How a Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin Backcourt Can Work for LA Lakers

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How a Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin Backcourt Can Work for LA Lakers
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With nagging nerve issues plaguing both Steve Nash's productivity and activity, it's been a long time since the Los Angeles Lakers had a backcourt as skilled as the newly formed Kobe Bryant-Jeremy Lin tandem.

That's not to suggest this partnership is guaranteed the slightest bit of success. Not by a long shot. Both players have performed at their best with the ball in their hands, and there is obviously only one to go around.

However, this twosome has talent, and in the NBA that's a necessary ingredient for any recipe of success.

It will take some sweat equity from both parties to make this work. Adjustments need to be made. Play styles need to be adapted.

But the top two members of this salary cap-saving squad sound like they are up for the challenge. The players have exchanged text messages, and the overarching theme of those talks has been a simple one.

"The one thing he told me is we have a lot of work to do and I think that's 100 percent accurate," Lin told reporters at his introductory press conference. "As long as we come in with that mindset of really having to work and earn everything, I think we'll be okay."

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This isn't going to be easy, but it's far from being impossible. If Lin and Bryant can blend their games together, the Lakers could have a potent combo of proven scorers and capable passers.

Bryant, the fourth-highest scorer in NBA history, might seem like a curious—at times, even unwilling—playmaker. Since the 2000-01 campaign, he's taken at least 1,500 field-goal attempts in 10 different seasons. No other player has done that more than six times over that stretch, and only three (Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady) have five or more seasons with that type of volume shooting.

At 35 years old, some might assume he's locked in his ways. After all, his style has helped net him five world titles, a pair of Finals MVP awards and regular-season MVP honors.

However, he's shown a willingness to change in recent years when adaptation has been needed. He has tied or broken his career high in assists each of the last two seasons and actually enjoyed doing it.

"It's trying to evolve and figure out what we need as a ballclub," Bryant said after consecutive 14-assist efforts in January 2013, via USA Today's Sam Amick. "Instead of me being a finisher, I'm just really facilitating and drawing the defense in and making plays."

Bryant's ability to create for others will provide a big lift for Lin. Even at the height of the "Linsanity" craze, the Harvard product was more of a scorer than a setup man.

Lin has never averaged more than 6.2 assists in his career and last year tossed out only 4.1 a night. His 23.5 assist percentage ranked 48th out of 71 qualified point guards in 2013-14, via ESPN.com.

Of course, his role with the Houston Rockets didn't help.

After losing his starting spot, he spent his time with the fifth-worst scoring reserve unit in the league (27.1 points per game), via HoopsStats.com. If he wasn't looking to score, Houston's second team struggled to light the lamp.

Besides, Lin calling his own number on occasion next season isn't necessarily a bad thing. He'll still be one of his team's top scoring threats, and any defensive pressure he can take will lighten the load on Bryant:

Ideally, Lin and Bryant will share playmaking duties in L.A.

Assuming Bryant can stay healthy—he missed all but six games last season, first rehabbing from a torn Achilles and later going down with a fractured lateral tibial plateau in his knee—the Lakers will have a pair of penetrators who can punish a defense. If either one hits the corner at full-throttle, they're awfully tough to keep away from the basket. 

That willingness to split touches isn't simply a matter of balancing egos. In fact, it does't sound like that part of the equation will be an issue at all.

Lin isn't looking to recapture the magic that made him a global phenomenon in 2012.

"I’m not trying to be a player from the past," he said at the press conference.

That's probably for the better. Bryant doesn't seem the least bit interested in giving up his alpha-dog spot.

"I don't want to say I'll be back at the top of my game, because everybody is going to think I'm crazy and an old player not letting go," Bryant said, via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com. "But that's what it's going to be."

Still, even without potential personality clashes, there are basketball hurdles for this dyad to clear.

"There has to come a point where Lin and Bryant can succeed off the ball next season," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote. "They can both run offenses and create shots for themselves, but they'll need to reach a synergistic understanding to coexist."

Basically, when one attracts the defense, the other needs to take advantage of that opportunity. They have the chance to create some drive-and-kick opportunities, but they'll have to prove they're capable of converting the back half of those plays.

Bryant has been a good three-point shooter, not a great one, in his career. But he hasn't eclipsed his career three-point percentage (33.5) in any of the last five seasons (31.9 percent over that stretch). If he finds a way to buck that trend, he could maintain his effectiveness without overexerting himself.

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Lin just had the best perimeter shooting year of his career, but all that included was converting an average rate of his three-point bombs (35.8 percent). If he can keep developing from distance, that will go a long way toward making this a potent pairing.

Beyond just drilling the deep ball, though, these two will have to find other ways to create scoring chances away from the ball.

That could be inside their bags of basketball tricks, but if it is, they haven't had to showcase it yet. Nearly 53 percent of Lin's field goals were unassisted last season. In 2012-13, only 33.2 percent of Bryant's field goals came off assists.

According to Lin, via McMenamin, he's been working on that aspect of his game for years:

I think from the minute that I stepped into Houston until now, I'm definitely a much more complete player, and I learned how to do a lot of things that maybe I never had to do before, which was learning how to play off the ball, cutting and really challenging myself with some of the weaknesses that I've had to try to improve on.

Offensively, this is going to take work and plenty of patience, but there is a chance that something special comes out of it.

The defensive end could be a different story.

Bryant still has the ability to lock in as an on-ball defender, but his body only allows him to give that type of effort for so long. His focus has also lapsed at times away from the ball, a problem that's compounded by the Lakers' lack of rim protection.

Lin has had his own defensive deficiencies, but they're not the same variety.

"Lin isn't a great defensive player, but his failings aren't effort-related," wrote Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes.

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Lin might miss a rotation here or go face-first into a screen there, but he competes at both ends. Still, his athletic limitations present some problems at a position littered with Olympian-style sprinters.

It's going to be a grind, but Bryant and Lin should be able to get more than they give.

The Lakers can only hope that's enough to compensate for a supporting cast featuring unproven commodities (Ed Davis, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Jordan Hill) and past-their-prime players (Steve Nash, Carlos Boozer). That group carries a massive chip on its shoulder, though, so maybe it will perform better than it looks on paper.

Still, whatever strides the Lakers can make next season will start and stop with their backcourt. If Bryant and Lin find a comfortable balance between them, they might not be the NBA's top guard tandem, but they'll have the ability to at least compete with the elites.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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