4 Ways for the Lakers to make up for a limited Kobe Bryant
Obviously it reveals Bryant still hasn't fully recovered from his surgically repaired right knee. The news shows another example of Jackson preparing the Lakers to get ready to to shoulder the load as Bryant continues rehabbing.
That process has already started in the preseason as Jackson has monitored Bryant's minutes, stressed that Pau Gasol needs to become more of a leader and proclaimed that the entire team lacked the basketball conditioning to open up training camp, except for Lamar Odom. Jackson's observations go beyond wanting to motivate his players. They're actually true. And Bryant's limitations might have a profound effect Thursday, as Jackson has said he's considering sitting Bryant out against Golden State in San Diego, and then putting him back in the lineup Friday against the Warriors.
"I'm not that concerned about his shot as I am just about just having an overall ability to play with the kind of energy he wants to play with," Jackson said of Bryant, who has shot 27.3%, averaged 11 points in six exhibition games, practiced Wednesday and didn't speak to reporters afterward.
"That shot will come as soon as that happens. He's the best caretaker I've seen in his own personal physique. So I anticipate he's got it measured on how he wants to do it. I don't anticipate he'll play heavy-minute games to start the season. So we'll have to find a pattern out there so he has the greatest influence in the amount of minutes he can play."
After the jump I explain four ways the Lakers can better compensate for Bryant's limitations.
1.Gasol needs to play more aggressively -- Jackson has been prodding Gasol all preseason to show a willingness to take over the games and become the team's leader. In return, Gasol has been pacing himself back into form after taking the summer off to nurse his left and right hamstrings and rest up. Gasol's approach will eventually pay off, but there is a fine line between pacing and just not showing any energy. There have been instances of brilliance that showcase Gasol's amazing footwork and comfort level with teammates. But they're sporadic. Gasol has mostly looked robotic on the floor, with very little energy, as indicated by his shooting percentage (29.5%) and slow reactions on defense.
During Bryant's five-game absence last season because of a sprained left ankle, Gasol took charge with a team-leading 18.4 points and 13.4 rebounds per game, a jump from the 17.2 points and 11 rebounds he posted before Bryant's injury. That was possible because Gasol received more looks in the paint and appeared more aggressive in creating his own shot.
2. Play as a team -- Though it's hard to divine anything definitive in preseason, it's an encouraging sign that the Lakers have played team-oriented basketball. Surely, Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, Theo Ratliff, Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks are still learning the triangle, but the newcomers all seem genuinely interested in nailing down the concepts. Likewise, all the starters are looking for each other instead of just running isolation plays. Even with the inconsistency the Lakers have presented this preseason, many of the games have featured brilliant plays in which constant ball movement and cutting has led to easy shots for everyone.
When Bryant sat out last season, the team felt more involved. Remember, Bryant's injury coincided with the debate on whether his continuous shooting hindered both his fractured right index finger, and team chemistry. Was Bryant trying to do too much at the expense of his teammates and did his teammates not really give Bryant enough of an incentive to get them involved? No matter what you may think, one thing is indisputable: Everyone's production level went up. Consider the averages in the last five games compared to the regular season averages among Gasol (18.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, 17.2 points and 11 rebounds), Ron Artest (14.4 points, 11.7 points) 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).
3. Sharpen up on defense -- Jackson said he's spent most of his practices emphasizing defensive concepts, partly because defense has remained so inconsistent during games. That shouldn't happen considering Bryant, Artest, Barnes and Ebanks are considered tough, lockdown defenders and the Lakers have the long wingspans of Odom, Ratliff and Caracter.
An improved defense can help infuse energy into a lifeless team. During Bryant's five-game absence last season, The Lakers held opponents to 86.6 points per game, second-best in the league and nearly a 10-point improvement from their regular season average of 96.2 points. So even if the team's offense dropped from 102.1 points per game to 97.2, total defense improved by 10, meaning the Lakers benefited. That improvement wouldn't have been possible had the Lakers not felt involved with the offense, because the energy wouldn't have carried over to the defensive side.
4. Brown and Vujacic can compete for backup guard role -- Jackson made it clear last week that he hasn't fully determined Bryant's definitive backup. But the numbers seem to point to Brown, considering his 11.2 points per game on 45.3% shooting and because Vujacic has missed the last two games because of a concussion. Jackson said Vujacic might play Thursday against Golden State, so if that happens the last two preseason games would be a good opportunity for them to showcase themselves.
Of course, Brown and Vujacic might feel tempted to see this opportunity as their only audition, leading them to selfish tendencies. But that would actually help Jackson determine the pecking order. So if Bryant is limited for an extended time at the start of the regular season, Jackson would have a better idea which reserve would try to fit within the team concept and which reserve would try to pad his stats. My hunch is that Brown would fit the former and Vujacic would fit the latter.
Photo: Lakers guard Kobe Bryant retrieves a loose ball during the first half of the Lakers' 82-74 exhibition loss to the Utah Jazz on Tuesday. Credit: Jae C. Hong.