Heat Victory Over Lakers Calls Into Question Assertions About Lakers' DepthPrior to the Miami Heat's 114-111 overtime win versus the L.A. Lakers, TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith repeatedly insisted that the Lakers are so talented that they can win even if Kobe Bryant has a subpar game--and Smith added that if Bryant scores at least 28 points the Lakers are virtually a lock to win on any given night because Bryant's teammates are so good. The reality is that Smith--normally an astute analyst--and Barkley--who is sometimes astute but sometimes just seems to speak off the top of his head--both shot wide of the mark with this particular evaluation of the Lakers. Bryant scored 39 points on 15-28 field goal shooting versus Miami--including the Lakers' last six points in the fourth quarter and their first six points in overtime--but the Lakers lost to a team that Barkley continually refers to as "Michael Jackson and a bunch of Titos" because Barkley believes that Dwyane Wade (who finished with 27 points on 9-21 field goal shooting plus 14 assists and six turnovers) has to perform at an extraordinarily high level just for the Heat to be competitive. While Barkley is obviously correct that the Heat do not have a contender-quality roster, it is worth mentioning that in 2005-06 Bryant led the Lakers to a 45-37 record with Lamar Odom--who turned out to be a good sixth man for a championship team--as his second best player and Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Devean George, Chris Mihm and Brian Cook ranking third through seventh in total minutes played; just four years after Bryant led that motley crew to the NBA playoffs none of those players except for Odom is a rotation player for a playoff team. Extending Barkley's music analogy, it could said that compared to Bryant's 2006 "garage band" Dwyane Wade is surrounded by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers this year: Michael Beasley, six-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal, Udonis Haslem (starting power forward for the 2006 NBA Champion Miami Heat), Quentin Richardson, Mario Chalmers and Dorell Wright.
Including Thursday's loss, the Lakers are 22-8 (.733) when Bryant scores at least 28 points; that is virtually identical with their overall .742 winning percentage (46-16), so Smith is wrong to imply that the Lakers are such a dominant team that when Bryant meets or exceeds his scoring average the Lakers win almost every time. While much has been made of Bryant's buzzer beating shots this season--the fact that the Lakers have needed Bryant to bail them out so frequently is yet another indication that the Lakers are not as stacked as some people suggest--it is even more significant that on many occasions the Lakers have needed exceptional performances by Bryant for the entire game just to beat mediocre teams; here are some examples:
1) 12/22/09, Bryant scores a season-high 44 points on 13-27 shooting and has 11 assists as the Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors 124-118.
2) 12/15/09, Bryant scores 42 points on 15-26 shooting as the Lakers beat the Chicago Bulls 96-87.
3) 11/4/09, Bryant scores 41 points on 15-30 shooting as the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 103-102.
4) 11/6/09, Bryant scores 41 points on 19-30 shooting as the Lakers beat the Memphis Grizzlies 114-98.
5) 11/17/09, Bryant scores 40 points on 17-29 shooting as the Lakers beat the Detroit Pistons 106-93.
Look not only at Bryant's point totals but also his shooting percentages; Bryant had to be highly productive and highly efficient for the Lakers to win those games. It is also worth noting that four of those five games happened before Bryant suffered an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his right (shooting) hand; for the first six weeks of the season, Bryant was the best player in the league and he led the Lakers to the best record in the league even though Pau Gasol missed the first 11 games (the Lakers went 8-3 without Gasol, a statistic that for some reason is not mentioned nearly as often as the Lakers' 4-1 record sans Bryant).
Not only have the Lakers quite often needed Bryant to play very well just to get by teams that are--at best--average, contrary to Smith's assertion the Lakers have only been a .500 team when Bryant struggled. Bryant has shot worse than .400 from the field in 16 games this season--13 of which took place after he suffered the aforementioned broken finger--and the Lakers went just 8-8 in those games. That sample size is more than three times larger than the sample size of the games that Bryant missed and it provides a better indicator of how the Lakers would perform long term without an efficient and productive Bryant leading the way.
The Lakers' dependence on Bryant is nothing new. Barkley, Smith and other commentators who perpetuate the myth about the Lakers' depth should have learned their lessons during last year's playoffs, when Bryant led the Lakers in scoring (30.2 ppg) and assists (5.5 apg) en route to defeating the Orlando Magic to win the NBA Championship. Bryant scored at least 35 points in six of the Lakers' 23 playoff games; the Lakers won each of those six contests but they lost two of the three playoff games in which Bryant failed to score 20 points. The Lakers relied even more heavily on Bryant in the Finals; he averaged 32.4 ppg and 7.4 apg versus the Magic, recording the fourth highest scoring average in a five game NBA Finals series (15 of the 63 NBA Finals have lasted five games). Any assertion that Bryant is not a top level playmaker can be refuted by the fact that only Jerry West, who averaged 37.9 ppg and 7.4 apg in the 1969 Finals, ever averaged more points and more assists in the same Finals than Bryant did.
Bryant was understandably delighted when the Lakers shipped out Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and the rights to Marc Gasol in exchange for Pau Gasol; being paired with Pau Gasol meant that Bryant no longer had to go into gun battles with "butter knives" and so far has already resulted in back to back trips to the NBA Finals, but I may be the only commentator who has repeatedly pointed out that Gasol's statistics have markedly improved since coming to the Lakers, enabling him to earn two All-Star selections plus his first All-NBA nod. Gasol had an 0-12 record in playoff games prior to teaming up with Bryant. No one ever thought of Gasol as an elite big man until Gasol had the opportunity to benefit from the extra defensive attention that Bryant draws. Bryant has helped lift Gasol from being a player who was a fringe All-Star (what else can be said about someone who made the All-Star team once in six years?) to someone who could quite possibly receive Hall of Fame consideration if he earns another three or four All-Star selections and one or two more championship rings as Bryant's sidekick; that is not to say that Gasol is as good as certain players who are already in the Hall or that he is better than some players who the Hall has shamefully snubbed but the reality is that if Gasol ends up with five or six All-Star selections and two or three championship rings then he will be perceived by many as a Hall of Fame player, particularly considering the fact that he also has a good FIBA resume.
In other words, part of the reason that so many people are raving about Bryant's supporting cast now is that playing alongside Bryant is making those guys look better! In addition to Gasol's progress, Andrew Bynum has benefited from Bryant's mentoring and Shannon Brown has gone from being an afterthought with several other teams to being a solid member of the Lakers' rotation; the reverse effect is evident with Trevor Ariza, a journeyman who became a starter on a championship team alongside Bryant and who is now once again a journeyman--and an inefficient one at that--for a non-playoff team in Houston.
Furthermore, consider the impact that Bryant had on Team USA; after repeated failures in various FIBA events, Team USA won the 2008 Olympic gold medal with Bryant taking over down the stretch in the final game versus Spain much like he repeatedly takes over down the stretch for the Lakers. When things went bad for Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship versus Greece without Bryant on the roster LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony proved unable to stem the tide--the difference in 2008 was that when Spain made a run to cut Team USA's lead to 91-89 Bryant answered the bell. Bryant's impact on Team USA extends well beyond even winning the gold medal, though; it is very evident that Bryant's work ethic and practice habits set an example that has resulted in James, Wade, Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and other Team USA players elevating their overall games.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 AM