The Lakers have been the most popular topic of discussion during these NBA dog days, with countless writers (including this one) wondering how all these new and exciting parts will fit together in the Princeton offense. The biggest sub-questions have focused, as always, on Kobe Bryant. Will he share the ball? Will he be content to work away from the ball? Will he sabotage the Lakers by hogging the ball, rendering Steve Nash as a glorified James Jones?
Those are all fair questions. And even if Kobe “fails” at each of them, the Lakers should still have a top-five offense simply by virtue of their talent on the floor. L.A. ranked 10th in the league in points per possession last season, and its upgrades at center and point guard — the latter being one of the two positions that opposing defenses barely guarded last year — should be enough to kick the Lakers up a few spots without any stylistic changes. If the worst-case scenario happens, and Bryant relegates Nash to spot-up duty, having arguably the greatest shooter in league history in Ramon Sessions’ place should be worth a few points per game.
But that alone won’t make the Lakers title favorites — not with the Thunder going through the same self-discovery process that the Heat went through last season, and not with questions about Dwight Howard’s back and the general age of the core players. A Lakers team that doesn’t meet something close to its full potential will have a difficult time winning the title. The difference between truly approaching that potential and missing it by a larger margin comes down to thousands of little decisions that take place across 100 or so games, all of which add up to form a team’s ultimate identity and balance. Those decisions might crystallize in one particularly memorable stretch — say, Bryant shooting the Lakers out of Game 4 against the Thunder — but their outcome will be visible even if no such flashbulb moment happens.
Bryant will be at the center of a lot of those choices, as plenty of scribes — including Sebastian Pruiti, Anthony Macri, Henry Abbott, Beckley Mason and I, among others — have already noted. All of us have been fretting, to some degree, about Bryant’s willingness to play nice within a new ecosystem that will feature the Princeton offense, an elite point guard and a pick-and-roll beast of a center. The concern is justified. But in all of this collective anxiety, we’ve sort of buried a very basic fact about Kobe Bryant: He is a fantastic off-ball cutter.
Bryant is renowned for both his work ethic and his basketball intelligence. If you asked 100 players to name the smartest “basketball” guy in the league, I’d wager Kobe would finish among the top three or four vote-getters. (Nash would certainly give him a run.) Bryant’s footwork in the post is legend. That same nimble footwork, plus a heady sense of anticipation and space, makes Bryant a genius off-ball player when he wants to be.
That isn’t breaking news, I realize; any wing who plays the majority of his NBA career in the triangle offense should be very good at moving without the ball. But Bryant continued to flash that same genius last season under Mike Brown, who built several set pieces in his allegedly ho-hum offense around Bryant’s ability to work away from the ball. Bryant got some of his very best looks — both in the post and at the rim — off well-designed, quick-hitting cuts that gave him the chance to catch-and-shoot at close range, or to catch, take one dribble and create an easy look.
A lot of those plays started with Bryant in the corner and the Lakers’ two big men at the elbows. Sessions or Steve Blake would enter the ball to one of those big men, cut between them and set a screen for Bryant near the corner. At the same time, the big man at the elbow on Bryant’s side of the floor would prepare a screen, so that Kobe would have two picks from which to choose. In the still below, Sessions is in the paint, primed to set a pick for Bryant in the left corner, as Pau Gasol holds the ball up top and Bynum prepares a pick at the left elbow:
Bryant torches defenders with cuts in this set. He loves to deke his guy by faking a cut toward Bynum and then cutting back-door along the baseline, where Gasol can hit him for an easy bucket. If Bryant chooses to take the Bynum screen, he can catch right above Bynum — almost running an impromptu pick-and-roll with him — or continue to loop around into the paint for a clean mid-range catch-and-shoot opportunity. He also likes to slither right in between the picks for an even closer mid-range catch-and-shoot.
