Sooner or later, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to reach a breaking point. In an early-season matchup with middling Houston Tuesday night, we saw Kobe Bryant completely take control of a non-functional offense and revert to Black Mamba, circa 2006. While LA (now 4-3) won the game 108-99 and Kobe got his points -- 37 to be exact -- a much larger problem is lurking in Lakerland.
Entering this season, the main question around this team was how newly minted head coach Mike Brown would implement his offense and phase out the triangle. Seven games in, the answer is: not very well. Phil Jackson's triangle may have been boring and at times painfully basic, but the one thing it always did was maintain floor balance and spacing. It used the superb passing of Pau Gasol from the high post and forced Kobe into less over-dribbling and more team basketball.
As he did during his tenure in Cleveland, Brown's offense is rather predictable and reliant on a single star. For all the great that he's done in his career, Bryant still reverts to a brutally selfish isolation style when things aren't going well. In the first quarter against the Rockets, things were definitely not going well.
The Lakers had a slim lead, but looked terrible on offense with no balance and little flow. About the only thing working was Andrew Bynum. Bryant -- either out of pure frustration or sheer selfishness -- missed three consecutive errant shots on as many possessions. By game's end, he had settled down and finished 14-29 from the floor with 37 points -- a good night for sure. However, Kobe taking 30 shots per night has never been the blueprint for Laker championships. When this team went back-to-back in 2009 and 2010, we praised Bryant for finally figuring out how to trust his teammates. Michael Jordan learned the same valuable lesson with Steve Kerr and John Paxson, and for a three-year stretch it seemed like Bryant had as well.
The absence of Lamar Odom -- whom Mitch Kupchak merely gave away for cash purposes -- has undoubtedly hurt this team. Odom's overall versatility as a scorer, passer, ball handler and rebounder was lethal. That said, his departure has given more room for Bynum to assume the dominant role that we've been expecting since he entered the league seven years ago.
A big man with his set of skills is remarkably rare in a day and age when most guys want to play away from the basket. The fully healthy Bynum is averaging a robust 22 points and league-leading 17 rebounds per game right now since returning from his four-game suspension. He is demanding the ball, he is running the floor and he is finishing everything at the rim.
Bryant has the basketball acumen to understand the incredible gift he has been given. A 7-footer with Bynum's talent can not only extend Kobe's career, but can help him reach another championship, and consequently tie Jordan for six total. Yet he continues to look away from the post, brush off screen-and-rolls and instead isolate even when it's not there. In the final four minutes Tuesday night, with Bynum just three points away from the first 20-point, 20-rebound performance of his career, Kobe took seven shots in three minutes. On at least three of those possessions, he should have found Bynum on the block in quality post position. This was the case during much of the game as well, when the 24-year-old continually beat the Houston bigs down the floor and put himself in prime position for a layup or dunk reward, only to wait in vain for the necessary pass. By night's end, Bynum had attempted 15 shots, many off of his six offensive rebounds. Pau Gasol -- who himself should never take less than 15 -- took only 11 shots.
In many respects, the Lakers won this game the same way that they made two straight first-round playoff exits in 2006 and 2007: by living and dying with Kobe. Elite players have these types of nights, when their talent simply eclipses the defense. With Bynum playing at this level however, Bryant should not be hoisting 25 to 30 shots per game. Pound the ball to the block and play inside-out basketball; that is what Mike Brown should be preaching right now, but clearly isn't.
"He's a great player," Brown said after the game. "And you've got to give great players, in my opinion, some freedom. Kobe's a superstar. He's been there, done that. He can score. You've got to give him more freedom than I give Darius Morris."
Less than two weeks into his tenure with the Lakers, Brown is once again trapped by an uber-talented player who wants the offense to run entirely through him, with the "freedom" to do as he pleases. That system didn't win Brown a title in Cleveland, and it certainly never won Bryant a title with LA.
Why would it work now?
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