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Monday, February 04, 2008

Kobe Carries the Load Again While Lakers Wait for Gasol

Kobe Bryant scored 30 points on 10-15 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers never trailed en route to a 103-91 victory at Washington. Bryant set the tone early with 19 first quarter points, outscoring the Wizards singlehandedly and propelling the Lakers to a 30-15 lead. He showcased his full repertoire, from driving dunks to spin moves to three pointers. If the situation had demanded it, Bryant could easily have scored 50 or more points. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, while ex-Laker Caron Butler had 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

If you listened to various prophets of doom, the Lakers were supposed to be sinking out of the playoff race right about now due to the absence of the injured Andrew Bynum. Instead, the Lakers have gone 5-5 without their promising young center, largely because Bryant has stepped his MVP-level game up another notch; in the last six games he is averaging 35.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg while shooting .558 from the field. Newly acquired Pau Gasol joined the Lakers in Washington and participated in warmups but did not play. He has been nursing a back injury and still needs to get familiar with some of the Lakers' offensive and defensive concepts. Gasol is expected to make his Laker debut on Tuesday in New Jersey.

This game was shown on NBA TV using the feed from the Wizards' broadcast crew, who made an interesting point late in the contest that bears repeating: Butler credits Bryant for being a mentor figure during Butler's time in L.A., saying that Bryant taught him how to be professional and how hard you have to work in practice to maximize your potential; the process that led to Butler becoming an All-Star in fact began when Butler was Bryant's teammate. This bit of knowledge corrects the misperception that Bryant somehow held back Butler's game. The Lakers acquired Butler from Miami along with Lamar Odom in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal but after just one season they dealt Butler to Washington for Kwame Brown because they thought that they needed a center. Brown was part of the package that just netted Gasol, so the long term ramifications of the O'Neal trade are still being worked out. As things stand now, the Lakers shed O'Neal and his huge salary to rebuild their frontline with Bynum, Odom and Gasol.

Thanks to Bryant, the Lakers remained a playoff team while GM Mitch Kupchak tinkered with the roster and they now are in a good position to eventually contend for a championship. There is no guarantee that this plan will work, just like there is no guarantee that Memphis' rebuilding plan will succeed, but this is what I meant all along when I kept insisting that the O'Neal trade should be looked at as a short term deal for Miami but a long term one for L.A. The Heat got one championship out of O'Neal but now face the prospect of having to completely overhaul the team, with the specter of Dwyane Wade possibly leaving hanging over their heads; the Lakers never hit rock bottom and are without question better off than they would have been if they had elected to keep O'Neal and thus let Bryant go in order to avoid exceeding the salary cap and having to pay the luxury tax. It is interesting that owner Jerry Buss adamantly refused to go into luxury tax territory to retain O'Neal's services but the Gasol trade does push the Lakers over the threshold; this lends credence to my theory that if O'Neal had paid more attention to his conditioning starting in 2002 (when he decided to let his toe injury heal "on company time") then the Lakers may have kept winning titles and Buss may have been more apt to spend enough money to retain O'Neal's services. Instead, Buss chose to save money a few years ago in order to invest it in Kobe Bryant and a younger frontline that should help Bryant turn the Lakers into contenders for the next few years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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