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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Basketball Clinic: Kobe Mentors Bynum, Lakers School Pacers

Leadership is not about being a "rah, rah" guy or about giving good soundbites so that you sound like a nice guy; leadership is about helping an individual or a group of people achieve a common goal. Kobe Bryant is the leader of the L.A. Lakers and he provided abundant examples of his leadership before, during and after the team's 134-114 victory over Indiana at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday night. The Lakers had lost four straight games in Indiana, including what Phil Jackson called a "sad" performance last season, but they ended that streak in convincing fashion, scoring more points than any NBA team has in a single game this season. Bryant had a game-high 32 points while shooting 8-16 from the field (including 5-9 from three point range) and 11-11 from the free throw line. He was easily on track for a 40 or 50 point game--he already had 26 points by halftime--but he only played 31 minutes because the Lakers enjoyed a commanding lead and will need an energized Bryant for the rest of their road trip. Bryant also had six rebounds and four assists. Andrew Bynum had an excellent game, scoring 17 points on 6-6 shooting, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking four shots, including two in a row versus Jermaine O'Neal, a former All-Star who is Indiana's best inside player. Jordan Farmar contributed 18 points (7-10 shooting) and four assists in just 22 minutes. Derek Fisher shot 5-5 from the field and finished with 11 points and three assists; what a world of difference it makes to have a steady veteran as the starting point guard as opposed to undergoing the "Smush Parker experience." Shawne Williams led the Pacers with a career-high 24 points, Danny Granger scored 17 points and Jamaal Tinsley added 10 points and 10 assists.

All told, eight Lakers scored in double figures, including all five starters. What makes that even more remarkable is that the Lakers were shorthanded: Brian Cook and Maurice Evans were not available because they had just been traded to Orlando for Trevor Ariza, who will be joining the Lakers for their next game in Milwaukee. Center Kwame Brown is out indefinitely with a knee injury and Ronny Turiaf is just coming back from an injury. The Pacers kept the game close in the first half by crashing the boards; the Lakers' halftime lead of 71-63 could easily have been more than 20 points if not for this astounding statistic: Indiana retrieved 12 offensive rebounds and outscored the Lakers 22-0 in second chance points. The Lakers held the Pacers to .431 shooting in the first half and .385 shooting in the second half so once they got control of their defensive boards--giving up only six offensive rebounds in the second half--they were able to easily pull away.

Bryant's in-game leadership came in the form of being the best player on the floor, someone whose abilities both offensively and defensively create havoc for the opposition. Watching a team play in person, you are not a slave to the camera angles provided by television or the storylines told by the announcers; you can observe the whole court and really see how a team operates. When Bryant has the ball on offense, the other team's defense is usually "tilted" dramatically in his direction, allowing his teammates to play four on three; it is not an exaggeration to say that many, if not most, of the open shots that they get while he is on the court stem from his presence, whether or not he actually delivered a pass that is recorded as an assist. On defense, Bryant is very aggressive, actively using his hands and maintaining a good defensive stance. At both ends of the court, he is often directing traffic, instructing his teammates where to go and what to do.

Bryant's teammates respect what he says because Bryant puts in the time to understand the nuances of the game--and that leads us straight to the leadership that Bryant demonstrated before the game. It was no accident that Bynum blocked O'Neal's shot twice in rapid succession; Bynum explained after the game, "Working with Kobe before the game, he told me how to play Jermaine; he likes to go to his right shoulder a lot and then he spins back. I was just trying to be ready to bother his shot and I got a couple of them." Some people might assume that a shooting guard can't help a post player's development but clearly this is not true, at least in Bryant's case. This kind of leadership may not earn any p.r. points--unless the media chooses to report it--but it builds team chemistry and helps to win games.

When Bryant emerged from the training room for his postgame standup, I mentioned what Bynum had said and asked Bryant to describe his mentoring relationship with the young center. Bryant replied, "It's just trying to help us win a ball game. He's very bright, so the information that I pass on to him he can quickly process, register and then go out and execute it. He did a great job of it tonight. I just try to continue to guide him. He has a lot of promise and I am trying to help him along as much as I can." Later, Bryant said of Bynum, "He's very competitive. He's quiet but he has a lot of fire inside. When he has matchups like this (against former All-Star O'Neal) or matchups with Yao Ming, he really steps forward and takes the challenge personally and I like to see that. I take a lot of pride in my defense. I've spent many nights studying players, so when he has a big matchup against Jermaine--a person who I've known since I was 16--I have to help him out as much as I can and pass along the little nuances about defense and how he should view playing certain players so he is not just playing with his physical ability but he's using his head as well."

