Brian Shaw on Kobe Bryant
Wednesday at practice, I was part of a conversation with Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw about Kobe Bryant, and the dynamics of playing and coaching a team with him as the focal point. It's an honest conversation without being judgmental, and Shaw's ability to speak both respectfully of Kobe's talent and some of its side-effects, particularly the power of 24's influence and competitive drive, helps illustrate why his name is commonly tossed around as a potential successor to Phil Jackson.
There are enormous and obvious benefits to playing with an athlete of Kobe's caliber, but as Shaw demonstrates, winning with Kobe isn't simply a matter of rolling the ball out and letting him go. Coaching him is a challenge, as is being his teammate. That's not a criticism of Bryant, but a simple reality. Basketball is a team sport, and Kobe's unique makeup is the dominant feature of LA's team dynamic.
It's an interesting read.
Win or lose, the focus is always on Kobe. He's brilliant, he shoots
too much, he was tired, he showed his greatness, whatever. As a team
and a staff, how do you guys keep that aspect of "all Kobe all the
time" out of it? So things don't get overwhelmed?
Brian Shaw: We always, at the end of the evening, can find areas during the game where we say Kobe needs to move the ball more and get more people involved. But that's something that you just kind of have to take with him. Because of his ability, he can take and make shots that most other players can't make. And because I've been through wars with him as a player, the other coaches have been through it with him as a coach, and have seen him pull off and do some of the things that he can do, you kind of just have to trust that when he's out there he's going to make the right decisions and do what he feels necessary.
He's getting better at sensing when the team needs for him to come out and be aggressive right away, and I think that end-game situations we sometimes become predictable. The ball is going to be in his hands, and he's going to call Pau (Gasol) or somebody out to set a screen and roll, and we just kind of stand around and wait to see what he's going to do. I think we need to mix it up a little bit more, but then again, that's kind of the blessing and the curse of having him.
What I mean by that is, because he is so good, he can a lot of times beat two and three defenders that you put on him. And then at the same time that can be a curse, because then it takes the other guys out of rhythm when they're open. If it's five guys on the court you want them to do the right thing. If two people are on one player, it means that somebody else is open and the ball is supposed to find him. So we feel like it will all hash itself out. And we point it out to him when we watch film, "Hey, this guy was open," and "Hey, that guy was open." and then there's times when they were open and he hits a miraculous shot. So it's kind of one of those Catch-22 things.
Q: What's his response when you tell him other guys were open?
Shaw: He sees it, and he'll say to guys, "I'll get you on that next time," or whatever. And sometimes he will, and sometimes he won't. There's a trust that we have that he's going to-- we know that he's trying to win the game. There are a lot of times when Phil will call a play, but he'll have a feel for what's going on out on the floor and say, "No, no no. I already got something going." Phil trusts that, (and will let him do it). Now if (Jackson) wants to override it he will, but a lot of times now if Kobe's feeling something or seeing the way (things are going), he's the one out there dealing with it, so Phil kind of lets him go with it.
10 years ago, it wouldn't have been that way. It would have been Phil's way or no way. But that's a mutual respect that they have and have grown to work together with.
Q: Kobe will say sometimes that he and Phil will call some of the same sequences and sets. Do you see a lot of that?
Shaw: Yeah, there may just be a difference in the idea of what should-- Kobe likes to, if he's scoring on a play, or he likes to make the pass for the assist of the score. A lot of times from our perspective as a coaching staff, we would like him to make the pass that would lead to the pass. You know? That's still evolving. You see the double team is coming, now hit the open guy and let him hit the next open guy and score, but he likes to be the one to either deliver the shot or deliver the pass that's going to lead to the basket.
Q: Is that the trust thing we always focus so much on? Trusting teammates to do the right thing?
Shaw: And he knows that he's going to garner all the attention, on the double team or what have you. So there's that blessing and curse thing again. I want to be the one to make (a play), I know that I can make this play. That same will that's a blessing sometimes can be a curse, because sometimes it's asking or doing too much.
Q: As a coaching staff, do you guys have a process and is there a learning curve in teaching guys how to play with him?
Shaw: (laughs) You know, we haven't figured that out yet. And I say that because you can tell guys, and we tell them, start the offense away from him. Use this side of the court, see your options over here, and if nothing is there now reverse it to him. The shot clock is coming down, now let him do his thing.
