By most standards, a 57-25 record and a trip to the conference semifinals would signal a successful season.
The L.A. Lakers’ 2010-2011 season started with high hopes. The team was coming off back-to-back championships and needed one more title for Kobe to tie Michael Jordan’s championship ring total and Phil Jackson to complete his fourth three-peat as a head coach.
The Lakers fell short of their goal and were bulldozed by an underrated Mavericks team that went on to win the Finals. Getting swept in the playoffs is always embarrassing, but the way the Lakers went out—who can forget the thuggery of Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum—left a bad taste in the mouth of fans.
While the season was disappointing, the Lakers will return virtually the same team that was predicted to win the title before last year began. Several team flaws were exposed during the Lakers’ brief playoff run, and fewer analysts will be predicting the Lakers to return to the Finals.
But does that mean that Kobe can’t lead the Lakers back to the promise land?
Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the different roles he played on prior championship teams.
During the Lakers’ three-peat from 2000-2002, Kobe’s athleticism and explosiveness were key. He was able to dominate other guards and score at will because defenders couldn’t match his tenacity and had a hard time staying in front of him.
He may not have been the No. 1 option, but he was far from just a sidekick.
When Kobe led L.A. to consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010, he was 29 and 30 years old. His explosiveness wasn’t the same, but he had reached the peak of his game because he developed other aspects of his game.
He had improved his jump shot and had developed a strong post game which made him a better all-around player.
Last season it became clear that Kobe had lost a step. He still thought he was the best player on the court but wasn’t able to dominate the way he had in prior years.
Jason Kidd guarded him for much of the conference finals and Kobe struggled to dominate the weaker opponent. Kidd may be an underrated defender, but if Kobe can’t take advantage of a 38-year-old Jason Kidd, he’s no longer at the top of his game.
For the Lakers to win another championship, Kobe will need to evolve his game once more. He must move from “Kobe the dominator” to “Kobe the facilitator.” The more he thinks he’s the same old Kobe, the more the Lakers will suffer.
He is still an incredible player, but is no longer the best player in the league. Some make the argument that he isn’t even the best player on his team.
At times Kobe acts like he’s the only option on the floor. His will to win has always been a key strength, but if he does not channel that into getting his teammates the ball, that attribute could be his downfall.
Kobe attempted 20.0 field goals per game last season. That’s more attempts than Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or LeBron James. The only player who took more shots per game was Monta Ellis (20.1 attempts) and he was the leader of an awful Golden State Warriors team.
If Kobe’s teammates were Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic, I could understand why he was taking that many shots. But this isn’t 2006. Pau Gasol, Bynum and Odom are all legitimate scoring threats who can get the job done.
While there are holes on the Lakers roster—specifically at the point guard position—Kobe has plenty of help offensively. He needs to learn how to fully utilize his teammates and get them the ball more often.
There’s one more factor that plays into Kobe’s ability to lead his team to another title—his relationship with head coach Mike Brown.
Kobe has the power to sink and destroy Brown at any point in time. For some reason, Kobe has still not spoken publicly about Brown since the hiring announcement was made almost two months ago.
Why has Kobe waited so long? Surely he is frustrated with management and their treatment of Brian Shaw, but it’s time for Kobe to do what’s best for the team.
When the coming season starts—whenever that may be—Kobe will be 33. His legs are carrying 15 years of NBA experience and many of those years including extended playoff runs. His best years are clearly behind him.
But for the Lakers to win another title, it is all on Kobe—just not in the way he may think it is. He doesn’t need to score 30 points a night, but he does need to evolve as a player and be a leader.
He doesn’t need to be the focal point of the offense every night but instead needs to get his teammates involved and work harmoniously with his coach.
If Kobe can show true leadership and the Lakers can win a championship this season, it might be his greatest accomplishment. He would not only tie Michael Jordan’s ring count, but he’d show the world that he can be the ultimate teammate and is not a selfish player.
The long offseason has given Kobe plenty of time to think. Let’s hope he comes back this year with a renewed effort to get his teammates involved and buy into Coach Brown’s system.
If he doesn’t, the Lakers title hopes may be over before the season even starts.