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The Bread-and-Butter Plays for Kobe Bryant

Dylan Murphy@@dylantmurphyFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2014

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) walks up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, in Phoenix. The Suns won 119-99. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Matt York/Associated Press

Kobe Bryant's supreme confidence has always been both his greatest asset and most glaring weakness. 

A confident Bryant intimidates opponents, wills his teammates to greater heights and dominates the fourth quarter. He exerts every ounce of his talent on the opponent. 

When the ball is going in the basket, Bryant is virtually unstoppable. It's when he's missing that the problems arise, because Bryant never stops firing. 

As it stands right now, his 37.9 usage rate leads the league among players who have played more than two games, according to NBA.com. Last week, he scored 39 points on 37 shots. We're seeing Kobe's other, uglier side. 

Where Bryant Excels

Bryant certainly doesn't deserve all of the blame for Los Angeles' early-season struggles. He's the team's late-clock option and its only consistent shot creator. The entire burden of the offense essentially rests with him and head coach Byron Scott's creativity in drawing up plays.

That said, there are areas on the floor in which Kobe is far more effective both as a scorer and passer. 

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The elbows—and in particular that semi-circle just above the paint and below the three-point line—is where Kobe is at his most lethal. His centralized position pressures defenders into making quicker decisions, and Kobe's top-notch court vision punishes slow reactions. 

That situation occurred in a game earlier in the season against the Golden State Warriors, with Bryant squaring up against Klay Thompson:

Jordan Clarkson, a solid three-point shooter, stood at the ready on the left wing while Jordan Hill hovered in the dunker spot—an area below the rim and along the baseline where bigs hang out to avoid mucking up drives and step in for dump-off passes.

As Bryant explodes left, Harrison Barnes, Clarkson's defender, only swipes at the ball because he's afraid to leave a shooter. But as Bryant gets in deep, Hill's defender, Andrew Bogut, has no choice but to step up. This leaves Hill free and Bryant finds him for a quick floater.

Though Kobe is most famous for his baseline fadeaway, it's actually not his most impactful location on the floor. The isolated nature of that spot means teams can handle him without double coverage, leaving Bryant to shoot long, contested two-point jumpers.

He's certainly made a career out of punishing a lack of double-teaming, but that baseline area doesn't lend itself much to passing. And on a Lakers team in which he sometimes serves as a point forward, that won't help to involve his teammates.

The One Play To Watch For With Bryant

Much of Bryant's offense develops out of his own ingenuity, but it's Scott's job to put Bryant in spots where he can succeed. Sometimes that boils down to drawing up plays that end in easy buckets; most often it's using an array of screens to place Bryant in a favorable position.

One such action is known as a "split" or "corner" set, in which the big on the elbow receives the ball and a guard on the wing screens for another guard in the strong-side corner.

For Bryant, this muddles up the picture and forces his defender to worry about multiple things besides defending him in isolation. Here, Bryant is the screener and hammers down on Jeremy Lin's man:

Hill passes up the dribble handoff with Lin, and Bryant relaxes as if he's about to post up his defender in his favored baseline spot. Instead, he explodes back toward the ball, running Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Charlotte Hornets directly into Hill. 

All that's left is a quick step backward to give Bryant the open catch-and-shoot jumper.

The advantage of such a set is that it provides the offense with options. Either one of the guards can cut backdoor. The screening guard can peel back for a dribble handoff and ignore the screen.

There is no right way to the run the play, meaning the defense never knows what's coming. 

How The Lakers Give Bryant The Ball In Crunch Time

Down the stretch of games, most teams rely on isolation or pick-and-roll play involving the most potent offensive players.

Better coaches put in a bit of structure as well by calling the team's most basic and effective sets. In the Lakers' case, it's the split action with a slight variation.

Typically, the player in the corner is the primary option. On the play above, it's Lin who's the buried player. On this late-game set against the Memphis Grizzlies, it's Bryant who's now starting low:

Kobe is such a savvy cutter that he's able shed his defender, use the Lin screen and get himself wide-open for a jump shot.

Very few players understand how to use change of pace and swift hand movement to create separation. Bryant is one the league's masters at it. 

Notice how he swims inside as if he's going to cut backdoor, forcing Courtney Lee to take a step toward the rim. Once he pivots and reverses course, Lee's momentum is going in the complete wrong direction.

These types of plays also do not require Bryant to be the athlete that he was several years ago. It's more about efficiency of movement and his veteran bag of tricks that enable him to score.

Bryant's situation with the Lakers this season is unfortunate. Los Angeles is devoid of talent and has very little prospect of improving in the near future. With Kobe's retirement around the corner, it will be an unfortunate final chapter to a storied career.

He's one of the fiercest competitors this league has ever seen, so he'll do whatever it takes to bring the Lakers to a respectable level. There is no chance that Kobe goes down without a fight.

Even though his game has evolved to account for his mileage, the talent and smarts are still there. Even though his volume is at a historic rate this season, we're still seeing what has made him a great player for nearly 20 years. 

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