Jeremy Lin and Kobe Bryant might just be the Western Conference's starting backcourt for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game, but the Los Angeles Lakers are looking for something more than champions of popularity.
They're after backcourt compatibility for at least one year.
Can Bryant and Lin, playing together, alongside one another, give the Lakers what they're seeking?
The Lakers don't have actual centers on their roster aside from Robert Sacre—Jordan Hill and Ed Davis count as well, though neither are true centers either. That means Mike D'Antoni is going to be so happy more small ball.
Running diminutive lineups would thrust Bryant outside the backcourt, placing him at small forward alongside someone like Nick Young.
However, the spirit of the Lin-Bryant pairing remains intact no matter what, whether it's the Black Mamba, Swaggy P or someone else playing out of position.
Both are now prominent figures within the Lakers' interesting and confusing new dynamic—especially on the offensive end, where, assuming Steve Nash continues his untimely and unfortunate free-fall, they are now Los Angeles' two most talented playmakers.
This is a problem.
Bryant and Lin both prefer to operate with the rock in their hands as ball-dominant, shoot-first catalysts. It's the same problem a conceptual Carmelo Anthony-Bryant dyad ran into. Only this is a greater quandary.
Anthony has at least developed into a lethal spot-up shooter—one of the best, actually. Lin and Bryant have found no such success.
While more than a quarter of his shot attempts were classified as catch-and-shoot opportunities, he posted a middling 41.2 percent (subscription required) conversion rate in those situations.
Succeeding off the ball is a requisite ability when teaming with Bryant on the perimeter. It's what made Derek Fisher so effective, and it's why the idea of a healthy, sweet-shooting Nash remains intriguing.
It's also what makes Lin's role in Laker Land so vexing, as the San Jose Mercury News' Greg Frazier writes:
The Lakers have not spoken about their plans for Lin, but the high hopes of his fans might not be shared by the team's brass. General manager Mitch Kupchak's short statement on the trade called Lin "a solid player," hardly the endorsement that might be expected if Kupchak was thinking of Lin as a potential star.
Hints about Lin's potential for stardom in Los Angeles could come once the Lakers hire a head coach. If the new boss is interested in running a pick-and-roll style on offense, Lin's stock could rise.
Pick-and-rolls will have to be part of Los Angeles' offense. Slicing through opposing defenses off screens remains a specialty of Lin's, and it's what fueled the rise of Linsanity in New York.
However, the Lakers aren't teeming with pick-and-roll bigs. Moreover, Bryant is still going to be the focal point, meaning Lin must adjust to him like he did Harden—or try to at least, since that pairing didn't work out so well.
Lin's field-goal percentages plummeted with Harden on the floor. He shot 42.9 percent overall and 33.6 percent from deep alongside Harden compared to 47.2 and 39.8, respectively, without him.
Hope exists in the movement on Lin's jumper. He knocked down a career-best 35.8 percent of his three-pointers last year, more than 85 percent of which came off assists. Better still, Synergy Sports indicates he drilled a respectable 38.4 percent of his standalone bombs in 2013-14.
Most of the adjustment burden falls on Bryant.
Lin's evolution as an off-ball threat has been underwhelming, but it's also two years in the making and still developing. Bryant is nearly two decades into his career and set in his ways—tendencies and strengths that have never included consistent off-ball shooting.
Less than one-third of his made baskets came off assists in 2012-13. According to Synergy Sports, he nailed 35.8 percent of his spot-up attempts. He's also converted more than 33 percent of his standstill treys just once since 2009-10.
There has to come a point where Lin and Bryant can succeed off the ball next season. They can both run offenses and create shots for themselves, but they'll need to reach a synergistic understanding to coexist.
They'll need to score in ways they aren't accustomed to or particularly good at.
Opposing offenses are going to be a problem for the Lakers.
Hollywood's finest were a defensive disaster last year, finishing 28th in defensive efficiency. They're not in position to improve either.
Not only do they lack a legitimate rim protector—you know, unless you consider Carlos Boozer a rim protector—but Lin and Bryant don't project as an impregnable duo.
Lin's defensive struggles are well-documented, and he showed no improvement last season.
He's pick-and-roll-challenged, which is ironic considering he understands it well enough as an initiator. When he's forced to defend them deep on the perimeter, forget it. He's either swallowed whole by screens or goes so far under them that another two or three point guards could fit in the gap he creates.
His 109 defensive rating for 2013-14 stands as a career worst. To put that in perspective, other guards who logged at least 28 minutes a night while posting a defensive rating of 109 include Monta Ellis, Kevin Martin and J.J. Redick.
So, there's that.
Bryant, once a recurrent All-Defensive Team selection, faces new limitations in addition to his old nemesis (disinterest). Pushing 36 and coming off two major injuries, he's not going to have the same lateral quickness or ability to make up ground.
Part of his regression began in 2012-13, before he was even injured. He finished the year with a defensive rating of 107, his worst mark since 2006-07.
At least then, while infuriating, Bryant still had that other level he could journey to on command. Nevertheless, he still phoned in possessions, as Grantland's Zach Lowe observed then:
Again, he’s a good defender when he wants to be, and he can still be a huge pain in the ass on the ball against top scorers. But playing top-notch on-ball defense on a few possessions per game does not qualify someone for an All-Defense honor, when all those other possessions of hideous off-ball defense exist. ...
But there’s a difference between saving energy and behaving recklessly, and Bryant has crossed that line, stopping only to urinate on it this season.
Even if Bryant's effort is more consistent next season, he's not going to earn his 13th All-Defensive Team honor. There isn't enough gas left in that tank or enough miles left on those legs.
Complementing his ongoing decline with another defensive liability makes for a chilling combination. Especially when there are only guys like Boozer, Davis, Hill or Julius Randle waiting to pick up slack in the paint.
Something has to give for both players to work on defense, for the Lakers to have any hope of surviving with both in the game.
Otherwise, fans will bear witness to a defensive product that is somehow worse than last year's unmitigated catastrophe.
Partnering Bryant with Lin is not comical. There is plenty of talent between them. Given what the Lakers are trying to do—preserve cap space for the summer of 2015 without blatantly tanking—they're perfect and equipped to generate interest.
But this marriage is predicated on adjustments and sacrifices.
They must manipulate their offensive niches to accommodate one another. Los Angeles' coach—whoever it is—has to find a way to make these two work, or even stand a chance in hell of not imploding, on defense.
Finally, they must do this while accounting for separate obstacles.
Lin is entering a new environment, facing a spotlight he hasn't seen since his remarkable half-season run with the New York Knicks. Can he function in Los Angeles, on the Lakers, who remain one of the NBA's high-profile teams even during a rebuild?
Bryant, meanwhile, is in for an ego check.
Failed free-agency ventures have granted him one last year of the Kobe Show, but he also must come to terms with his own mortality and the limitations Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com says he'll encounter:
Finally, it will be interesting to see how Bryant changes his game -- whether he'll play fewer minutes, sit out the second night of back-to-backs, etc. -- to try to stay healthy in the long run. How will he handle it if L.A. is out of the hunt by the All-Star break again next season? Will he be content padding his career numbers with no postseason in sight?
Can Bryant and Lin work alongside one another?
With some change, individual tweaks and, yes, a little bit of luck, absolutely.
Not even the Lakers, Bryant and Lin know.
"Kobe wants to win and I want to win," Lin told Agence France-Presse (h/t Yahoo Sports) in fluent Mandarin. "I think Kobe wants his teammates to train hard and I will train hard. I hope he can respect me and we can collaborate well together."
Hopefully, Lin's right.
If he is, next season will be much easier to watch and believe in for fans.
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