Lakers' offense lacks balance, but the blame doesn't fall on Kobe Bryant
There's no question the Lakers (46-18) have played worse since guard Kobe Bryant returned to the lineup for the past eight games. The team acknowledged it by holding an air-it-out meeting Saturday following a disheartening loss to Charlotte the previous night. The statistics show it with the Lakers going 4-1 during Bryant's absence because of a left sprained ankle and going 4-4 since his return.
But the reasons for that dropoff are as convoluted as the Lakers' offense itself during the last eight games, mostly recently the team's 96-94 loss Sunday to the Orlando Magic. Bryant spent the first four games upon his return trying to find his lift, which ultimately hurt his shooting stroke. The team defense lacked the same intensity that it displayed during his absence. And then there's the whole area of the team playing without the same urgency, falling back to let-Kobe-bail-us-out-mode and hoping that will sweep any problems the Lakers presented during most of the game.
There's a lot of reasons the Lakers lost Sunday against Orlando, but that reason isn't Kobe Bryant. Sure, he was the one who missed the game winner and he was the one who shot 12 of 30 from the field. But he was also the one who scored a team-high 34 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter and actually put the team in a position to win.
This chicken-or-the-egg argument -- is the team too dependent on Kobe or does Kobe force the team to be dependent on him - will never end because of Bryant's stature and because there's always new wrinkles to the debate.
For example, when this conversation came up after he surpassed Jerry West as the franchise's all-time leading scorer, I thought there was legitimacy to the argument that Bryant's shooting tendencies had hurt team chemistry. Though his 16 of 28 clip in a loss Feb. 1 to Memphis was warranted because of his shooting percentage, I thought it was part of the reason why Ron Artest wasn't fully ready to nail the game winner (aside from the fact that his shooting stroke hasn't been good for most of the season). Bryant also capped off the previous month in January fighting an avulsion fracture to his right finger. Though he shot only 41.2% that month, he increased the amount of shots, making it harder for the rest of the team to get involved while also exposing more vulnerability to his finger. There were games he played a distributing role in the team's trip in January against New York, Toronto, Washington and Indiana, but the large volume of shots that month often came at the expense of on-court chemistry.
That's why when the Lakers went 4-1 during his absence, it became rather obvious that the Lakers played better as a team without Bryant in the lineup. The Lakers held opponents during Bryant's five-game absence to 86.6 points, a mark that ranked second-best in the league and was a near 10-point improvement from their regular season average in yielding 96.2 points per game at the time. The team's individual performances also improved during Bryant's absence. Just look at the averages during those games compared to the regular season averages beforehand: Pau Gasol (18.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, 17.2 points and 11 rebounds), Artest (14.4 points, 11.7 points) Lamar Odom (14.6 points and a league-leading 15 rebounds, 10.2 points and 10.1 rebounds), Shannon Brown (14.6 points in 37.7 minutes, 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game), Jordan Farmar (11 points in 21.5 minutes per game, 7.6 points in 18.4 minutes per game) Derek Fisher (9.4 points, 7.3 points) and Sasha Vujacic (4.4 points in 14 minutes, 2.5 points in 7.9 minutes per game). Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17.5 points and 8 rebounds, 15.2 points and 8.2 boards) also saw an increase, but it was in only two games since he was sidelined because of an injured right hip.
ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin, making a similar argument I'm making right now, pointed to the 28 shots Bryant took against Miami, the 21 he took against Charlotte and the 30 he took against Orlando. As McMemanin noted, that contrasts the number of attempts other teammates averaged during Bryant's absence, including Gasol (15), Brown (14.2), Artest (12.4) and Odom (10.4) . Bryant's return may have contributed to that imbalance, but this time it's not because of what Bryant has done himself.
For one, the Lakers defense allowed 97.87 points per game in the last eight games, even as Artest had solid defensive performances with exception to Sunday's game where he mostly allowed Vince Carter to score 25 points. Just like Artest's offensive numbers flourished when he had good defensive performances, the team offense dipped with the team defense declining.
And as far as Bryant goes, he hasn't completely shut anyone out from contributing. When Bryant scored 32 points on 13 of 19 shooting and netted his sixth game winner last week against Memphis, Pau Gasol had a solid 22 points even though he didn't make key plays late in the game. When Bryant shot only nine of 23 against Dallas, Odom filled the void with 21 points, a night after disappearing against Memphis and putting up a deferential five points. With Bryant's shot not falling against Philadelphia (seven of 16) and Denver (three of 17), Mamba played the facilitating role, with his combined 20 assists mostly benefitting Gasol and Odom inside. Bryant's shot was still flat against Indiana, but there was team balance in that game and he got his 24 points by mostly going to the free throw line (14 of 15).
During the Lakers' recent three-game trip, you've seen Bryant's shooting come back (Miami), his shooting as well as the rest of the offense suffer (Charlotte) and Bryant still producing despite being held in check by a pesky Matt Barnes (Orlando). But to say Bryant simply forced shots is ignoring the bigger picture. Not only were there forced shots he missed, there were forced shots he made, too. And there really weren't too many other options. Bynum was in foul trouble for most of the game. Gasol got 22 points, but finished with a minus-9 rating on the floor. And the shooting from Artest, Fisher and Farmar left a lot to be desired (a combined 6 of 26).
It's been well documented that Bryant's individual play has become an issue for most of his career. That part simmered perhaps during last season's championship run, but the issue has creeped back in from time to time during the 2009-10 season. Sometimes the criticism has been warranted. Sometimes it hasn't. And at this current stage of the season, Bryant isn't the one to blame.
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Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant begins a baseline drive against Magic forward Matt Barnes in the first half Sunday. Credit: John Raoux / Associated Press.