As the other reporters drifted away to file their stories, I asked Bryant this follow-up: "At one point, you were in Andrew's position on the team--you were the young guy out of high school on a veteran team and now this is almost a role reversal. What did you learn from your experience of being the young player on a veteran team that helps you know what to say, when to say it and how to say it to Andrew? It's not just giving the right information; how you present it to him affects how open he will be, as a young person, to receiving it." Bryant answered, "I understand how to communicate to him a little bit more because I was in that position and a lot of times I felt like people really talked down to me, you know what I mean? 'This kid this' and 'this kid that,' that sort of thing, and it just rubbed me the wrong way. So, from my experience of going through that I understand now that I don't want to put him in that position. I want him to feel like he can come in and contribute, that he is valued on this ball club and that all I am trying to do is help him out to be the best that he can be."

I then asked Bryant, "Do you give him advice about how to relate to other players, from your own experience as a young player that maybe you did things, not intentionally, that rubbed veterans the wrong way in some sense?"

Bryant replied, "It's funny, because when I came into the league the age range was completely different. If I came into the league nowadays out of high school I never would have had that problem (because there would be plenty of other young players to interact with). People don't understand that's how young kids behave. This team is different (than the Lakers team that Kobe first joined). We have a lot of young guys here and also I'm here to help him out a lot. We bring him into the group; if we go out to dinner or whatever we do, we include him in it and that is part of it."

Next, I asked, "Do you feel like you weren't included as much when you were a young player? Was that partially because the age difference was much greater?"

Bryant answered, "It's all about age difference. Those guys were 28, 29, 30 years old, married--and I was 17, 18 years old, couldn't go anywhere. A lot of times I felt like I was a burden to a lot of guys and they didn't want to deal with that burden. I don't want Andrew to feel that way."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During Phil Jackson's pregame standup, I asked him, "In a way, the kind of team that you have now is almost the opposite of the team that you had when you first came to L.A. Back then, you had a veteran center and a young guard coming straight out of high school; now you have a veteran guard and a young center who you are trying to mold into a top player. What did you learn from the earlier experience of coaching the veteran Shaq and the young Kobe that you apply coaching an almost reverse situation now?"

Jackson replied, "Andrew was such an inexperienced player when he came here that everything is just a learning experience for him. Last year was an opportunity for him to play a lot because of the unfortunate situation of our two centers being injured--he was forced into the action, but that gave him a lot of experience and it gave him a lot of opportunities to find out what it is all about. He has worked hard in the offseason to help himself out, to get stronger and to be a better conditioned player. Our players who are around him are very encouraging and very supportive of him. I think that both Kobe and Derek Fisher talk to him a lot about his game and try to help him out a lot. Players look for him because he is a big advantage for us inside."

After the game, Jackson was pleased with Bynum's performance: "I think that he stepped up and played the kind of defense that we would like to see him play. He was aggressive in there."

***
Earlier in his pregame standup, Jackson offered his initial take on the deal that sent Brian Cook and Maurice Evans to Orlando for Trevor Ariza: "(Ariza) is a 6-8, active, athletic basketball player whose specialty is probably defense...I think that he is still awfully young...We gave up two players who are veterans--experienced players who fit into our system relatively well. We wanted something a little bit different; we know that there is some room being squeezed out with Radmanovic and Turiaf playing a lot at the backup four spot. Cook is a terrific player at the four. With Mo, Mo did a really good job for us last year and we hate to see him go."

***

Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien offered this simple explanation for what happened in the game: "We got pounded by a very, very good basketball team that seemed quicker at every position. We didn't have the energy necessary to give them any kind of a game. It was not our best defensive effort. When you have a player like Kobe Bryant and a veteran like Derek Fisher, they can space the floor. We needed to find ways to shrink the court defensively and we didn't do it against the (Triangle) offense tonight. We just has a bad basketball game."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:24:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

It's funny how often players and coaches appear to answer questions without actually answering them at all, see Jackson's "generic answer to any bynum-related question".

I find it very interesting how Phil Jackson has managed to get the whole team to play as a unit, when it was assumed that the trade / no trade saga would ruin any semblance of chemistry.

It seems to be playing a part in the Bulls early struggles, but the Lakers seem almost untouched by it all.

Bynum reminds wildly inconsistent and way too foul-prone, but somehow the Lakers are thriving. The schedule has been kind, but even so it's impressive.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I realize that Jackson did not exactly address the main point of my question but his evasion of that point itself is telling. For one thing, Jackson is an absolute master in dealing with the media, on par with any politician you can name; the classic approach that a politician is supposed to take with a question that he does not want to answer is to disregard it and simply deliver his "message." Jackson is able to do this without seeming angry or hostile.

