Grading L.A. Lakers with Kobe Bryant Injured Once Again

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2013

Dec 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Nick Young (0) celebrates a 3-point basket by center Pau Gasol (16) in the second half of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center. The Lakers won 104-91. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

There may be no better replacement for Kobe Bryant than a healthy dose of "swaggy." And I'm not just talking about Swaggy P.

Led by "Swaggy" Pau Gasol, the Los Angeles Lakers ran away from the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night on the way to a 104-91 victory.

Gasol had 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds.

The defining moment of the game came in the middle of the fourth quarter. After the Lakers' offense had been stagnant for a few possessions, Gasol knocked down an unexpected, and huge three to push the lead to 95-89 with 3:58 left in the game.

Gasol took off down the floor toward Nick Young (who had 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting), smiling as he performed his teammate's patented three-pointer celebration.

It was a moment that perfectly exemplified what the Lakers were before Kobe came back, and what they were Friday: uptempo, unpredictable and fun.

It's a brand of basketball that's been pretty effective this season. After all, the team is now 11-9 without Kobe, as opposed to 2-4 with him.

It's not fair to put all the blame on Bryant for the struggles though. The Lakers play a completely different style without him. He commands the ball and integrating him was going to take more than six games.

It's something that has been put on hold again with his latest injury. 

Credit the rest of the Lakers for so fluidly returning to their old form without him. This report card will reflect that, just maybe with a little less swag.

Lakers' Offense Without Kobe: A

Dec 20, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol (16) and shooting guard Wesley Johnson (11) in the second half of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center. The Lakers won 104-91. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The Lakers averaged 97.2 points per game with Kobe in the lineup. That was good for 19th in the NBA during that timeframe.

A big part of the offensive struggle was that the Lakers played at a slower pace in those six games. They tried to operate in the half court, with Kobe at point guard.

A sign of its moderate success would be the 6.3 assists Kobe averaged. Its shortcomings were evident in the 5.7 turnovers and the low scoring output for the team.

On Friday against the T'Wolves, coach Mike D'Antoni saw his Lakers running and gunning again. They scored 19 fast break points (up from the 9.7 they averaged with Kobe in the lineup).

The difference in energy level is so clear it can't be ignored. And the difference in chemistry might be even more obvious, and more important. 

When Kobe was playing, everything seemed geared toward integrating him, involving him, trying to find a role.

The Kobe-less Lakers just play. Everyone plays hard, and no one seems to be hunting his own shots. It can be a different guy on any given night.

Friday it happened to be Swaggy P and Swaggy Pau.

Lakers' Defense Without Kobe: B+

The Timberwolves are fourth in the NBA in scoring. They average 105.2 points a game. The Lakers held them to just 91.

The only problem was their difficulty in closing out defensive possessions. Rebounding is a critical part of defense and L.A. gave up 22 offensive rebounds.

Other than that, they played with the same brand of infectious energy they brought on offense. Their rotations were timely, and the one-on-one D was solid too.

The same could not always be said of the Lakers during Kobe's six-game stint.

Obviously it wasn't all his fault, but the team had the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league during that stretch, giving up 108.6 points per 100 possessions.

Kobe simply couldn't move laterally with the same explosiveness as he did before the Achilles injury. That made it difficult to stay in front of opposing wings on the perimeter and put more pressure on the defensive rotations.

Mike D'Antoni's Gameplan Without Kobe: A

Without Kobe on the floor Friday, D'Antoni seemed perfectly fine with just letting guys play.

It's the same kind of exciting, uptempo gameplan he employed in both Phoenix and New York. Run, run and run some more. Shoot any three that looks even remotely open. And play together as a unit.

The plan seemed, for lack of a better word, interrupted by Kobe's presence. Again, it's not completely his fault. The team had to integrate him somehow. But it was essentially a wrench thrown into cogs that were running pretty smoothly before.

Moving Forward

The Lakers' high marks without Kobe shouldn't necessarily be read as an indictment of him.

Yes, the Lakers have been a much better team without him in terms of raw numbers. But that doesn't mean they're better off without him.

There isn't enough evidence to suggest that he'd never be able to acclimate to the current culture and chemistry of this squad.

And if, and when he returns, that acclimation can't be automatically assumed as it was by many the first time around.

Kobe can get on board with these Swaggy Lakers. He'll just need an adjustment period.

For 140-character pearls of wisdom from Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey, follow him on Twitter: @AndrewDBailey. 


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