Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals served as the final chapter in Kobe Bryant’s Era. This is not an attempt to say the last era or decade or so has been defined by Kobe. Rather, the era when a team could be built successfully around an alpha-dog, double-team-drawing Kobe Bryant has ended.
The Lakers stunning sweep punctuated by an embarrassing elimination game is an indictment of the entire team, not just Bryant, and their problems are numerous and glaring. Despite superior talent in both their playoff series, the Lakers struggled to dispatch a David West-less Hornets squad and were swept by a Mavericks team which, could be argued, had only one of the top five players in the series. In both series, it was a lack of quality, skilled play — not talent — that led to their struggles. With their top talent, the question certainly arises as to whether the Lakers were unable to “flip the switch” and play up to the level of their talent. But can it really be called a switch if it was on so rarely this season?
The Lakers had two great stretch of dominance where it seemed like a three-peat was inevitable. At the beginning of the season, they started 13-2 behind great play by Pau Gasol which put him in early MVP conversations in some circles. And right after the All-Star break, LA went 17-1 behind dominant control of the paint by Andrew Bynum.
The rest of the season was characterized by various losing and winning streaks, inconsistency, and lethargy. More revealing, as noticed by Espn.com’s J.A. Adande, is that the Lakers’ dominant performances were driven by their big men, not Bryant. Consistently great nights from Bryant, even when he shared the ball and shot a high percentage from the field, were simply not enough for sustained success if not supplemented by significant support from Gasol or Bynum.
Against the Mavericks, neither Gasol nor Bynum really showed up. Either Gasol was in some strange funk for his entire playoff stretch or Carmen Sandiego switched him and his brother Marc without anyone noticing. Bynum played better than Gasol, but only dominated in spurts. In fact, when the Lakers got Bynum involved, like in the first three quarters of Game 3, they found themselves with the lead. However, Bynum also spoke to the media about “trust issues” and finished off the series with a gutless cheap shot on the Mav’s J.J. Barea, the smallest player on the floor. Bynum admitted frustration with Barea’s ability to penetrate the middle played a role in his decision to elbow him in the rib cage, but it remains inexcusable. Furthermore, it was, once again, the Lakers’ inept pick-and-roll defense that allowed Barea to look like John Stockton with a killer first-step to the rim.
Without being flanked by his two rocks in the middle, Bryant was unable to pull out a win, much less a series victory. Bryant did not play poorly in the series – averaging 23.3 point and shooting 46% from the field — but he was not dominant enough to pull out victories. He shot 23% from three-point range and only dished out 2.5 assists per game. More telling about the decline in Bryant’s dominance is found in the shots he took. Out of 83 shot attempts, only 15 were inside of 10 feet. The Maverick’s game plan seemed to be to deny Bryant close range looks and take their chances with Bryant’s jump shots. It worked.
Bryant did not even demand the same respect in crunch time that he once had in his younger days. In the last minute of Game 1, Jason Kidd bodied Bryant at half-court, forcing Bryant into a turnover. For the rest of the game, Kidd refused to give Bryant enough free space for as much as a pivot foot. Jason Kidd is also no spring chicken and the fact that he did not respect Bryant’s first step speaks volumes about how much Bryant’s game has changed. Bryant got a decent look at the end through a well-designed in-bounds play, but the shot was too strong.
In the 2011 playoffs, Bryant actually struggled in the 4th quarter as his shooting percentage dipped to 31%, in large part no doubt, to his inability to get good looks close to the basket and being forced to settle for difficult, mid-range fadeaways with multiple defenders in his face. Perhaps the sprained ankle he suffered against the Hornets was responsible for his increased dependence on jump shots, but that simply seems unlikely when his regular season stats are examined.
Just from a year ago, Bryant’s shot attempts at the rim have dropped from 4.9 to 3.5, while his shots from 3 to 9 feet increased from 2.3 to 3.1 attempts per game. His attempts from 10 to 15 feet dropped from 4.0 to 3.2, while his attempts from 16 to 23 feet held at 6.0. These stats suggest what has been evident from merely watching Bryant: he has lost his signature first step and explosion to the rim that marked his game in his prime, and is forced to settle for more jumpers from greater distance — in this case, shots from 3 to 9 feet, and 16 to 23 feet.
If a team wants to contend for championships, its star player and alpha-dog cannot be as limited on the offensive end of the floor as Bryant has become. In no way should this statement be construed as an assertion that Bryant’s career is over. With modern medicine and his legendary off-season workouts, it seems possible that Bryant can play three to five more productive seasons. But his days as the Lakers’ signature player are over.
With the right mindset, he can reinvent himself as a deadly two guard who can thrive when playing off a new alpha-dog’s double teams. The historical precedent is there as Oscar Roberton playing with Lew Alcindor, and Clyde Drexler playing alongside Hakeem Olajuwon come to mind. It is interesting to draw parallels to the fact that both of these examples involved the aged guard playing with a dominant big man, and the swirling rumors about Dwight Howard’s potential future in a Lakers uniform.
Pau Gasol has already demonstrated that he is incapable of being an alpha-dog and Bynum’s young age, bad knees, and shaky mental state inspire more questions than hope. If the Lakers land either Howard or another bona fide alpha dog to play with Bryant, the possibility of future titles certainly remains. However, it requires Bryant’s willingness to relinquish his time as the unquestioned star of the team and yield dominance of the league to players with fresher knees.