Los Angeles Lakers Playing with Fire Having Kobe Bryant at Small Forward

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 22, 2015

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Kobe Bryant and shooting guard have been synonymous for so many years. 

The future Hall of Famer took over as the Los Angeles Lakers' starting 2-guard at the beginning of the 1998-99 campaign, and he was so successful in his role that Eddie Jones almost immediately became expendable. Despite the fact that the 27-year-old was coming off back-to-back All-Star campaigns, he was traded to the Charlotte Hornets. Bryant ensured that he wasn't missed too much. 

But now, he could be gearing up for a season in which he spends quite a bit of time at the 3. After years of holding down the fort as the NBA's standard-bearer at shooting guard, battling it out with Dwyane Wade for positional supremacy during the mid-2000s and finally ceding the crown to the new crop of dominant backcourt players, it may be time for Bryant to shift over in the lineup. 

During summer-league action, D'Angelo Russell, the Lakers' prized new addition at point guard, and Jordan Clarkson spent a significant amount of time playing alongside one another. Was it a hint of what's to come? 

Jul 13, 2015; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) holds the ball as New York Knicks guard Ricky Ledo (11) defends during an NBA Summer League game at Thomas & Mack Center. The Knicks won 76-66. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sy
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Byron Scott isn't making any attempt to keep this plan a secret, telling NBA.com's David Aldridge that he foresees Bryant spending a significant amount of time at small forward: 

I think (Bryant) will play more three than two. If we can get him at the elbows and at the mid-post, the more effective he'll be. I don't think he needs to be using up the whole 94-foot floor. If we can cut that down some, I think that saves his legs as much as possible. But if we can get him where he operates best, which to me is elbows on each area, top of the key, at the pinch post, at the mid-post, then I think he can be real effective for us.

To be clear, this is a good idea in theory. It may well be one in practicality, too.

Bryant has the skill set necessary to thrive at a bigger position in the lineup, and some defensive matchups he'd experience at the new spot would save his legs from having to chase younger and quicker 2s around the perimeter and through countless screens. As Scott explained, it also puts him in a position to excel on the offensive end, particularly now that he's spent so much time working on his footwork in the post. 

But it's still a dangerous plan, one fraught with risks that a soon-to-be 37-year-old may not necessarily be able to endure.

As the saying goes, when you play with fire, you might get burned. 

Kobe's History at the 3

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 4:  Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks for an open man during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center on June 4, 2000 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers won 98-94. NOT
Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Bryant's legacy will be firmly entrenched in the shooting guard portion of the history books. In my B/R NBA Legends 100 series back in March, he finished in the No. 2 spot at his position, though it's worth noting Jerry West ranked three spots higher in the overall countdown after qualifying as a 1-guard. 

But despite building up his profile as the most dominant shooting guard of the post-Michael Jordan era, Bryant has actually spent a significant amount of time playing other positions. Each year of his career has featured a majority of his minutes coming at the 2, but a few seasons have seen his time at either point guard or small forward rise closer to the pole position. 

The data from Basketball-Reference.com only goes back to the beginning of the 2000-01 season, but it should already be abundantly clear that Bryant has lined up at small forward quite often, even if the time has come in small doses during any given campaign. 

Generally, it's because his versatility allows the Lakers to work their premier talents into the lineup. 

Back in 2000-01, when 34 percent of his minutes were logged at the 3, Los Angeles was trying to work with an abundance of rotation players at the two smallest positions. Derek Fisher and Ron Harper formed a two-point guard lineup that pushed Bryant to small forward, and the move also helped Brian Shaw and Isaiah Rider get some more run. 

During the 2012-13 campaign, which Lakers fans might remember in unfavorable light because of the Dwight Howard fiasco, a similar scenario unfolded. Steve Nash, Darius Morris, Chris Duhon, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks, Andrew Goudelock and Darius Johnson-Odom all spent time at the 1 and 2, while Metta World Peace and Devin Ebanks were the only rostered small forwards. 

One year later, a dearth of healthy point guards led him to shift in the opposite direction for a substantial amount of time.

Point is, Bryant has the versatility necessary to play other positions. Beyond that, he's generally been pretty effective when the switches involve his bodying up against bigger players. 

It wasn't until the last two years that Bryant was a net negative while playing small forward, and that can likely be chalked up to injuries. After all, he'd always been quite good at the 3, and his numbers there throughout his prime were actually better than they were at shooting guard, surprising as that may be. 

Why? It's likely a combination of the personnel surrounding him, his own ability to capitalize from certain spots on the court and a small sample size leading to a lack of established scouting reports during any one season. 

However, a troubling trend involves his getting worse over the years. Granted, his overall effectiveness at any position has declined correspondingly, but it's a bit concerning that you can sort by net player efficiency rating in the above table and watch as the rows still proceed in almost perfectly chronological fashion. 

Fortunately, this move isn't just about Bryant's production, though the 2-guard's potentially declining contributions are indeed one of the reasons it could burn the Lakers. 

