For the first time in a seemingly infinitely long time, the Los Angeles Lakers will be entering the regular season with some hope. Not hope that they contend for a title this season, and not any tangible hope that they even make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but hope that their future is bright. In years past that hope came in the form of believing that with Kobe Bryant on the roster, the team would always have a chance to make some noise, no matter the level of talent surrounding him.
This year, however, the hopes don’t lie with Bryant’s presence, but rather with the fact that the Lakers now have a trio of players who could potentially turn into their stars in the future. Lakers fans have all but forgotten about a glorious past that included Bryant and turned their focus on a hopefully equally glorious future with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson leading the way. That is an understandable line of thought as Bryant gets ready to ride off into the sunset.
While Kobe’s performance in what may amount to be his final season is probably insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it could mean quite a lot to the team. Bryant has struggled in back to back seasons, mainly as a function of his increasingly unstable health, having required season ending surgeries in three consecutive seasons. Amidst scattered moments of brilliance last season, Kobe looked like a shell of his former self, resorting to chucking up inefficient shots that even he could not make. On the defensive end, he too often looked lost and disengaged and even when he was focused, he generally could not stick with the younger, faster players who took advantage of his diminished skills to have career nights against the Lakers. It was an altogether massive disappointment for the nineteen year Laker.
This season, Kobe will be looking to turn back the clock at least to some extent. He will certainly not have the kind of season that has placed him in the upper echelon of NBA greats. However, he could have an all-time great season for a player at his age, after multiple grueling injury problems. Whether he achieves that goal or not may give us a major insight into what the future of the Lakers holds and should therefore be one of the most important storylines of the Purple and Gold’s season.
Bryant has often been criticized for the method of his basketball greatness. As much as he is revered for his accomplishments, he is equally disliked for his so-called selfishness. A ball-dominant player who does anything and everything he thinks necessary to win every single game (often to a fault), Bryant has adopted a notoriety for ball-stopping and straying away from team-basketball. All of that criticism is fair and certainly true. In the past, Kobe could do that because a large portion of the time, that was the best available choice and it led to multiple championships and endless successful campaigns. Last season, however, an increased usage rate (an ungodly 34.9% of LAL’s possessions with Bryant on the floor resulted in a Bryant score, assist, or turnover) led to a major dip in efficiency and in effect, a terrible season for the legend.
The Lakers should look to change that by decreasing the load placed on Bryant, ideally leading to a more efficient season. Whether they are able to do that will hinge on the development of the young core that will presumably lead the team into a future without Bryant. If Russell, Randle, and Clarkson do enough to prove their worth early, they will be able to establish themselves as the main playmakers on the team, something that will be key to the Lakers’ success this season. It may be difficult to envision a rookie like Russell, an unproven lottery pick in Randle, and a second round pick deemed by some to be a one-hit wonder in Clarkson, to earn the respect of a hard-ass veteran superstar in Bryant, but the makings of such a development have already been laid in the first week of preseason.
In three games (and yes, it has only been three games so adjust expectations accordingly) Bryant’s usage rate has dipped to 27.9%. That decreased load has led to a more efficient Bryant, one with a 59.6 true shooting percentage (about 12 percentage points better than last year’s dismal campaign and better than every season in his illustrious career.) That will not hold through an entire 82-game regular season, but it is an incredibly encouraging sign. There are multiple reasons for Bryant’s increased efficiency in this admittedly small sample size: fresh legs after about nine months away from basketball and an increased focus on shooting threes being two of the bigger ones. The main culprit, however, is a new offense predicated on getting Kobe the ball in spots where he needs to do very little in order to get up a good shot. Kobe has almost never played with above average playmakers in the backcourt, but this season he has two very good ones in Clarkson and Russell, not to mention the fantastic playmaking of his starting power forward, Randle. As a result, an absurd 72.7 percent of Bryant’s made field goals have been assisted on by his teammates. That is tangible proof of an increased focus on allowing Kobe to play off the ball and get the ball in his favorite spots, namely the low post and the elbows, without needing the aging superstar to work harder than he needs to in order to get to those spots. As a result, Kobe is now getting better shots and shooting them with more energy, a great combination for a more efficient season.
For proof of this change in offensive philosophy, just look at this highlight package from Thursday night’s loss to the Toronto Raptors:
Twelve of Bryant’s sixteen points in this game are showcased in this video and they include:
- An open midrange jumper off a down screen (assist to Julius Randle)
- A quick post up off a back screen leading into a catch deep in the paint (assist to Roy Hibbert)
- A wide open corner (!!!) three off penetration (assist to Jordan Clarkson)
- A transition layup catching the ball on his way to the rim (assist to Jordan Clarkson)
- A late-contested three in transition in #BangBang style (assist to Julius Randle)
Oh and this is all with the Lakers’ best passer, D’Angelo Russell, sitting on the bench with a butt injury. Even if the previously mentioned statistics do not hold up deep into the season – and they likely will not – it is clear that the transition into a new style of offensive play has already been instigated. Bryant has become an off-ball assassin, able to catch on the run or in his favorite spots so that he can get a good shot with as few dribbles as possible.
This all comes as a direct result of the personnel now featured on the Lakers. With three potential future All-Stars who are all above average playmakers at their positions, Bryant can feel comfortable taking a back seat to both conserve energy, and play at a higher level than he has the past two seasons. More importantly, it shows a mentality that all three of these young players possess – one that gives them the desire to take the ball away from one of the premier players in league history in order to succeed as a team. Kobe has often discussed his desire to have players who are not “push-overs” and are willing to stand up to him. Some may say that that is politically correct speech from a notorious ball-hog but the stats and tape through three games tell a different tale.
Clearly, we cannot deduce much from three mainly meaningless games that will be forgotten about in less than a month when the real thing begins. However, we can take away some good signs and extrapolate certain predictions or hopes for what the regular season will entail. If the regular season Lakers play in the same manner that these preseason Lakers have, we will have learned some major things about the future of the club. A consistent performance level in this methodology can show the front office and the rest of the NBA that the Lakers have three future stars – playmakers who can both play together as a team and take over when the need arises. It will also show us the mentality of these young players, a Mamba like approach in doing anything it takes to win, including but not limited to taking the ball away from Kobe Bryant himself – being a different animal and the same beast, if you will. Most importantly, it could lead to more wins for a team in desperate need of a successful seasons after years of disappointment. Free agents will be looking at their options, and with the marketing and branding opportunities of the social media age almost evenly distributed between every team in the NBA, winning is now the most important non-financial point of decision. Not to mention seeing a different form of Kobe Bryant can be a selling point should he decide to stay with the team beyond this season.
The Lakers will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the third year in a row this season. However, the method in which they play will tell us a lot about the future and when the team will be ready to contend again. The key to that understanding, as has been the case for almost the entirety of his professional career, will be Kobe Bryant. How he fits into the offense and how the young stars on the team fit around him will tell us about the youth, the coaching, and the development of the team’s future all in one. So while for the first time in a long time Bryant (excluding the now annual conversation on his ESPN ranking) will not be the main point of conversation in Laker Land; but he will still be directly involved in every question and storyline regarding the team.
For perhaps the final time, the Lakers’ fate will lie, at least in part, firmly in the Black Mamba’s hands.