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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lakers are not Good Even With Kobe Bryant--but They are Awful Without Him

The Lakers went just 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's brief 2013-14 comeback from Achilles surgery after starting the season 10-9 without him. Does that mean that the Lakers are better off without Bryant? His critics would like for you to think so, but agreeing with that theory means ignoring several key pieces of evidence. Bryant was clearly not 100% physically during his cameo run. It is fair to wonder if he ever will be 100% again but it is not fair to draw a definitive conclusion about that when he has yet to complete even the equivalent of a full slate of preseason games. Bryant played between 27 and 32 minutes in each of his six games; the Lakers needed a heroic effort from Bryant down the stretch last season just to sneak into the playoffs, capped off by his unprecedented stat line (47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots, three steals) two days before he ruptured his Achilles. It is not reasonable to expect anyone--let alone an older player who is recovering from a potentially career-ending injury--to duplicate that performance level.

Bryant looked rusty during his comeback but he showed flashes of his old form and he was still productive in his limited minutes, particularly as a playmaker. His track record in terms of skill set, work ethic and overall conditioning makes it realistic to assume that if he can remain healthy--which is not a trivial question at this stage of his career--then he can still be the best player on a playoff team (though the Lakers in no way resemble a playoff team as currently constructed and coached). Bryant will return to action at some point this season and it will be interesting to see how he plays.

What about the Lakers overall? The small sample size of games that they played with Bryant distorts the picture; five of the six teams that the Lakers faced when Bryant played would currently qualify for the playoffs. Bryant was trying to find his rhythm while the Lakers were facing better than average competition. A 2-4 record is not good no matter how you look at it--but what about their 2-11 record since he broke a bone in his leg, including losses by 19, 22, 27 and 36 points? The Lakers won their first game sans Bryant and then proceeded to lose 11 of their next 12. They are not even remotely competitive and their defense is atrocious: they have given up at least 110 points in each of their past five games and they lost four of those five games by at least 13 points. It is funny to hear all of the "expert" criticism of Bryant's individual defense and of his supposedly negative impact on the team's defense. How is that L.A. defense looking now? One of the most revealing moments last season happened during game three of the Lakers' 4-0 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Hubie Brown declared, "You can use all the excuses you want but the defensive game plan was zero here tonight--the execution of it, whatever it was." That is about as direct of a shot at a head coach as I have ever heard Brown make on-air, because Brown's point was that L.A. Coach Mike D'Antoni had not even created a coherent defensive scheme. Sometimes players miss a rotation defensively and when that happens an astute analyst like Brown can at least recognize what the team is trying to do--but that is not the case at all with the Lakers. I added this comment: "In one sentence, Brown cut straight to the point: it is not clear what the Lakers' defensive game plan was and--whatever it was--the players rarely played with much energy. Look at the league's best-coached teams, squads like San Antonio, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Boston; they have different philosophies and their players have various skill sets but those teams consistently play hard and they play smart." The Lakers' poor defense last season and this season is a reflection of coaching and the problem with the Lakers' defense is that the coaching staff is either not teaching defense well and/or not holding the players accountable for executing defensively.

Perhaps the Lakers hovered around .500 for the first part of the season because they knew/believed that Bryant would return and provide a boost--but now it is not clear how long he will be out and/or what kind of player he will be when he comes back, so his teammates may have lost heart: they certainly are not playing with much spirit or desire, qualities that do not depend on talent.

The Lakers are heading out on a seven game road trip and they play 10 of their next 12 games on the road. By the time Bryant returns to action and regains any semblance of his old form, the Lakers will almost certainly have the worst record in the Western Conference. The reality is that the Lakers were not a particularly good team last season--Bryant's MVP level play in March and April masked their numerous personnel and coaching deficiencies--but now that Bryant has been out for an extended period of time all of those weaknesses are becoming glaringly apparent.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 PM



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