Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers Finally on Verge of Finding Balanced Formula

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 31, 2014

DENVER, CO - December 30:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers before the game against the Denver Nuggets on December 30, 2014 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/Getty Images

Midway through a season more about soul-searching than substance, the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant have stumbled upon a formula that works, both now and in the long run.

Balance.

More pointedly, selfless balance.

Most of 2014-15 has been about Bryant's march toward history—his pursuit and surpassing of Michael Jordan on the NBA's all-time scoring list, his unprecedented, self-shouldered workload, his defiant disregard for time and age and reality.

Bryant became a welcomed distraction for some, career-worst shooting percentages be damned. The Lakers aren't contending for a playoff spot and have only a scant chance of retaining their first-round draft pick. Their most recent first-round prospect, Julius Randle, is done for the season. Steve Nash won't log a minute in 2014-15, either.

Watching Bryant rail against circumstance, simultaneously trying to drum up his stat lines and shoot the Lakers to victory on his own, at 36 years old, was in many ways a respite from dismal times. But it was also a sign of the times, and a reminder that Bryant is now incapable of carrying a collective on his own.

The Lakers' First 27 Games
MPFG%3P%Off. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net. Rtg.
Without Bryant35447.340.5109.498.311.1
With Bryant95742.232.1101.5114.8-13.3
NBA.com.

Both the offense and defense were worlds better in the 354 minutes Bryant spent on the bench through the Lakers' first 27 games, according to NBA.com (subscription required). In the end, then, they would be working an ebbing Bryant tooth and nail without any silver linings to admire.

If anything of value was to be gleaned from this season, if it was to be about more than absolute futility, something would need to change. While Bryant sat out for three games, it became clear that something was him.

The Lakers were only 1-2 in his absence, but they played freely, moving the ball in volume, resembling an actual team. It was a different brand of basketball, and one that allowed others to forge an identity outside Bryant.

To his credit, Bryant hasn't messed with that vibe since returning. There has been marked change in the way he's approaching offense. He's not trying to blow by every defender, and he's deferring more often not.

After attempting fewer than 12 shots just once all season, Bryant has jacked up no more than 11 in each of the last two games. He's also handed out a total of 18 assists during that time, including 11 en route to his 21st career triple-double in the Lakers' Tuesday night victory over the Denver Nuggets.

Though he is averaging just 35.7 passes per game on the season, he's thrown out at least 52 in each of the last two. The Lakers, in turn, are passing more overall while having enjoyed two competitive tilts.

Bryant hasn't been as trigger-happy since his three-game stay on the bench.
Bryant hasn't been as trigger-happy since his three-game stay on the bench.USA TODAY Sports

"I'm just trying to be more patient," he said following Sunday's loss to the Phoenix Suns, during which he took just 10 shots and amassed seven assists, per ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi. "The defense is loading up on me all over the place. It was probably better for me to be a little more assertive offensively. The defenses are loading up on me completely and there's not much I can do without forcing it."

Patience through passing is the only option at this point. Bryant's three-game sabbatical acted as the ultimate wake-up call. The Lakers weren't doing themselves any favors by playing him 35-plus minutes every night or having him register the highest usage rate of anyone aged 36 or older in NBA history.

That flagrant reliance on one player breeds discord. Surrounding players see that Bryant is beyond reproach and they lose confidence, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding writes:

While Bryant and Scott have been exchanging their private text messages this season deep into the wee hours, all these other players have been yearning to have their slumber disturbed and their numbers called. It's not accurate to call this season a nightmare for them, because no one had any great expectations for any of these guys, but there's no doubt that their frustrations have been real. ...

Jeremy Lin, the only other Laker with an eight-figure salary, and thus the default voice of the downtrodden, has hinted at how hard it is to play in this system. In addition, Scott has put a premium on defense, which is good, but he hasn't kept Bryant accountable on that end, which has been ruinous.

