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Monday, November 05, 2007

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are not having Commitment Issues

When I first saw the Phil Jackson quote questioning Kobe Bryant's commitment to the team I thought that it was one of the silliest things that I had read in quite some time--but in case anyone actually took that nonsense seriously, Bryant is making sure that his actions completely refute it. First he scored 45 points in a close loss to a strong Houston team in the season opener. Then he had a double-double and a game-high +27 plus/minus rating as the Lakers routed last year's Pacific Division champion Phoenix Suns. On Sunday night, Bryant scored a game-high 33 points on 13-19 shooting as the Lakers beat the Utah Jazz 119-109. Bryant's plus/minus rating of +13 was second only to Andrew Bynum's +14 rating (Bynum shot 6-7 from the field and had 15 points and nine rebounds in just 19 minutes). Bryant also had five rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots; the latter of those two rejections was a highlight reel play: Andrei Kirilenko stole the ball from Luke Walton and made a beeline for the hoop to throw down a two handed dunk only to have Bryant deliver an emphatic left handed rejection to maintain a 98-91 Lakers lead with 6:05 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Bryant takes a lot of pride in making that kind of defensive play: "I really, really enjoy that challenge, because it's a mano-a-mano type of thing where somebody challenges you to meet you at the rim. When you have that type of situation, they see that you're not going to take a charge because you're just lining them up. So they know they have to either go over the top of you or go through you. I saw him coming down on the wing, and I just tried to time it and get up there and see if I could catch him. I timed it pretty well."

Bryant helped to seal the win by scoring six points in the last 4:30 of the game. Keep in mind that Bryant is doing all of these things despite dealing with a balky right wrist. New/old Laker Derek Fisher struggled from the field (3-11) versus Utah but shot 13-14 from the free throw line, finishing with 19 points and five assists. Fisher is far from being an All-Star but his toughness and savvy make him a huge upgrade over the departed Smush Parker (who got his second consecutive Did Not Play-Coach's Decision on Sunday as his Heat fell to 0-3). Keep in mind that the Lakers are enjoying this early success without their second best player, the injured Lamar Odom. What these wins over Phoenix and Utah show is that Bryant does not need tons of help to lead a team to victory; he needs productive, focused efforts from the other starters plus some energy from the bench. Bynum and Jordan Farmar (12 points in 17 minutes) provided the latter against Utah. Bryant's commitment is not the issue in Lakerland and Fisher will give you everything he's got every night. If guys like Bynum and Farmar--plus Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Odom when he returns--can provide some kind of consistent production then the Lakers can be a dangerous team. We saw that at the start of last season when the Lakers were a top four team in the West before Bynum hit the proverbial wall and several other frontcourt players went down with various injuries.

It should be obvious what the next "big" mainstream media story about the Lakers will be: how Phil Jackson cleverly motivated Bryant by publicly questioning his commitment. If you expect any "expert" or "analyst"--other than Hubie Brown, who steadfastly refused to buy into any nonsense about Bryant not playing hard--to say that Jackson's statement was inaccurate and that Jackson should not have said it then you don't understand how the media works. Simple facts like Bryant's statistics and wins by the Lakers can never, ever be allowed to get in the way of the "larger story," which in this case is that Bryant will (allegedly) pout until he is traded, thereby becoming a distraction to the team. If the Lakers win 15 games in a row, that story still cannot be abandoned; the wrinkle of Jackson as the master motivator who nipped Bryant's pouting in the bud will simply be grafted on to the main narrative. If you watch and listen closely enough, you will notice that many members of the media employ this technique in stories about matters more significant than NBA games but that is a story for another day.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Monday, November 05, 2007 12:33:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

this is the first game where kobe played great the whole game other games he played well in stretches fish is a big pickup and playing very well right now. also other players are playing well for the lakers showing there not a one man team like people think they are well see what happens it's only 3 games lets see if the lakers could play like this all season.

 
At Monday, November 05, 2007 5:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

The point is not just what level Kobe has played at but the very obvious fact that his commitment to the team is not lacking in any way. Jackson just kind of threw that out there and a lot of people picked up on it but it is obvious that this is not true.

However, whether you go by stats--either the boxscore variety or the plus/minus figures that indicate how well the team did when he was on the court--Kobe has played very well in the first three games. He did not shoot very well in the first game but shot an outstanding percentage in the third game; add that all up and his field goal shooting so far (in an admittedly small sample) is better than his career average. Meanwhile, his rebounding, defense, passing and energy have been tremendous. As Jeff Van Gundy correctly noted, the Lakers have a subpar starting lineup compared to the other top teams in the West. There is no way that they beat Phoenix and Utah and hang tough with Houston without Kobe's contributions. Keep in mind that even when Kobe shoots poorly he still has a positive offensive impact in two ways: he attracts extra defensive attention that opens up opportunities for his teammates and he draws fouls that get the other team in foul trouble and enable the Lakers to get into the penalty quicker, resulting in more free throw attempts for his teammates.