And that’s just one type of effective Bryant cut. The Lakers sometimes have their two bigs set a mammoth double-staggered screen for him, like the one below, providing Bryant with all sorts of choices:
Kobe is also great at spinning on the block for high-low lobs from Gasol, and he is a very good screener in a variety of situations: pick-and-rolls up top with Sessions, pick-and-rolls near the block with Gasol and standard cross-screens under the basket with Bynum.
All of this stuff can work within the Lakers’ hybrid Princeton system, since every Bryant cut and screen flows into follow-up cuts and screens all over the floor. At it’s core, that’s what the Princeton system is all about: constant screening and movement to space the floor and create open shots.
Bryant has all the tools to thrive in any motion-based system, and that’s what makes his tendency to halt motion prematurely so frustrating. Sometimes defenses will keep up with all those fancy screens and cuts designed to get Kobe open. Sometimes Kobe’s defender will fight through that action, force Kobe to catch the ball 18 feet from the basket and stand right in his face when Kobe makes that catch.
And that is the moment where all those little decisions that will determine the Lakers’ ceiling focus completely on Bryant. Watch the tape of Bryant’s post-ups and isolations from last season (which I did on a loop via Synergy Sports), and you’ll see hundreds of possessions that start with promising off-ball movement and end with Bryant launching a horrific 18-foot jumper with a hand in his face.
Correction: You have to be a careful about labeling all of those possessions “horrific,” for lots of reasons. The most obvious is the shot clock, an NBA reality too often ignored in micro-analysis of what happens during a possession. If Bryant makes that initial catch with five seconds left on the shot clock, the Lakers are nearly out of time for him to pursue an easy alternative.
But there are plenty of possessions — literally hundreds — in which Kobe makes that catch on the wing with 11 or 12 seconds remaining on the clock, holds the ball long enough for you to roll pasta around your fork without missing anything, and then finally goes to work. And on those possessions, there is very little stylistic difference between the Lakers — the high-powered, superstar-laden Lakers — and the Kings, which have any number of dead possessions throughout a game. The movement stops, with the other four Los Angeles players bunching on the other side of the floor, moving their defenders out of help position and readying for offensive rebounds.
And again: Not all of those shots are bad. Bryant is bigger and stronger than a lot of his defenders (and certainly smarter), and he can destroy people one-on-one. And Bryant’s holding the ball gives him time to survey defenses — to see how they overload on him and whether an opening might emerge elsewhere on the floor. Bryant ranked among the 46 most efficient players in the league, in terms of points per possession, on both isolation plays and post-ups last season, per Synergy. He’s a genius at both.
But a lot of those plays, especially the isolation attacks, have a lower general efficiency than catch-and-shoot chances, shots off cuts and other spot-up looks. Even an efficient isolation player costs his team slices of points in the long run by overdoing the one-on-one stuff at the expense of better actions, particularly when the shot clock allows for those actions. Toss away enough slices, and you’re down 3-2 to Oklahoma City.
This isn’t on Kobe alone. With Nash and Howard, a more mobile player than Bynum, Bryant will have better and perhaps more trustworthy (in his view) players to whom he can pass the ball when there are seven seconds left on the shot clock and someone becomes open. A lot of those empty post-ups that came after promising initial cuts ended up looking like this, with a Lakers’ point guard wide open in Bryant’s field of vision:
Others featured those same point guards cutting to the rim, or someone like Jordan Hill flashing to the baseline. Will Bryant trust Nash, Howard and Antawn Jamison more than he trusted the group in L.A. last season? He kicked the ball out to his point guards in situations like the one pictured above a lot, but the most common result was a quick pass back to Kobe in the post for the same tough one-on-one shot. What might Nash do with identical kick-out opportunities?
Roster context is everything in the NBA. The Lakers’ have a new roster context, one that demands tiny day-by-day refinements from Bryant. He has the tools to make all of those adjustments, and to make them at the right times and in the right amounts. If he’s really one of the league’s smartest players, he’ll do the job.