Roundtable: Six questions on KB24
Kobe Bryant's numbers are down, and his health and shot selection are being openly questioned. Meanwhile, his Lakers, the defending champs, are in danger of falling behind the eighth-seeded Thunder in their first-round playoff series after losing two straight in Oklahoma City.
What's going on here? We asked our experts for their observations.
1. What's wrong with Kobe?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: You ever see this video where they superimpose different athletes performing the same sprint? I'd like to see something similar with 2010 playoff Kobe Bryant on the same screen as 2000 Kobe or even 2009 Kobe.
This year, any time he's called on to be truly explosive physically -- dunk, block or beat a defender with raw speed -- he doesn't look like the guy he once was. I don't know what's wrong, but because it has happened quickly, I have to think it's one of his many injuries, not just some age-induced slippage.
J.A. Adande: ESPN.com: His legs aren't allowing him to elevate and finish at the rim or get his long-range shots to the basket. And because he isn't driving, he's drawing fewer fouls, which means he can't get cheap points at the line.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: First, Kobe's banged up. The injured finger and the sore right knee are hindering him at least to a small degree. But beyond that, Kobe's getting old. It's as simple as that. Yeah, he's only 31, but he's in his 14th season and he's got tons of playoff games under his belt. He's already played more games than Jordan played with the Bulls. The sore knee is probably an injury of age.
Don't get me wrong: He's still the second-best player in the league, but you could tell during last season's playoffs that Kobe could no longer create space like he once could. He's a good outside shooter and he makes difficult shots, so he's still able to score big points, but he doesn't attack the rim like he used to.
Dave McMenamin, ESPNLosAngeles.com: When Kobe fractured his right index finger back on Dec. 11, the immediate adjustment to his game was to shoot more outside shots. Seems like an odd solution to staying effective while playing with a fractured guide finger on your shooting hand -- averaging 2.9 3-point attempts in the 21 games before the injury and 4.6 per game in the 52 games after it -- but staying outside prevented him from banging the finger against an extraneous arm or body while driving to the paint.
Now that the fracture is healed and Bryant is just dealing with an arthritic knuckle (as Lakers spokesman John Black told the media Monday), Bryant is looking to drive more once again, but not only is he out of practice, his right knee that's been twice surgically repaired is bothering him. He's just not dynamic right now. He's a jump shooter with limited lift.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: The broken finger is one thing, but there's more to it. The game planning in this series has been heavy on trying to exploit the Lakers' big-man advantage (an edge that must be remeasured given Serge Ibaka's contributions), which has kept Kobe from getting into an offensive rhythm for all but a couple of stretches.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: He's not as invincible as he thinks. He can't defy age and beat multiple injuries in spite of his unparalleled (at least in the NBA) willpower. There was eventually going to be some slippage after all this mileage. And we're seeing it. I'm no doctor, but I also tend to think that his shooting hand would be in better shape if he took more time off during the regular season.
2. What's your advice to Kobe in this series?
Abbott: I guess the obvious answer is to empower his efficient bigs -- Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol -- to maximize their abilities on offense. But any active human over the age of 30 can tell you that kind of simple tactical advice can be oversimplified to the point of ridiculousness. Concessions to Father Time come wrapped in too many psychological and emotional issues -- questions about how we see ourselves as human beings -- to be made so simply.
Adande: Go back to the low post the way he did early in the season and shoot fallaway jumpers. Use pump fakes to draw fouls. In home games, drive and put pressure on the refs to blow the whistle.
Broussard: Kobe has to be more consistent. I don't mean in his ppg, but in his approach. No one knows how Kobe's going to play from game to game -- including the Lakers themselves. Will he come out firing and go for 45? Or will he feed the Lakers' big men, allow the team to play inside-out and take fewer than 20 shots? It's a constant guessing game that wears on the team mentally and physically.
