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.