Kobe Bryant is the Robin of the L.A. Lakers—as in Robin Hood of course, and everyone knows that every Robin Hood has a company of Merry Men at his disposal.
This year, more than ever, this Robin will depend on his Merry Men to carry him to a Three-Peat.
The playoffs are fast approaching, and the Lakers are making a convincing run for the NBA’s setting sun, with only two losses in their last 19 games.
More importantly, the Lakers have made dramatic statements by disposing of both the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks in a stretch of games that have them gaining tremendous ground in trying to achieve the No. 1 seed.
Tinsel Town’s third NBA championship in as many years—as well as a second three-peat—seems to be within their grasp, but if there is any truth to the expert assessments of this season, it will be more difficult to win it all this year.
For the most part, Robin Hood and his Merry Men consist of the same blueprint of players as last year’s championship run, but there are two dramatic differences this year. First and foremost, Bryant’s sore left knee is not going anywhere. Secondly, there are more legitimate contenders in both the east and the west then there has been in recent memory.
While in the twilight of a stellar career, success for the L.A. Lakers this season would put the perennial superstar Bryant in the same double three-peat boat as Michael Jordan, and he will undoubtedly be regarded as one of the top ten greatest players to ever play the game.
Although Bryant remains a key contributor and the number one scoring option for his team, Father Time has ensured that he is not as consistently dominant as he used to be.
His bone-on-bone left knee is feeling the effects of playing the better part of 82 games, a grueling schedule in which Bryant has given himself little rest for a cause that instead could have freshened his legs in favor of a strong playoff run.
It has been well documented that the veteran did not practice with the team during much of the first half of the season, in an effort to save the cartilage starved knee from increased wear and tear while still playing 30-plus minutes.
It is also well documented that Kobe has been practicing with the team since after the All-Star Break, and while the "save the knee for the playoffs" scenario goes right out the window, it’s the most likely reason the Lakers exchanged their previously innocuous game for more improved play during the month of March.
After games, Bryant spends much time icing the knee and is usually the last one out of the locker room—an act of supreme dedication and focus towards the ultimate goal.
After undergoing three operations on the same knee (the most recent being this past offseason), Bryant continues to have it drained every few days. It’s not an unlikely scenario that the intensity of the upcoming playoffs will reduce his otherwise sharp edge.
Bryant’s shooting percentage has been in decline this year, most likely from trying to adapt to a perimeter game with far less punishing drives to the rim. And while there have been many games where he shoots the lights out and can dominate with the best of them—as reflected by field goal percentages that are far above 50 percent—there are still other games where his arrow just does not find the mark—as reflected by field goal percentages that are far below 40 percent.
Not only does Bryant have one of the lowest shooting percentages on his team this year, but he ranks far lower than many other NBA players. For example, Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol rank in the top 15 in FG percentage among qualified NBA players, while Bryant ranks 65th at 45 percent. By comparison, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James have each made about 100 less attempts than Bryant, but they are both averaging 50 percent.
In the recent loss to the Denver Nuggets (95-90), Bryant scored 28 points on 10-of-27 shooting, and in the previous game’s win over Dallas, Bryant was 8-of-21, yet the Lakers still beat up on the Mavs (110-82).
When Bryant is hot and his shots find the mark, the opposing teams require hope and a prayer to dispose of the Lakers. A positive sign going into the playoffs is that when Bryant is cold (like in the Dallas game), the Lakers still have the potential to pull out a win because of their incredible depth.
This year, a Lakers’ three-peat will not likely come at the hands of Robin Hood himself because of the knee and its extreme lack of rest—but it is still very possible that the championship will come.
That’s because, in the inevitable playoff games in which Robin’s arrows miss their marks, the four Merry Men (listed in these slides) will carry the Lakers to victory—and three of these four are capable of causing nightmarish matchup problems against their opponents.
Ron Artest is a true outlaw who sells rings and things for the benefit of the poor. Just like Little John of Robin Hood folklore, he is the last defensive stand in the Lakers’ kingdom.
Artest is the best lock-down defender the league has seen since Dennis Rodman ran with the Bulls and the Pistons.
The media have had many field days with Artest this season, and Lakers fans conveniently forgot his game-winning shot that sealed the deal last season as they demanded a trade—a trade for a better offensive player, because the defense-focused Artest was not being offensive enough.
Truth be told, Artest was certainly not being defensive enough either, and defense is supposed to be his game.
To be fair, the Lakers as a team were certainly not playing defensive minded basketball, allowing their opponents to score with impunity. It was confounding, because the Lakers—who were perfectly capable of superior defense—really didn’t care.
Therefore, if the Lakers were not playing Big-D, how could anyone expect Artest to? One defender on a team of defensive holes would have been a futile effort.
Since the All-Star break, however, things have changed in Laker-land for the better. Not only are the Lakers 17-2 in that period, but they have allowed the enemy to score more than 100 points on just three occasions—including holding them down eight times to under 90 points.
Big Lakers-D starts and ends with Ron Artest, and now that everyone else is on board, this team is scary on both ends of the court.
It takes defense to win championships, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is not getting past Little John.
Fryer Tuck was the most versatile of the Merry Men; not only could he fight, he was a very good showman.
Lamar Odom is just as versatile, as reflected by both his basketball skills and by his reality TV acting talent.
On the court, Odom represents the best sixth man in the league, and he could easily be the number one option on many NBA teams.
For instance, could you imagine how scary the new Denver Nuggets would be with Odom as their number one option?
Odom has length, he can drive the lane, he can shoot with a high percentage, he has a good post game, and he can be dominant on both ends of the court.
Coming off the bench, Odom will undoubtedly cause mismatch problems against his opponents.
Pau Gasol is the Will Scarlett of the gang and, like Will—who had a multitude of weapons at his disposal (sometimes skillfully swinging two swords at once)—Gasol has his own assortment of offensive arsenal.
People say he’s soft on defense, but not when he tries—and lately, Gasol has been trying.
According to NBA.com, Gasol is the fourth most efficient player in the NBA and was a big part of both the Lakers' previous championship runs. He remains key to the three-peat.
He can score, rebound and dish out assists, and he is an all-around player.
At seven feet tall, Gasol is the stuff of Robin Hood folklore, and his length at power forward causes huge mismatch problems versus his opponents.
The Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest did not have an X-Factor as such, not like the one the Robin Hood of Tinsel Town has.
Andrew Bynum is the X-Factor—he represents a big man in a league that has very few real big men to speak of, and his footwork is much better than that of Dwight Howard.
The one big negative against Bynum is his "made of glass" persona, due to his lengthy injury saga.
On a positive note, he is playing aggressive basketball and at the same time seems very healthy going into the playoffs.
Bynum brings length, speed, finesse and strength to the center position for the Lakers, causing obvious mismatch problems with opponents.
One of the most important things that Bynum brings to the table is playoff and championship experience.
What’s Robin Hood saying lately about Bynum?
"He was sensational," Bryant said. "He looks like he's kind of figuring things out. I don't know if he's putting something in his cereal in the morning or what, but something is clicking in for him in terms of exactly what we need from him and how to play big down in the post" (ESPN).
And with a healthy, confident Bynum in the fold, the Lakers championship hopes are very good—especially since success starts with the X-Factor.