I don't know if the Lakers can keep this up or not. I do know that this depends a lot more on what Kobe's teammates do than what Kobe does, because Kobe's high level of production and effort will not change. If his teammates continue to play with a lot of energy and concentration then the Lakers can surprise some people.

 
At Monday, November 05, 2007 8:42:00 PM, Anonymous The Spin said...

Regardless, the Lakers are hopeless, with or without Kobe. Kobe won't be out of L.A. until the trade deadline, but it will be worth the wait!

www.clutch3.com

 
At Monday, November 05, 2007 11:33:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

as i said the other day, a shooting guard is like a WR in football -- you need a big man (center / strong PF) just like a WR needs a QB ... otherwise, it's just highlight reel plays but no wins

Bynums development plus Mihm's return is the story here. just like Randy Moss needs tom brady, and TO needs Romo, Kobe needs those big guys.

otherwise, kobe is just a sideshow, like TO was on the Eagles, and Moss on the Raiders

you dont see the prima donna personalities on centers in bball (Shaq is a clown but not a self-important diva and Duncan certainly aint) , just like QBs arent as overstated as football WRs

kobe will go as far as Bynum, Mihm (and maybe Kwame but not really) take him

dont get distractd from the game

 
At Tuesday, November 06, 2007 3:05:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I still think that Kobe made a major breach of team protocol by sitting out practice, and I think that Jackson was right in considering it a lack of commitment. Sitting out while your team practices because you don't like the owner's press conference cannot be described any other way.

 
At Tuesday, November 06, 2007 4:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

I don't think that Jackson's comment was in reference to Kobe missing a practice. Kobe injured his wrist in a preseason game and also is battling some knee soreness. Kobe did not play in a preseason game on a Friday, with Jackson's blessing, and then the next day, out of nowhere, Jackson questioned Kobe's commitment. The comment came out of left field. As far as I know, the only practices that Kobe missed he missed with Jackson's blessing; Kobe was not able to fully practice due to his injuries but was doing light workouts on the sideline when Jackson told him that if he could not practice then he should just go home. Perhaps Vecsey or others interpret that to mean that Kobe was pouting but there is no precedent for off court things affecting Kobe's work ethic; after all, this is a guy who flew to games from Colorado and hit game-winning shots after being in court all day.

 
At Tuesday, November 06, 2007 4:36:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Alternaviews:

One basketball player can have a lot more impact than one football player for several reasons. The first is obvious--there are only 10 players in a basketball game but there are 22 players in a football game. Second, a star basketball player can handle the ball on every single possession, forcing the opposing defense to double team him, thereby creating opportunities for his teammates; if that star is a two-way player like Kobe then he can also have a significant impact on defense. Yes, a quarterback handles the ball on every play but he needs receivers and running backs and blockers. A great basketball player needs help, too, but he can have an impact even without it. That is why, historically, great basketball players have been shown to be worth as much as 25 wins in an 82 game season. It is rare that one football player will have the equivalent impact in the standings. I would not say that Owens and Moss are merely sideshows but it is obvious that they play dependent positions: they need a QB to get the ball to them.

Kobe, not the trio of centers, is driving the bus for the Lakers; he is by far the best player on the team. However, you are right that how far the team as a whole goes is dependent on the performance of the supporting cast. I have never suggested otherwise. What I have said is that the Lakers' failure to advance in the playoffs is not a reflection on Kobe, as some suggest, but merely a result of the lack of support that he has received the past few seasons. Even if Bynum, Kwame and Mihm continue to play at their current levels the Lakers still have a worse starting lineup than any of the West's top teams--but if they can continue to play like this then Kobe will be able to carry this team to 50 wins. I'm not convinced that the supporting cast will play like this all season. As I said before, my main point in this post is that no one can seriously believe that Kobe is pouting in light of the demonstrable effort that he is putting forth.

By the way, I thought that your position was that other players could not improve playing alongside Kobe. At this point, Kobe certainly does not seem to be holding back Bynum and the others. The reality, of course, is that Kobe's practice habits set a great example for the entire team--we saw this even with the great players on Team USA--but that it is up to each player to decide to work hard and improve.

 
At Wednesday, November 07, 2007 12:37:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Great observations about the media.

 

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