McMenamin: Embrace your inner playmaker. The defining play of your career, the one that served as the springboard to transform you from merely a cocky talent to a confident titleholder, was the pass you made to Shaquille O'Neal for an alley-oop in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2000, not a shot. Use the respect the defense gives you to set up Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Sheridan: Walk into Phil's office and ask if the Lakers could ditch the triangle in the first quarter and play a conventional pick-and-roll offense with Gasol and/or Bynum as the screener. In other words, simplify things, catch the Thunder off guard and put the ball in Kobe's hands early in the shot clock.
Stein: Lean on Pau and Bynum more. It'll be good for team harmony and keep some gas in Kobe's tank for the later rounds, when L.A. will need its closer most.
3. Fact or fiction: Kobe is often a selfish player.
Bryant's among the best ever in all kinds of categories, including preparation, strategy, skill development, effort, mental toughness and execution. He's too dedicated and successful as a winner in this team game to fit the sloppy catch-all category of "selfish." He can blatantly help a team reach goals beyond his own, as he has done for almost his entire career.
However, it does seem that the Lakers function best as a team when Bryant shines on offense. When he's not being efficient, for whatever reason, it has been a clunky issue for a teammate to take charge.
Adande: Fact, with the caveat that most great players are selfish.
They want the ball in their hands, even if they don't always shoot it. Even with better players around him now than he used to have, Kobe needs to score for the Lakers to win.
That's been proven in the past (the quarrels with Shaq, the Game 7 protest in Phoenix, the trade-me diatribes a few years ago). But Kobe's gotten much better over the last few years.
He usually makes the right play, which makes him a winner, even if the right play happens to be calling his own number. Phil Jackson defended his 2-for-10 fourth quarter in Game 3, saying three or four of those attempts were dumped on him at the end of the shot clock, and saw nothing wrong with his 0-for-0 first quarter in Game 4, saying he was trying to get the post players involved. He just wants to win.
Kobe is sometimes a selfish player (less than he used to be), and sometimes he needs to be a selfish player (as was the case in two key stretches of Game 2's final period). That's as far as I'd take the selfish label.
There have been selfish streaks, but I prefer the word stubborn given how ridiculously hard he works on his game and how consistently he's won.
4. Kobe or Kevin Durant: Who would you prefer to ride this postseason?
Abbott: If one's healthy and the other isn't, I'd have to take the healthy one. If they're both capable of being at their best in any given game (and Bryant has just had a strange start to the playoffs), then I'd take Bryant with his vast experience, poise, institutional knowledge of the playoffs and confidence.
Adande: Kobe by the slimmest of margins. Just because I still want him taking the shot if it comes down to the final seconds. The answer changes next season.
Broussard: You still have to go with Kobe. Even as he slows a bit, he's proven all season that he's still the best clutch player in the game.
McMenamin: If we changed the question around a little bit -- to "Which star would the Lakers prefer to ride this postseason?" -- I think Los Angeles would like its title chances better with a one-for-one swap bringing Durant in for Bryant. But that's not going to happen. And the Thunder aren't going to win this series, so there isn't much road ahead to ride Durant, even if he is a smoother vehicle right now. So I'm strapping into Kobe and hoping he has more Ferrari days than jalopy ones between now and June.
Sheridan: I am going with the tried-and-true Kobe, and holding my breath. I'm dying to see how Durant responds to the pressure in the next three games. He'll be under similar pressure at some point this summer for Team USA.
Stein: I will obviously look foolish with this one if the Thunder can find a way to shock the world and win this series, but it's still Kobe. Young doesn't win in the NBA playoffs. Not consistently. Durant is simply not ready to take a team to a championship. Injury-riddled Kobe remains capable.
5. Kobe's extension will pay him $83.5M for three seasons, including $30.4M in 2013-14, when he's 35. Will the Lakers regret that contract?