But when he's out there on the floor and he's doing his little signals asking for the ball, there's kind of a pecking order that happens out there on the court. They don't want to piss him off, and they want to please the coaching staff as well. But he's the closest one out there to them on the floor, so a lot of times they'll force the ball in with three people around (Kobe) instead of making the right play. Fish (Derek Fisher) will do the right thing, but Fish has played the same amount of years, has been through all the wars with him. Some of the younger guys, they just want to make (Kobe) happy.
When I played, we always had a second. There were two dominant players. So if we went away from Kobe and threw it into Shaq, what can he say? Now, who is that guy who is on the same level that Kobe's on, that if they make a play over here to Lamar (Odom) and Kobe gets mad then they're going to play more to that because nobody's on that same level.
Q: Is Pau not on that same level?
Shaw: Pau doesn't have the demeanor. He's a nice guy. Shaq might have been like, "Give me the ball!" And Kobe would (say), "Give me the ball!" If you give it to Shaq, it's okay. If you give it to Pau and it doesn't work out then Kobe might get on you. The players have to work that out."
Q: So is Phil the other one? Phil has to be that second guy?
Shaw: Well, he can't really be that guy either, because he's on the sidelines. When the ball's in their hands on the court, they have to make that decision. There are times when we yell that a man is open (in one spot) or to swing it to the other side, and they still give it to Kobe anyway. It's part of growing up and playing with a player as great as he is. Even as teammates, sometimes they're fans of his on the floor while the game's going on, and that's the tough part. Trying to figure out how to get them over that.
Q: Does Luke Walton fall into the category of someone who will make the right play? He's been with Kobe for a while.
Shaw: He will, but he's guilty at times of trying to force that ball in there to him. It's understandable, though, because he's bailed everybody out so many times.
Q: What do you find interesting about the fact that he's been playing in this system for 13 years, and it's still evolving?
Shaw: It's going to always evolve, because teams are going to constantly do different things to take you out of your rhythm and comfort zone and take certain strengths away from you. That's one thing that I love about this offense is that you can call a play and a team can take a certain part of it away, and then that just forces the next action to happen based on what they're taking away. We can play a game where you never have to make a call at all. You just play off the defense and what they give you and what they take away. So that's the beauty of having a system and having a foundation that you can always fall back on.
There are certain teams that have offenses that, when all else fails, they're stuck in a position and there's no outlet or alternate action to come into play. But (in our system) there's always a teammate or something. If (the opposition) want to deny and pick up full court pressure, we just bring the triangle up higher. But everything is exactly the same. When somebody is taking the ball out on the sideline out of bounds, that person that's taking the ball out of bounds? We're still in our triangle, they're just out of bounds at the wing spot that they'd be if it was in play. So it's constantly evolving. Even though the game is simple and it's basically screen and rolls and rebounding and passing and shooting, it's still evolving because everyone's athleticism and abilities is different.
I've expressed many times how my favorite thing about the Finals, at least so far as the work part goes, is easy access to assistant coaches. I spoke earlier to Jim Cleamons about the offense, and how different things fit in. Great stuff. Here, Shaw is equally candid. It was interesting to hear him talk about Fisher, and how he's the one guy on the team who consistently will make what he believes is the right decision, even while risking Kobe's ire. No surprise. When he returned to the team last season, Fisher spoke about the challenges of playing with Kobe, and the need to teach guys to protect their space on the floor and not let Bryant's presence overwhelm their games.
What we've seen from the Lakers over the last two years is a push/pull of that process. Kobe, to his credit, has done great work in developing the confidence of his teammates, moving the ball and letting go some of that control, all an important part of growing as a leader. Two straight Finals appearances helps demonstrate that, as it does the increased quality of his teammates and the efficacy of LA's current formula. Still, there's always work that can be done on both sides, whether it's Kobe learning to take that extra step back for the betterment of the group or his teammates having the will to stick up to him if they think it's the right play. Things may get boiled down to a simple "Kobe is selfish" from time to time, but it's obviously not that simple.
And as Shaw notes, that process of give and take also extends to PJ and the coaching staff, and certainly his words reinforce what you hear from both Jackson and Bryant, that their level of trust and understanding in this second go round is high.