NBA Report Cards: Grading Kobe Bryant and the Rest of the LA Lakers
By the standards to which the rest of the league might hold itself, Kobe Bryant is having a great season: His Los Angeles Lakers are 21-7 and own a commanding seven-game lead in the Pacific Division. Meanwhile, Bryant himself is averaging 25.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.29 steals per game.
Of course, Bryant is not the rest of the league, and he and his teammates expect much more of themselves. The Lakers suffered their first four-game losing streak in three and a half years earlier this season, and stand third in the Western Conference as of Monday.
The onus for that pseudo-struggle does not fall entirely, or even primarily, on Bryant's shoulders, but the Lakers do need to step up to regain their place at the top of the NBA heap. Read on for full report cards on every Lakers contributor, to see who has done ace work and who needs to hit the books.
Artest has struggled this season; of that there can be no doubt. His defense has not lacked its usual intensity, but he is not the physical presence he was throughout last season. He has pulled down only 3.0 rebounds per game, and has poured in only 7.7 points per contest: He has never averaged fewer than 10.9 points per contest during his NBA career.
With Artest no longer an impact player, the Lakers have had to ask more of a bench filled with streaky players. The results have been predictably unpredictable, and Phil Jackson is surely hoping that Artest will rediscover his skill set soon.
Los Angeles brought in Barnes this summer for the same reason they brought in Artest last summer: They wanted to beef up their defense with a long and athletic defender who could shut down perimeter shooters and make an impact on the glass. Artest worked out beautifully in 2009-10, though his results have been less encouraging this year. Barnes remains a work in progress.
In fewer than 22 minutes per game, Barnes has managed to score 8.4 points and grab an impressive 5.4 rebounds per contest. Unfortunately, he has not shown Artest's ball-hawking skills when it comes to creating turnovers or closing out on outside shooters. He has added physicality to the Lakers defense, but the perimeter presence for which the team had hoped has not yet materialized.
Blake has been serviceable as Derek Fisher's backup this season, but he has hardly taken over the offense in a meaningful way when given the ball at key stretches. Usually an excellent distributor, Blake has not facilitated as well as a Laker as he did during his time in (especially) Portland: He averages just 2.1 assists in 20 minutes of floor time per game.
Part of that must be attributed to personnel differences, as the Lakers clearly force opponents to more closely cover guys other than Blake. The pressure on opponents to double-team Pau Gasol and rotate toward Kobe Bryant has led to some stellar sharp-shooting from Blake, who is knocking down 46 percent of his three-point shots this year. If he keeps that up, Lakers fans and coaches will not begrudge the lost assists.
Don't blame Brown for the Lakers' occasional struggles without Bryant on the floor: Brown has been the picture of offensive efficiency. In roughly 18 minutes of floor time per game, Brown is averaging 10.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.
His defensive intensity has sometimes lagged this season, which always makes a role player look bad, but Brown provides valuable scoring punch off the bench when Bryant takes a breather. Last season was Brown's first full-year opportunity to contribute, and he shot 32.8 percent from beyond the three-point arc. This season, in 94 early attempts, he is shooting nearly 45 percent.
This grade certainly reflects Bryant's status as an A-caliber student, because his numbers look awfully good. Though Bryant may deny it, though, he burns with a longing to take the mantle from Michael Jordan as the best ever, and from that kidn fo player, quite a bit more is demanded.
Bryant's defense has been as fierce and tough as usual this season, but he seems to have lost a half-step: Opposing scorers are no longer afraid of him on the perimeter. His steals and rebounds are at 10-year lows. On the offensive end, his assists and field-goal percentage are at five-year lows. Perhaps most tellingly, he is playing only 33 minutes per contest.
Unless he plays significantly more down the stretch (enough to bump his average up to at least 36 minutes per), he will finish with the least average floor time since his sophomore season of 1997-98. It may well be that, though he will surely soldier on as a great player for a few more years, Bryant is falling victim to the physical ravages of 15 NBA seasons more rapidly than anyone expected.
Bynum has been fine during his first four games back from off-season surgery. He is not yet back into the rhythm that made him worth 13-15 points and 8-10 rebounds per game over the past three seasons, but he will get there soon enough. His absence was conspicuous, especially as Pau Gasol battled injuries and could not find the time to rest without the Lakers getting thrown around the paint. Bynum's return may be the turning point of the season for Los Angeles, though it's too early to say so yet.
Fisher only ever really does what Derek Fisher does: He is a good passer but lacks the off-the-dribble quickness to penetrate and make plays on his own. He shoots well from the outside but is not elite as even a tertiary scoring option. He plays excellent defense on even the league's quickest point guards, even as he heads into his late 30s.
Fisher's 1.5 steals per game this year have been huge, especially as Artest and Barnes have struggled to lock down the perimeter. His leadership has also been a tremendous aid: The Lakers are veterans not easily given to panic to begin with, but Fisher's steadiness has kept notoriously emotional role players liek Blake, Barnes and Brown on a sufficiently even keel to play smart basketball at all times.
If this were a wimpy high-school class, Gasol would get an A-plus. With none of those to be had, though, he still gets top honors for his all-around excellence so far this season. He averages nearly 20 points and over 11 rebounds per game, dishes out 4.3 assists per contest and sends back 2.11 opponents' shots per. Those numbers are remarkable enough.
For Gasol, though, there is a bit more to the story. Consider that he has played through injuries for the lion's share of the season, yet leads the team with 38.6 minutes of floor time per game. He has also been as consistent as usual, knocking down over half his shots for the year. He has nabbed at least eight rebounds in 26 of 28 games and has scored 10 or more points in 27 of 28. Without Gasol, the Lakers would not have survived their early struggles.
With almost 10 rebounds and 16 points per game so far this year, Odom seems to have taken well to his return to the starting lineup. He helped fill the void on the boards while Bynum was out, and may now feel more free to roam and make plays when he and Bynum are on the court together. Odom has lost some of the explosive quickness that made him a 6'11" match-up nightmare, but he can still score from almost any place on the court.
Odom's occasional problems stem from his expanded role in the offense. His 2.21 turnovers per game trail only Bryant for the team lead. Partially, that is a function of Odom having the basketball more often than any Laker but Bryant. Still, he needs to cut down on his mistakes for the Los Angeles offense to operate at full effectiveness going forward.