Abbott: No. The CBA kept them from paying him what he was worth for most of his career, so the big dollars at the end have to be taken in context. But the main point is: Every big deal for an older player comes with huge risk, and it must be scary for Dr. Buss to see Bryant not at his best right now. But it's the kind of gamble you simply have to take in sports. Bryant is a legend of hard work, preparation and toughness; the engine of a multiple-title winning team and one of the biggest names in sports in a star-obsessed town. Signing up that guy could backfire, but it was always a reasonable bet.
Adande: In 2013, Kobe's contract will hamper the Lakers, but considering Kobe made $30 million total during the first three championship seasons, it evens out.
Broussard: Kobe won't be worth anything close to $30 million at 35, but with the right moves this offseason (including the return of Phil Jackson), he could lead the Lakers to another ring (not to mention possibly winning one this season). So if he can deliver five or six championships, he will have earned that $30 million before that season even begins.
McMenamin: Will you be able to quantify his statistics with appropriate dollars by the end of the deal when he's in his 17th season? Of course not. But with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol also under contract through 2012-13, the Lakers will remain championship contenders every season if those three can stay healthy.
Imagine what the moment will be like for the franchise if it can capture two or three more championships in Bryant's career, not only assuring his status as the all-time best Laker, but also legitimately swaying the conversation regarding the best player ever if Kobe retires with six or more rings. What is it worth to the team to be able to say that the best basketball player ever spent his entire career with the Lakers?
Sheridan: If he doesn't get them another title in the next two years, yes indeed they'll regret it -- especially if it causes them to lose Bynum or Gasol prematurely for financial reasons. But if they keep those three main pieces, they still could have a mini-dynastic run of 3-4 titles in 5-6 years.
Stein: I'm sure they won't love it, but I don't see how they can quibble about Kobe's compensation when he continues to make the Lakers so profitable. His presence keeps the building filled in an expensive city with countless other entertainment options, makes them a hugely valuable local TV property and probably will until the day he stops playing.
6. How far will the Lakers go in the playoffs?
Abbott: They likely will be slightly favored in every series before the Finals. However, when you're, say, 55 percent likely to win a series, and that happens three times in a row, the most likely thing is that you lose one of them. So, my guess is that some West underdog -- most would project they'd have to face the Thunder, Jazz and Spurs, in that order -- will get to them before the Finals, especially if Bryant is not at the top of his game.
Adande: The Lakers can still squeak out of this round, then the matchups would allow them to reach the NBA Finals. The Jazz can't win in L.A. and the Spurs can't hold up for an extended playoff run.
Broussard: The Lakers will win the West and lose in the Finals.
McMenamin: Unless the Nuggets can come back to beat the Jazz, or the Mavericks can manage an upset against the Spurs now, the Lakers have a pretty feasible path to the Finals, even if they aren't playing their best basketball. Denver and Dallas were the most dangerous opponents the Lakers could have played.
L.A. matches up really well with Utah, and while a series against the Spurs, Suns or Trail Blazers in the conference finals could be a long one, the Lakers should beat all of those teams in a seven-game series. If the Lakers get to the championship round and play any team but the Cleveland Cavaliers, they'll win. If they have to go against LeBron, they'll lose.
Sheridan: I said before the playoffs that every single Western team out there, except Portland, could take them to seven games, but I'd like the Lakers on their home court in that deciding game. But I'll add this: The Thunder have gained so much confidence so quickly in this series that they won't doubt themselves in a Game 7. Also, the Rockets lost Game 7 in L.A. in the first six minutes last year (largely because of Ron Artest). OKC won't do that.
Stein: I like the parallels being drawn between this Lakers-Thunder series and the Atlanta-Boston series in 2008 when the Hawks took the Celts to seven but Boston still managed to win it all. The Lakers remain capable of repeating as champs even if OKC drags this thing to seven. Their aura, though, has definitely been dented.
They're also being forced to expend a lot of energy in this series that they'll wish they had later because the Spurs -- if they can stay healthy -- are looking like an increasingly tough out.
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