Opens Up Opportunities

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - JANUARY 16: Jordan Clarkson #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena on January 16, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

It's not hard to understand why playing Bryant at the 3 is a good thing for the Lakers this season, even if his overall production might slip a bit. A championship is basically out of the question, and the 2015-16 campaign should be all about promoting the young talent—figuring out who can work together and in what capacity. 

Unless general manager Mitch Kupchak is planning on making a significant number of late-offseason additions to his roster, Los Angeles figures to go into the season with a paucity of small forwards and a plethora of guards. 

Per Rotoworld here's the current depth chart in Tinseltown: 

Lakers' Depth Chart (Excluding Big Men)
PGSGSF
StarterD'Angelo RussellKobe BryantRyan Kelly
Primary BackupJordan ClarksonLou WilliamsNick Young
Secondary BackupDwight BuycksJabari BrownAnthony Brown
Rotoworld.com

There's a logjam at the smallest positions, while Ryan Kelly and Nick Young are forced into big roles. And obviously, that's not ideal. 

Now, how much better is this? 

Lakers' Ideal Depth Chart (Excluding Big Men)
PGSGSF
StarterD'Angelo RussellJordan ClarksonKobe Bryant
Primary BackupDwight BuycksLou Williams*Nick Young
Secondary BackupJabari BrownAnthony Brown
*Sixth man

Russell and Clarkson are the future of this franchise. Strange as it may be to make Bryant a secondary priority after so many years serving as the unquestioned face of the Purple and Gold, that's the bittersweet reality for an organization ready to turn the page and move into the next era. 

Inevitably, the two oversized guards are going to play together, and they may as well do so from the beginning. Even though Russell struggled during his summer-league foray into the ranks of professional basketball, he remains the future. 

As Dylan Murphy broke down quite nicely for Bleacher Report, many of the turnovers he racked up in Las Vegas were of the aggressive variety, and that's a natural byproduct of his willingness to make the most of his passing vision and squeeze the ball into tight spaces. He'll have to work on his decision-making abilities throughout the early portion of his career, but we can still be impressed by the knack for finding open space before it even develops. 

Here's Drew Garrison of Silver Screen and Roll:

[Russell] made several pinpoint passes that didn't even seem possible, only to watch his teammates fail to finish or even get more than a few fingertips on the ball. There were at least two sequences in every game that he set the table beautifully without any payoff. That should hopefully change with better talent around him, and with the Lakers getting familiar with the kinds of passes they need to be ready for.

Being surrounded by talent tends to make most players look better, even if Russell will be going up against more impressive defenders than the ones he faced throughout his time in Sin City.

Giving him minutes and letting him gain chemistry next to Clarkson, Bryant and the rest of his teammates makes sense, especially since Lou Williams is on the roster and ready to provide a boost behind both of the prospective backcourt starters. 

Dangers and Adjustments Abound

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 15, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

As we've hinted, a move to small forward isn't necessarily a good one for Bryant as an individual. He's found success there throughout his career, but he's declined at the position as he's moved out of his prime and doesn't have the physical ability necessary to torture bigger defenders at this advanced stage. 

The overall positives for the team should trump the isolated negative, but this is still a risky move. 

On one hand, slotting Bryant at small forward will allow him to avoid chasing the many young 2-guards who enjoy flitting around the perimeter and running through a seemingly endless supply of picks and pin-down screens from larger players. On the other, it will force the 37-year-old to body up against more massive opponents, and that can create a substantial amount of wear and tear on his aging frame. 

Throughout the last few years, Bryant hasn't exactly been the model of perfect health. He's suffered quite a few injuries, limiting him to just 41 combined appearances during the last two campaigns. For that reason alone, subjecting him to an extra physical toll could be viewed as a problematic idea. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15: Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at STAPLES Center on January 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

However, Scott is still confident, citing that Mamba mentality that has lifted the future Hall of Famer past so many hurdles throughout his legendary career. 

"Kobe can play 1, 2 and 3. There's no doubt in my mind," the head coach told Aldridge. "And there's some games. against some teams, where he'll probably play 4. With his tenaciousness, the way he guards people and when his mind is set, if I say 'Kobe, you've got him,' he takes that as a challenge. You know how he is. He'll compete."

Playing Bryant at power forward is a conversation for another time, but one has to imagine Scott is fine asking the veteran to submit to the physical toll that accompanies lining up at the 3 if he's willing to move him up yet another spot in the lineup. 

And for now, he should be. 

The Lakers know what they're getting themselves into if they make this type of decision. They'll be forcing Bryant to play a more physical game, handing the reins to an extraordinarily inexperienced backcourt and setting the stage for impromptu lineup changes when the opposition rosters a small forward such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony. 

But not every decision is free of concerns and risks. In fact, most aren't. 

In this case, the upside trumps the uncertainty, even if the Lakers will need to monitor the situation carefully throughout the year. 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@fromal09.

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