In Team USA’s 100-78 victory over Spain on Tuesday, Kobe Bryant had six points, four rebounds and three assists. The most remarkable part of his performance was how unremarkable it was: he scored in the flow of the offense, picking and choosing his spots while making plays for his teammates.
In contrast, Kobe was the offense when the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs. By Game 5, he was demanding the ball nearly every time up the floor while repeatedly taking contested shots over multiple defenders. He scored 42 points, but he took 33 shots without handing out a single assist.
Kobe, one of the most gifted one-on-one scorers in the NBA, can almost always create his own shot. However, the value of that skill diminishes when you have extremely talented teammates. The standard for a quality field goal attempt is a lot lower when your second and third options are defensive specialists than when they are All-Stars.
And over the last two years, no one in the NBA has taken more low-quality shots than Kobe. That was partly out of necessity -- the lack of perimeter shooting on the Lakers often forced the ball in his hands with the shot-clock winding down -- but mostly because it’s the way he’s most comfortable playing.
When the Lakers first pursued Dwight Howard last season, Kobe reportedly told him he would have to accept a lesser role offensively if he came to Los Angeles. Even the chance to acquire the league’s most dominant defensive force couldn’t budge the apparently immutable law that Kobe requires a certain amount of touches.
However, as he’s proving in the run up to the Olympics, he’s perfectly capable of helping his team without taking 20+ shots a game. And if Kobe can adapt to a smaller role offensively in London, than he can do so with the Lakers.
The Lakers aren’t quite Team USA, but they will have a mind-boggling amount of offensive firepower next season. With the addition of Steve Nash, Los Angeles now has All-Star caliber players at four of the five positions. Their biggest problem will be making sure everyone gets enough touches.
Pau Gasol is one of a small handful of 7’0 remaining in the NBA who can score with his back to the basket. He’s a future Hall of Famer and the featured player on the best international team of all-time; he’s the fourth option for the Lakers. The Miami Heat’s fourth option is Mario Chalmers; the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have a fourth option on offense.
And while the famously unselfish Gasol will adjust to a more complementary role, the same can’t be said for Andrew Bynum. By the end of last season, Bynum was practically conducting an open mutiny -- taking three-pointers, snubbing LA’s coaching staff during timeouts and refusing to apologize in the media -- in response to the Lakers' Kobe-centric offense.
The 24-year old Bynum is capable of an MVP-caliber season, if given the chance. It’s no coincidence that his career high point totals (19.7 on 55% shooting) last season came as a the result of his career-high usage rating (23.7). Headed into free agency, he’s going to want the ball more often, not less, next year.
Nash, meanwhile, is one of the most efficient offensive players of his generation. Even at the age of 37, with very little offensive talent around him on Phoenix, he averaged 12.5 points and 10.7 assists on 53% shooting in 2012.
Kobe has played with Derek Fisher, a point guard comfortable spotting up without the ball in his hands, for most of his career. Using Nash in that role would be a flagrant waste of resources, especially considering how little value he brings defensively.
Unless they deal for Howard, Los Angeles won’t be winning games on the defensive end of the floor. They go 38 (Nash), 34 (Kobe) and 32 (Metta World Peace) on the perimeter, and while Gasol and Bynum are fairly mobile for 7’0 250+ post players, neither has the foot-speed to defend out to the three-point line.
In a seven-game series, an elite offensive team like the Thunder will be able to expose their defensive deficiencies. The Lakers will need to maximize their offensive efficiency to get out of the Western Conference, much less challenge the Heat. That means running an offense where all four of LA’s stars get the chance to score and feeding the one with the biggest mismatch on the floor, regardless of a set pecking order.
On Team USA, Kobe is one of many offensive weapons at Coach K’s disposal. It makes no sense for a team that has Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant to give a 34-year old shooting guard the green light to shoot the ball at will. The same is true for an NBA team with Gasol, Bynum and Nash.