The Lakers’ 2015-16 season was billed as one of hope and excitement, led by the presence of three young players who could all potentially become stars for the team. Instead, two story-lines have become the main topic of conversation across Lakers’ circles. One – the unfathomable incompetence of the head coach – has been discussed so often that every new article and column written about it seems like a slight modification of the previous. The other is a sore topic that we as Lakers fans tend to attempt to sweep under the rug due to the difficulty of speaking about it. That topic is, of course, the poor play of Kobe Bryant.
One month into the season, it is no secret that Bryant is no longer a good player. The player who just three years ago gave everything he had to carry a team of stars into the playoffs is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Lakers legend is arguably the worst starter in the NBA, a poor defender who can no longer make up for his shortcomings by scoring at will on the other end, and a player who may even be detrimental to his team. Nobody expected Kobe to be a superstar, but most did not expect such a swift and hard-to-watch fall from grace.
There are clearly many factors that have led to Kobe’s downfall – a loss in athleticism due to the Achilles injury he suffered in 2013 and the age-old impact of old age being among the most notable. However, it may also be fair to place some of the blame on the situation that Kobe is playing in. It’s not a lack of talent on the roster leading to it, but it may be a lack of maximization of that talent. Every player on this roster has a specific skill that they can bring to the table, but through the first month of the season, very few of them have been placed in positions to take advantage of those skills. The same is true of Bryant.
At this stage of his career, Bryant is no longer an effective isolation player. He cannot beat players off the dribble on a consistent basis. He cannot get enough lift to rise above defenders and knock down shots. What he may be able to do, however, is become a role player that actually contributes to his team in a positive manner. Near the end of preseason I wrote about how Kobe could both be a large part of the Lakers’ success while taking a step back from being the first option. I described using him as a spot-up shooter off of screens and using him as a screener for D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and even Julius Randle to leverage his threat as an offensive weapon to create space for the players who are more justified in taking shots. While that was a large part of what the Lakers did in preseason, it has become an afterthought when the games have mattered. Desperate for wins, Byron Scott has resorted back to isolations, hoping that Kobe finds some of the magic of his youth to carry a team to a victory. Unfortunately, that is simply not possible anymore and the strategy has become more detrimental than beneficial.
Of course, Kobe is not without blame in this situation. Criticized throughout his career for being a “selfish” player and chucking shots when better options are available, that criticism is actually deserved today. Bryant is putting up 16 field goal attempts per game, while shooting at historically low levels. He has often waved off the other players to post up far from the rim or attempt to go through the isolation-heavy offense that he used with great success in the past. He should rightly be criticized for those decisions, as they are simply terrible choices that result in no success.
Even with the hero-ball tactics it is apparent that Kobe understands he cannot do this on a regular basis. Since the second game of the season, he has spoken about taking a step back to allow the young guys to play more freely. More recently, he spoke about what the team could do to help him regain his form:
Kobe: “I’ve got to do a better job of demanding some help off the ball to get some easier chances, pin downs, picks, catch & shoots”
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) November 25, 2015
There is no doubt that that kind of offense is the best situation for Kobe at this stage of his career. Taking the ball away from Bryant and finding him easier, open shots is a sound and simple strategy, one that can be implemented with no problem. There is no guarantee that making that kind of change will turn Kobe into a positive contributor for the rest of the season as he may be beyond repair. However, it gives the Lakers the best chance at finding a role for Bryant.
Scott has shown an infatuation with keeping Bryant pleased and while that has become an increasingly annoying part of his coaching style, it can come to use here. In order to help the player that he is more a fan of than a coach, Scott must place that player in positions where he can be more comfortable. Kobe has practically done everything but beg for reduced minutes and easier shots in public and Scott must recognize that if he wants to allow his former teammate a more graceful exit from the league. While Scott has made it clear he is not a fan of analytics, perhaps some simple statistics can hammer this point home:
Almost 50% of Kobe’s shots from 10+ ft are against tight or very tight defense 🙁 pic.twitter.com/MFJT7NGPHN
— BLSS (@blssblog) November 27, 2015
The fact that nearly half of Kobe’s shots (at least 10 feet away from the rim which is most of his shots, anyway) have come with a defender within 4 feet of him is ridiculous, especially when looking at how much his effective field goal improves with more space. Perhaps even more incredible is the fact that Kobe has played in two games where he has not even attempted a single shot that could be considered wide open. Clearly, the Lakers need to do much more in order to get those type of shots for Bryant in order to enjoy any inkling of success. Let’s be clear though: his shooting is not good in those situations either, but it’s at least evident that there is some potential for success there.
To finish this (incredibly sad) article, I’d like to speak a little about the legacy of Kobe Bryant. With his major struggles, Bryant’s retirement after this season seems like a foregone conclusion. Personally, I have not known the Lakers without Kobe and he is by far my favorite athlete of all time. So while there are plenty of reasons and justifications for criticism this season, I would urge people to not forget just how good Kobe was. This season should not tarnish Kobe’s legacy no matter how difficult it is to watch him play. In some ways, one could argue that it adds to an already incredible resume and legacy. Bryant is known as one of the hardest working players in all of sports, a player who never backed down, never gave up, and was determined to continue to give it his all. While his “all” is not much these days, it is still amazing to watch Bryant try to go out fighting when the easy route would be to retire. After tearing his Achilles late in his career, Kobe could have easily walked away and called it a career after having already cemented himself as an all-time great. Instead, he chose to prove that he can come back and play professional basketball. So while the level at which he is playing is not very high, the fact that he returned at all and can play heavy minutes with a high burden placed on him is a testament to the hard work that he has always put in. That should be the takeaway from this lost season as we prepare to say goodbye to a Laker Legend.