On his own game:
“I do what I do. If guys are open, I kick it to them, if they’re not, I shoot it. I play my game.”
When asked about Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol’s impressive effectiveness on offense:
“We always start inside-out. If you mean (to ask me) if I’m going to shoot less, the answer is no. It starts with me. I do what I do and we play off of that. That’s not going to change.”
It doesn’t take an English professor (or registered armchair psychologist) to recognize the conflict in those two statements. In the first, Bryant acknowledges that as the team’s best creator, it’s his role to find his teammates first, shoot second. In the second statement, Bryant philosophizes that though it is best to play inside out, and that is the Lakers’ philosophy, he is going to take a ton of jumpshots because it is also the team’s philosophy that he dominate the ball and shot attempts as the primary creator.
Critics will point out that with a busted up shooting hand, Bryant’s touch has suffered. They may also get out the ol’ abacus and note that since Andrew Bynum has returned the the Laker lineup, Bryant is taking 25 shots per game, making 33 percent (41.7% for the year) while Pau Gasol and Bynum are shooting a 61.7 percent on a combined 27 shots per game.
24 year old Bynum, in particular, has been a revelation. His shot attempts, rebound rate (now league leading) and usage percentage have each skyrocketed. His success is a direct result of two factors: Bynum is enormous (not new) and in great shape (new), and he spends about 80% of his time on the offensive end within ten feet of the rim. He gets where he wants and no one can move him away from there once he arrives.
Simply put: no one has owned the paint like Bynum has since Shaq was a member of the Heat.
To play against Bynum and Gasol is to face a machine-like inevitability. The paint becomes a meat grinder, Gasol and Bynum are the gears, and opposing big men sit and watch as the conveyor belt draws them to their doom.
That is, unless floor manager Bryant slaps the “stop button” for a personal break.
Or so it would seem.
Bryant has never seemed comfortable turning his game over to “The System,” whether it be the Triangle or, to hear Phil Jackson tell it, a single set play. Even when logic dictates otherwise, he demands the Lakers play through him when he is on the court. As a ball-handler, he has greater agency than any post player over what plays are run, to what extent they are carried out, and who gets the ball. Who knows the root cause of Shaq and Kobe’s inability to play nice, but the younger Bryant’s insistence on “doing what he does and the team playing off of that” is an obvious candidate.
It seems obvious that the Lakers should tilt the inside-outside balance a bit more in Bynum and Gasol’s favor, especially with Bynum scoring better from the post than any other NBA player.
But as Ethan Sherwood Strauss has pointed out a few times, big men who can’t step away from the rim are decreasingly effective in today’s defensive zone and trap-heavy game. Shaq defied that logic not only because he was so big and so strong that he warped time and space, but because he was an excellent passer.
This, Bynum is not. Throughout his brilliant three game run, Bynum has accumulated one whole assist. Total. That’s with a usage rate of nearly 30 percent!
Bynum has instead embraced his role as the destroyer of worlds and sternums, sprinting to the rim on fast breaks, and gobbling up space near the rim with uncompromising determination. He isn’t a Duncan type that needs (or should get) a touch every time down court. He can let the rest of the Laker offense, and in particular Bryant, to work while he carves out space on the block. Credit Mike Brown here.
Even if he doesn’t get it thrown in to him, Bynum cleans the offensive glass with a fine chamois, so a missed shot is almost as good as a post-entry pass.
Meanwhile, and despite grumblings to the contrary, Bryant is passing at least as effectively as he ever has in his career (by assists and assist rate). And although he isn’t as dynamic as he once was, his evident self-conviction draws attention away from the paint, where Bynum is building a Brutalist monument to efficiency.
I’m not entirely convinced that Bryant’s iso-heavy jump shooting actually (or always) benefits Bynum in the way I’ve described, but so far oppenents have been unwilling or unable to double Bynum consistently, and Bryant’s aggressive play–along with the steady presence of Gasol–does force teams to expend defensive resources, leaving Bynum in the kind of one-on-one situations that most benefit him.
This doesn’t necessarily resolve the conflicted philosophy Kobe himself laid out before his huddled microphone-gripping masses and certainly doesn’t excuse late game hero ball. But the Bryant-Bynum dynamic–one with a public history of tension bordering on resentment– is working beautifully. For now, that’s all that matters.