Bryant still the engine of this car
It was evident in Lamar Odom's smile every time he stepped onto the court. It was obvious in the aggressiveness of Shannon Brown every time he touched the ball. It was noticeable in Jordan Farmar's decision-making every time he drove to the basket. And it was crystal clear in the Lakers' 4-1 record while Kobe Bryant rested his ankle.
The Lakers are a surprisingly good and fun team to watch when Bryant isn't on the floor.
They found ways to win by playing a style of basketball that conjured up adjectives such as scrappy, tough and blue-collar -- words far from the ones used when Bryant is orchestrating. Then again, it's hard to play with an "us against the world" mentality when you have arguably the greatest player on the planet on your team.
Yet for a brief period of time, that's exactly how the Lakers played while Bryant was sidelined. Role players who played bit parts in building the current Lakers machine were given the chance to shine, and it showed in the faces of players such as Odom and Pau Gasol and in the aggressive play of Brown and Farmar. They no longer had to run the offense through Bryant; they could feature Brown one night, Odom the next and Gasol after that. The marquee suddenly had five names on it as opposed to one.
Although the Lakers played well in the five games of Bryant's absence, expecting the team to sustain its current run without him for anything more than a handful of games would be like expecting a car running on a spare tire to continue driving smoothly cross-country simply because it made it through the first few miles just fine. At some point, it's going to wear out.
"Kobe Bryant is like the muscle engine of a perfectly tuned car, and each member of the team works as a different part of that car," said Dr. Casey Cooper, a licensed sports psychologist. "When he's on the floor, the rest of the car gets built around him. When all of a sudden the parts of the car have to adjust to run with a different engine, they're going to have to pick up some slack.
"Of course they're going to perform differently when he's not there. If they were to play that way when he's on the court, it actually wouldn't work very well. They cannot function that way, or Kobe would not be able to be the player he is. They need to be able to play complementary ball when he's there for the car to run smoothly. It's a little naive to think that everyone can play the same all the time."
While Bryant was out, many of the Lakers' role players admitted they were more focused and felt the need to step up their game when Bryant was out.
"My focus goes up a little bit," Andrew Bynum said.
"I think there's a little more focus from everybody," Farmar said.
"Everyone's focus picks up," Odom said. It's not that the Lakers' role players aren't focused when Bryant is there, but it's only natural for that focus and energy to increase when Bryant isn't there. That's why the Lakers have been able to play so well for a short time without Bryant -- and why it's impractical to expect them to continue to play that way when Bryant returns.
"It's not very realistic to think this fresh engine is going to be able to maintain long term," Cooper said. "For short spurts, it's what they're meant to do to; they pick up the slack when their star player is out, but it's highly unlikely it would be able to sustain for a long, extended period of time."
So don't expect Odom to average 15 points and 15 rebounds a game or Brown to break out for 27 points and 10 rebounds with Bryant back in the lineup. They likely will revert back to the same complementary players they were before Bryant was sidelined because that's what the Lakers need them to do for the team to be successful.
"Each member of the team has to function as a different part of the car," Cooper said. "Some person's the tire, some person's the brakes and some person's the steering wheel. The other parts might pick up the slack when the engine goes out, but when it comes back you can't have the steering wheel interfering and doing whatever it wants. That's just not going to work."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.