No matter how you feel about Kobe Bryant (and he’s probably the most polarizing player in the NBA), you have to admit that what he’s doing this season is pretty amazing. I mean, who averages 30 points a game in their 17th season?! That’s pretty much unheard of. Putting up 30 a game is hard for anyone to do, and usually, only one or two players do it in a season, and that’s if anyone does it at all (no one did last year). For someone to be scoring like this after playing for so long is nothing short of amazing.
But, while all this is going on, Kobe’s team hasn’t been all that impressive. The Lakers are currently 14-15. A team who was thought to be a surefire title contender is now struggling to break into the top eight. Can Kobe’s season be all that impressive when his team is having such a rough go of it?
Well, yes and no.
There’s two ways we can look at this; one is the “it’s all everybody else’s fault” theory, which is pretty much self-explanatory. We could just say that Kobe has been great, and the struggles of the Lakers are due to his uninspiring teammates. There’s definitely some truth to this. Pau Gasol struggled mightily at the beginning of the season. He appears to have finally gotten some of his old form back, but he’s going to have to be positively dominant the rest of the way for this to not be one of the worst seasons of his career.
As for Dwight Howard, well, he hasn’t necessarily been bad. I mean, he’s still has great numbers (albeit not as great as usual), and he’ll be a starter in the all-star game, and he’ll probably still make first-team all-NBA even if he doesn’t improve his game in the second half, but still…he’s not quite the same. He’s been a very good player, who has the potential to put up ridiculous numbers on any given night. But he’s not as good as he was his last few years in Orlando. He no longer feels like an unstoppable force. Oh sure, he can still exploit weak defenses, but it no longer feels like a forgone conclusion that he’s going to score through sheer force of will. Tough defenses like Memphis can stop him from being his usual dominant self, and render him largely ineffective. He’s struggled on the defensive side, too, not being the imposing menace he had been before. Again, he’s still very good, just not as scary as he’s been in the past.
So, yes, The Lakers struggles can be attributed to the struggled of Kobe’s teammates. The injury to Steve Nash, which resulted in Chris Duhon and Darius Morris getting major minutes didn’t help either. But still, shouldn’t Kobe be held a little responsible for his teams rather shabby record? Look, no one is going to deny his offensive prowess. On that end, he’s been brilliant this year. After a rough shooting year in 2011-12, Kobe is draining everything in sight, and no opponent lead ever feels safe with him shooting like this (just ask the Warriors, who blew a 15-point lead in the 4th quarter last week). Still, his struggles on the defensive side can’t be ignored. In the past, Kobe has been one of the best two-way players in the game, appearing absolutely deadly on both sides of the ball. This simply has not been the case this year. Guards can get past Kobe with relative ease, and much like Howard, he no longer feels like the defensive beast he used to be.
In and of itself, this isn’t that big of a deal. There really aren’t that many shooting guards who are solid on both ends of the ball. You either get guys like Tony Allen, who can stop anyone but have decidedly limited offensive games, or guys like Joe Johnson who are always good for two points….that they immediately give up on the other end. If we are strictly evaluating Kobe as a player, his astonishing offense more than cancels out his declining defense. But in the context of the Lakers’ performance, it’s a much bigger problem. In the past, Kobe was able to carry teams with horrible supporting casts (Smush Parker, anyone?) to the playoffs because of his immense abilities on both sides of the ball. Now, a team with Kobe, Pau, and Dwight is struggling? If Kobe was his old self on defense, this wouldn’t be happening. Kobe and Dwight can both score all the points they want, and it’s not always going to stop the other team from scoring more. A talented cohesive team like the Nuggets won’t have a problem running the Lakers ragged all night.
So, Kobe is still having a very good season, and his ability to score at such a high rate at his age definitely should be appreciated. Still, he’s not completely blameless for the Lakers struggles. He’s not the defender he used to be, and the Lakers are worse. The addition of Nash will help the Lakers already potent offense, and help Kobe score even more, but the defense will still be an issue. As a result, the Lakers might not be the juggernaut we thought they’d be, especially considering that teams with elite defenses are far more likely to succeed in the playoffs. So, Kobe is still great, and he’s not the first guy I’d pin the Lakers struggles on, but he’s not completely blameless, and his slipping D might be what prevents him from getting that elusive sixth ring.
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