Bryant's Shin Injury Provides Laker Fans a Grim Look at the FutureI would be the first person to say that broad conclusions should not be drawn based on a small sample size of data--but it is equally important to draw proper and correct conclusions based on objective observations and analysis. The L.A. Lakers are not a legitimate championship contender; they have two gifted but flawed big men and Kobe Bryant, an aging MVP caliber player who elevates an otherwise nondescript supporting cast. Bryant played in every game this season until a lingering shin injury forced him to miss Saturday night's game against Phoenix; advanced mileage combined with a myriad of injuries have led to more variance in his productivity than we have previously seen: Bryant leads the league in scoring and has tallied a league-best five 40 point games (four of which the Lakers won--and he shot at least .452 in each of those five 40 point games, including .500 or better in three of them) but he has also authored two of the worst shooting games of his career, though he salvaged one of those games by scoring 11 fourth quarter points to lead the Lakers to victory.
Quantifying how much Bryant contributed to each victory and defeat is perhaps open to interpretation, though an informed, objective observer of the Lakers can plainly see that Bryant draws an extraordinary amount of defensive attention and he is also the quarterback of the Lakers' usually staunch defense. However, Bryant's absence during the Lakers' 125-105 loss to Phoenix--the Lakers' worst scoring margin and most points surrendered this season--certainly revealed that sans Bryant the Lakers are, to put it mildly, flawed. The Lakers are not a great team even with Bryant--they are well behind the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs and only because of Bryant's extraordinary efforts have they barely stayed ahead of the rest of the Western playoff pack--but they are clearly a pretty bad team without him. Andrew Bynum's 10-27 field goal shooting against Phoenix should put to rest the idea that if Bynum shoots 6-8 from the field in a game then he would shoot that same percentage if he attempted 20-plus shots; shot creation is a valuable skill that is completely misunderstood by "stat gurus" and their media apologists: it takes a high skill level--and a high conditioning level--to attempt 20-plus shots a game but Bryant has to do this because his teammates (with the exception of recently acquired point guard Ramon Sessions) are not able to consistently create shots for themselves or others.
Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are very good players; Bynum uses his size and strength to score in the low post and he has developed into an excellent rebounder and shot blocker, while Gasol is a versatile big man who can play power forward or center--but neither of them is a true franchise player. Bynum lacks exceptional explosiveness, which is why he frequently gets stripped or blocked unless he has an uncontested path to the hoop; Gasol does not have the mindset of a franchise player, which is why Memphis gave up on him during his prime and decided to rebuild with younger assets (including, ironically, his brother Marc, who is now an All-Star). The only franchise players in the NBA right now are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose (when healthy), Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki (though he certainly has not looked like one this season); those guys are dominant players who demand double teams (and score anyway) and/or impact the game in multiple ways--and they do so consistently. Very few players have the mental, physical and emotional capacity to be a franchise player. Gasol was overmatched as a first option in Memphis but he proved to be a great second option for two Lakers championship teams; Bynum put up Luc Longley-type numbers in the playoffs for those championship teams, so posting All-Star numbers as a second option for three quarters of an abbreviated post-lockout season does not prove that he is in any way ready to handle the responsibilities of being a franchise player: purely from a skill set standpoint it is obvious that Bynum struggles when dealing with even occasional double teams--let alone the constant defensive pressure that Bryant faces as the first option--and it has become painfully obvious that Bynum still has a lot of growing up to do emotionally.
Bryant regularly draws double teams, enabling Bynum and Gasol to get easier looks; many of Bynum's high percentage, point blank shots result from Bryant being trapped and passing to Gasol, who then lobs the ball to an uncovered Bynum as the defense tries to rotate back into the paint. Can Bynum or Gasol occasionally beat double teams on their own? Sure. Can Bynum or Gasol score efficiently at times without Bryant being on the court? Yes. Can Bynum or Gasol serve as a game in, game out number one option while facing constant double teams? No.
The Lakers have nine games left on their schedule, including three versus the Spurs and one versus the Thunder. Bryant injured his shin more than a week ago and tried to play through the problem--as he always does--but the tendon kept getting inflamed after each game, indicating that rest is the only option. It is not clear how many games Bryant will miss but if Bryant does not return soon the Lakers could easily drop from third to fifth in the Western Conference and potentially face a first round matchup without home court advantage against a surging Memphis team.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:34 AM