Los Angeles Lakers: Kobe Bryant Improving, Team Still Absent Defensively

Rust = shaken off?

Almost — it’s getting there for Kobe Bryant.

The 18-year veteran made his season debut on Sunday evening against the Toronto Raptors and posted numbers that the basketball world was quick to criticize and have a load of fun with.  As much fun as jokes about the “laughing stock” New York Knicks are becoming?   Not quite.

Nevertheless, Bryant scored nine points in his debut, shooting 2-of-9 from the field and grabbing eight rebounds by being active on the defensive glass.  While realistic expectations assumed he would use this game only as a “feeling out” game to see how his Achilles status was, he made a few costly mistakes on offense.  Turning over the ball eight times to a Raptors team that brought their A-game offensively was just enough to contribute to the Lakers’ loss in his return.

Lakers

Kobe Bryant threw down his first dunk of the season on Tuesday, two of his 20 points he totaled in the loss to Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday proved to be a different story.  The Phoenix Suns, a team Bryant has previously mentioned he hated, visited Staples Center in his second game back from injury.  Considering his debut was a “D” worthy performance on a grading scale, it’s not hard to see Bryant looked more comfortable on the floor his second go-around.  Leading the team with 20 points and only recording three turnovers, he almost looked ready to be the Black Mamba again.  Bryant had an efficient night by shooting 6-of-11 from the field and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line.

Getting lost in the festivity of No. 24 returning and the Lakers once again selling out home games, Los Angeles needs to keep the big picture in mind — they lost both games this week and there are issues on both ends of the floor.

Much like every team that Mike D’Antoni has coached, the main problems that need to be addressed begin on the defensive side of the ball.

The Lakers gave up 106 points to the Raptors on Sunday, including two 30+ point quarters from Toronto.  Even more alarming was the fact that Amir Johnson was able to set a career high by scoring 32 points on a near perfect 14-of-17 shooting.  Lakers fans can generally agree that their beloved squad never fails to make an average NBA talent appear like a top tier superstar.  Looking at the box score wouldn’t do the Raptors justice, considering their perimeter shooters (Steve Novak, Terrence Ross, Kyle Lowry) just weren’t finding their rhythm.  Toronto shot 4-of-26 (15.4 percent) from 3-point land, but majority of the attempts were quality, open looks.

The defense continued to disappoint fans at Staples Center as the Suns gave the Lakers quite a burn on Tuesday.  Phoenix was able to fight off Los Angeles’ six double-digit scorers and take a 114-108 victory.  Yet, the tradition played its course, and another young talent dominated the game.  Marcus and Markieff Morris likely relived some of their childhood days as they both played exceptional against the Lakers’ frontcourt.  Marcus scored 22 points on 10-of-13 field goals (including 2 3-pointers), and Markieff added 15 points and seven rebounds.

Each and every game played for this team, Pau Gasol becomes more exposed as a defensive liability.

The underlying problem Mike D’Antoni faces with Gasol is the Spaniard’s imbalance.  Offensively, Gasol is the right man for the job at the power forward or center position.  This season, while averaging 14.4 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3 assists per game, he has provided a spark in select games with his mid-range shooting and low-post moves.  Unfortunately, his defense has declined every season since winning his 2nd championship in 2010.  No longer is Gasol a 7-footer that players fear or think twice about attacking once they enter the paint.  He has turned into a player that labeling “soft” isn’t unfair critique, it’s just the cold hard truth.  The more athletic forwards — and even guards — are attacking him with confidence and scoring at will.  Is there any excuse for allowing Amir Johnson to out-hustle and out-play a guy that is just three years removed of being arguably the best power forward in basketball?  Not on my watch.

In all reality, the frontcourt situation for the Lakers must be adjusted.  Chris Kaman, who was thought to make the defense even worse, hasn’t played since Nov. 17 as he continues to experience back issues. He isn’t going to fix the problems.

The problem with the Lakers frontcourt is that Pau Gasol is the best offensive option, but Jordan Hill brings it defensively. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hill, averaging 21.4 minutes per game compared to Pau Gasol’s 30.3, certainly might.  In his opportunities this year, Hill has played better than he ever has with the purple and gold.  Something D’Antoni needs to evaluate and understand is that his offense is finding ways to score points this season.  They have the highest scoring bench in the NBA, and just got their superstar back in the lineup.  With the defensive play Gasol has put on display this season and his lack of athletic ability at this stage of his career, sacrificing his minutes in order to let Jordan Hill prove his worth in the paint seems almost necessary at this point.

It may not be the most popular move in Tinseltown, where Gasol has given the fans quite a bit to appreciate through the years.  But it’s probably the best idea if we want to see Kobe Bryant and the Lakers even reach the postseason.

Topics: Jordan Hill, Kobe Bryant Return, La Lakers, Lakers, Lakers Defense, Mike D'Antoni, Pau Gasol, Wesley Johnson

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