenure. The three-pointer reigns supreme now, plus of course, highlight dunks. Analytics junkies have increasingly suggested that long two-point shots are bad and threes are good. The reason is simple—the extra point more than outweighs the decreased shooting percentage.
In other words, inefficiency has become efficient—and a whole lot splashier on TV.
Bryant doesn’t have a problem jacking them up from distance but would prefer to operate from the elbow and why not—he’s got five rings that proves he knows something about the game of basketball.
That game, however, is changing. This Sisyphean hero will once again push his boulder up the hill next season and we don’t yet know who will be surrounding him, guiding him or challenging him. A fresh new face in the coaching ranks could appear, or it may be a case of trying once again to wedge Bryant’s defiant square peg into D’Antoni’s round hole.
Or perhaps, the unlikeliest case of all—the arrival of some old-school smash-mouth coach who still believes in the inside-out rule of law.
Regardless, an uncompromising warrior will again be part of the NBA next season and we’ll watch and follow along. And if the Lakers’ offensive system fits Bryant’s twilight years, that’s great. And if it doesn’t, he’ll simply demand the ball and do a little pump-faking and jab-stepping and find a way to put the biscuit in the bucket, regardless of range.
And glower all the way back up the court.
It will be good to have Kobe back.