Riding Bryant into the ground makes sense if the Lakers are 10 games over .500 and playoff-bound. But they're not. They're on the fast track to an early vacation and—if Bryant's three-game breather is any indication—burning out the very player they're trying to preserve.

Prospective free agents won't be wholly seduced by another 2,600-minute season from Bryant, after all. Not at his age.

Sure, it's evidence that he's healthy enough to play, but that's assuming he even gets there. He needed to rest once; he could need to rest again.

Involving others in the offense—one that ranks 14th in points scored per 100 possessions—is a way of offering rest.

Remember, Bryant hasn't evolved into some body-protecting, energy-conserving spot-up shooter. More than 67 percent of his made baskets have been self-created. So, the fewer shots he takes, the less energy he expends, the healthier he is by season's end.

And ideal health has to be the goal as the Lakers try to wedge his title window back open. An already war-worn Bryant—who has logged north of 55,000 minutes (playoffs and regular season) to date—is of no use to the team as an on-court asset or free-agent selling point if his body deteriorates further.

Bryant has done a better job of sharing the offensive spotlight in recent games.
Bryant has done a better job of sharing the offensive spotlight in recent games.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

That's something the Lakers and Bryant have visibly addressed since his return. His minutes have topped out at a more palatable 32, and his on-ball craft hasn't been as taxing. That he's re-inspiring his teammates in the process is merely a bonus.

"It's contagious," Jeremy Lin said of Bryant's play, per ESPN Los Angeles' Baxter Holmes. "When the ball moves, it flows through everyone's hands. That's how it should be."

Nick Young, Jordan Hill and Lin all attempted more shots than Bryant against Phoenix. Carlos Boozer hoisted more than Bryant against Denver, while Ronnie Price and Wesley Johnson nearly matched his attempts (11) with 10 apiece.

Opportunities have increased tenfold for everyone over the last five games. Johnson is averaging 14.8 points and shooting 46.4 percent from deep; Price is pumping in 11.8 points on 51.2 percent shooting; Wayne Ellington is approaching double figures (9.2 points) while draining 43.8 percent of his long balls; Boozer is tallying 15.4 points on 61 percent shooting; and Nick Young, while still his inefficient self, is throwing up more than 11 shots every night.

The results of this balance, as they pertain to Bryant, speak for themselves:

Bryant the Distributor
Lakers...FG%3P%Off. Rtg.AST%
With Bryant (first 27)42.232.1101.554.3
With Bryant (last 2)53.061.3106.266.0
NBA.com.

Two games is a spectacularly small sample size, to be certain. The Lakers' hot shooting will inevitably subside, and there will be nights when Bryant resorts to firing away at will. Volume shooting is his trade—especially when facing large deficits.

But the length of these adjustments isn't as important as the blueprint they leave behind. This is a style Bryant can sustain, if only because he must.

When the prematurely crowned superteam of 2012-13 was flailing and failing beneath egos, Bryant responded by becoming a point guard proxy, assisting on a then-career high 29.7 percent of baskets that came with him on the floor. And when he dished out at least six assists per game—his season average—those Lakers were a formidable 28-12.

While said shift will have a different impact on this lottery-lost version of the Lakers, it will be similar in spirit. This season's team is already 6-6 when he collects at least six assists, winning at a pace that dwarfs its present standing.

If Bryant can sustain his current play style, it bodes well for the Lakers both this season and thereafter.
If Bryant can sustain his current play style, it bodes well for the Lakers both this season and thereafter.Bart Young/Getty Images

"I'm a natural scorer," Bryant said, per Holmes, "but it doesn't mean I can't evolve."

In many ways, Bryant has already evolved. From fewer rim attacks to more introspective postgame thoughts, he isn't the same player or person he was 10, five or even two years ago.

This latest adaptation, while still largely untrodden and untested, is just another part of the process—understanding that Bryant cannot, and should not, go it alone.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com and are accurate as of games played Dec. 30, 2014.

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