It did not seem necessary or appropriate to go into the Mike Wallace attack dog mode and keep asking the question over and over; the complete question and answer are there for readers to interpret however they like.

Speaking of Bynum being foul prone, Jackson had an interesting comment about Bynum's defense: Bynum does better playing his own man than he does as a help defender; in help situations he reacts a little too slowly or gets surprised by what the offensive player does. If Bynum is as intelligent and competitive as Bryant says then he will minimize such mistakes as he gains experience.

I never believed that the Lakers would have serious chemistry issues this season. Their main problems last year were injuries and execution (with a side order of Smush Parker deciding at some point to abandon the program but he is Pat Riley's problem now). Injuries are starting to crop up again but right now the team is executing very well. Any thoughts that Bryant would hold out or not play hard were completely absurd. This is not a championship team but if they can avoid any more injuries they can be pretty good.

I think that Bryant is getting ready to drop 50 or 60 on someone; he could absolutely have done it against Indiana if necessary.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 6:02:00 AM, Anonymous satiricohen said...

Excellent interview.
It makes you wonder what most of the media is smoking when they go out and ask stupid questions like "You had a great game, scoring x points and getting x rebounds, so how do you feel about it?"
Maybe we should get you cloned and stick like ten or twenty Friedmans in every news organization.
Would you mind...?

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 6:31:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Thank you for the compliment.

I don't know about cloning but I suspect that the silent majority of readers/viewers/consumers would like to receive much better coverage not just of the NBA but of a lot of subjects.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 9:39:00 AM, Blogger groova said...

Just really fine work, David. Reminds me just how much of an advantage we freelancers have in coverage, not being chained to the newspaper mentality and deadlines.

All the best,


Roland Lazenby
author of The Show

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 12:57:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

did you see that sports illustrated's bball preview doesnt have kobe on the all-nba 1st or all-nba 2nd teams?

although I think he is overrated, even I would have to disagree with SI on this one...

as guards, they've got Pierce & Nash on the first team and Wade & Parker on the second team... shows how much Pierce could benefit from team success

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 3:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Alternaviews:

I did see that. I don't place a lot of stock in preseason All-NBA picks, especially when SI gets the position designations wrong: Pierce is listed on the official NBA All-Star ballot as a forward, not a guard.

If team success is the determining factor in their picks then how is Wade ahead of Kobe for this season?

If a player contributes to team success--as KG, Pierce and Allen are doing right now--then of course he will receive more recognition. KG likely has the inside track to winning this season's MVP if Boston wins 50+ games.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:55:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Roland:

Thank you.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 4:59:00 PM, Anonymous jn said...

And deservedly so.

On writers and athletes, sometimes seems like it's all staged: players want a certain type of softball questions and writers provide them in exchange for soundbites.

I did expect a meltdown of some Lakers under pressure, particularly the likes of Bynum after being pretty much the point of contention. Team cheamistry did not exactly ooze around last season, and during the summer we've had Kobe, Jim Buss, Jeannie Buss, Kurt Rambis, Jerry Buss and Phil Jackson go to the media to air internal stuff.

We all know that Kobe can play through all that, and Derek Fisher even moreso. But Farmar and Bynum are still young and inexperience, yet they are making significant contributions instead of collapsing under the uncertainties and media pressure.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 5:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

I would not use the term "staged" but there is a certain dance that happens, particularly for the people who cover a team throughout the season: the coach shows up at the appointed times before and after the game, the writer asks generic question "x," the coach offers generic answer "y" or "z" and the writer has a quote to plop into his article.

Not to belabor the point of my post, but I think that Kobe's ability to play through pressure/distractions is a form of leadership by example and the other players do very much take heed to what he says/does. After the game, Kobe said that he told his teammates that even though they missed Evans and Cook that they had to put that out of their minds and play; the time to lament the departure of their friends was on the bus, not on the court. Saying that is one thing but I think that it resonates even more when Kobe backs up those words with his play.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 5:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

why dont anybody listen to me i told you the key guys were bynum and farmar and the bench have played exceprional in the 4 game win streak lakers better than people think they are because of them we know kobe the second best player in league behind lebron so you know what youll get from him. and he my mvp with kg but ill go with kobe they should beat boston today and then milwaukee on friday and be 9-3 going home.

 
At Friday, December 21, 2007 6:55:00 AM, Anonymous lakersfanboy said...

The key players of Lakers include Kobe, Farmar, Bynum, Odom, Brown, Fisher, and Ariza. Yes! Ariza is now playing with Lakers. He is sure to become one of the star players of the team. He is a big help in terms of defense and offense.

 

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