Kobe Bryant Passes Elgin Baylor on Career 40 Point Games ListIn the wake of the understandable excitement over the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol, it was largely overlooked that Kobe Bryant had a quite remarkable performance on Friday night in a 121-101 victory at Toronto: Bryant scored 46 points on 19-28 field goal shooting, adding seven rebounds and five assists. Due to injuries, the Lakers only dressed nine players, two of whom--Coby Karl and D.J. Mbenga--are in their first year with the team and have seen little action; being that shorthanded is not normally a recipe for a road win against a team that won the Atlantic Division last season. The Lakers were also playing the second game of a back to back sequence after a frustrating loss in Detroit on Thursday. Bryant almost carried the Lakers to a win in that game with 39 points, 10 rebounds and five assists but he also had 11 turnovers; against Toronto he only had one turnover in 44 minutes.
This was the 89th 40 point game of Bryant's career, moving him past Elgin Baylor into third place on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (271) and Michael Jordan (173). The Lakers are 2-2 this season in Bryant's 40 point games but during his career such scoring outbursts have resulted in a 61-28 record, including a 13-5 mark last year when the Lakers were hardly a powerhouse.
Some pundits predicted doom and gloom for the Lakers after Andrew Bynum suffered a knee injury that is expected to sideline him for two months. I disagreed, writing, "The Lakers face a daunting task on their upcoming nine game road trip but I don't foresee this team dropping precipitously in the standings the way that many people seem to expect; the trip starts with a tough back to back in Detroit and Toronto but there are also games in Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota. If the Lakers beat those three teams and even go just 2-4 in the other games then they will be just fine and if they don't sustain any more injuries they are certainly capable of doing that." The Lakers are 4-5 without Bynum so far, with three of the five losses coming against teams whose records currently rank in the top five in the league (Phoenix, Detroit, Dallas); they also lost to San Antonio and Cleveland, the two teams that participated in the 2007 NBA Finals. The Lakers have started that nine game road trip with a 1-1 record that includes a quality win and a hard fought, close loss. Presumably the addition of Gasol will help the Lakers a lot in the remaining seven road games and down the stretch of the season but even without him there is no evidence that the team was going to be terrible without Bynum. Obviously, any team that loses a quality big man will suffer and that goes double when that team faces the toughest part of its schedule--but nine games after the Lakers' season supposedly ended, they are still in second place in the Pacific Division and just three games off the pace for best record in the Western Conference.
I've been saying for more than two years that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, so I obviously think that he has an excellent opportunity to lead the Lakers to a championship at some point if core players Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom remain healthy. Nevertheless, some of the assessments that have been made regarding the Lakers strike me as bizarre. For instance, the usually astute Jeff Van Gundy told the L.A. Times that in the wake of Bynum's injury the Lakers could have fallen completely out of the playoff picture but that after the addition of Gasol he thinks that the Lakers are "the most talented team in the NBA." There is no question that the Lakers did very well to acquire Gasol without giving up any assets that currently had value to them but somehow Gasol has instantly been transformed into Moses Malone, a guy who can automatically deliver a title. If Van Gundy truly believes that the Lakers' roster minus Bynum was going to fall from its brief perch atop the West all the way out of the playoff picture then how can he say that just adding Gasol makes the Lakers the best team in the entire league? Van Gundy has asserted more than once that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has questioned why Bryant has not already won an MVP, so we can logically deduce that Van Gundy is intimating that outside of Bryant and Bynum the Lakers do not have a lot of talent; otherwise, they would not drop out of the top eight in the West just because Bynum is out. Adding Gasol, a one-time All-Star who has never made the All-NBA team or won even one playoff game, is not enough to turn a lottery team around; we've already seen that in Memphis. So why should Van Gundy believe that Gasol could lift the Lakers from being lottery bound without Bynum to being the NBA's best team? That is illogical.
The reality is that the Lakers were not going to fall out of the top eight in the West without Bynum; Bryant would not let that happen, just like he did not let it happen last year when the Lakers dealt with a wave of injuries. However, the arrival of Gasol has not turned them into mortal locks to win this year's championship or even the favorites to do so. Teams need a chance to jell; Gasol will need time to learn the Triangle Offense and to understand what Coach Phil Jackson expects from him on defense. How well Boston has played so far this season--particularly on defense--after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen is, quite frankly, surprising, but at least the Celtics had a full training camp and have enjoyed reasonable health. Bryant, Bynum and Gasol will probably only play together for about a month before the playoffs. On paper this is a strong team that may well win a championship next year but no serious analyst can call them favorites this season before even seeing this group on the court together once.
All that can be said for sure is that the Lakers have upgraded the team's overall talent level significantly since last season. Bryant has an All-Star teammate for the first time since the Shaquille O'Neal trade, Bynum has blossomed, Derek Fisher is a huge upgrade over Smush Parker, Trevor Ariza is a good energy guy and the young bench players (Farmar, Turiaf, Vujacic) have played well. When this Lakers team is at full strength, opposing defenses will not simply be able to load up on Bryant, nor will teams be able to count on making huge runs during the brief times that Bryant rests. The Lakers are not yet the best team in the NBA but by playoff time they could be a very formidable unit.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM