The Los Angeles Lakers have been trying to piece together an attack without Kobe Bryant in the lineup this season. While they haven't been consistently good throughout the early legs of this season, they've been able to tread water enough to not have lost serious ground without their megastar. When Bryant returns to the lineup in limited action on Sunday, they'll have to work him into the unselfish, quick-hitting system of Mike D'Antoni.
The Lakers had great success on offense last season with Bryant on the court as he embraced D'Antoni's system. He had the highest assist rate of his career at 29.7 percent and was just 13 assists away from the highest season total for his career (in four fewer games than when he set his career best). Bryant got to the free throw line more than he had in the previous five seasons and shot better from the field than he had in the previous three seasons.
Despite his reputation amongst fans as a ball hog, Bryant's playmaking ability was perfect for the quick action of D'Antoni's system when he had the ball in his hands. As long as players were moving and it wasn't becoming stagnant, they scored at a high clip. Especially with the injured Steve Nash not performing the way he was expected to, Bryant's attack in the offense was a driving force.
The Lakers finished eighth in offensive rating with a 105.6 in the 2012-13 season and have stayed near the middle of the league with a 101.9 (16th in the NBA). As they work Kobe back to his regular minutes, his ability to slide into the attack won't be hard at all.
The threat of Kobe Bryant with the ball
As you may have heard, Bryant is a bit of a threat with the ball. With 31,617 points under his regular season belt, he knows how to put the ball in the basket. The first threat of Bryant attacking is his ability to score off the dribble. Whether it's coming off of a screen or just attacking in isolation, the threat of Kobe getting wherever he wants on the floor is always in the opponents' mind.
When he was coming off of screens at the top of the key, you wanted to keep him in the middle of the floor instead of allowing him to get to the basket. D'Antoni's system gave Bryant the space to operate where he had plenty of options. As you can see in this play, Bryant could work for the pull-up jumper in rhythm because the defense gives him a buffer zone.
Out of this play starting at the top of the key, the Lakers are able to run a lot of variations to get Kobe a shot. With him setting a screen for Nash at the top, the Lakers set up a 3-point shot for Bryant on the other side of the floor.
You can't allow Nash to come around the corner on the pick-and-roll, so Deng has to hedge to keep him away from getting below the 3-point line. Once Bryant releases from the screen, he's able to take a pick from the big man at the top. Nash's ability to make any pass out of this situation makes the rolling big man a threat, so you have to give room for Bryant on the opposite wing. He knocked down 38.7 percent of his 3-pointers last season when coming off screens.
And then there is keeping with the quick-hitting style of D'Antoni's offense. Nash has been orchestrating the hand-off screen with a wing player for a decade like we see in the next video.
This doesn't even include Kobe's ability to score in isolation sets or on straight post-ups. This is just a sample of the action they can run with him around the top of the perimeter.
Teammates moving without the ball
One of the biggest keys in getting Bryant back into the system is making sure the rest of the teammates don't just start watching him when he has the ball. When the Lakers have been successful this season, it's been from movement and sharing the ball. They're currently sixth in assisted two-point baskets and 14th in assisted 3-point shots. As Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports noted here, D'Antoni wants to keep Kobe's teammates engaged in the offense and not just watch Kobe with the ball.
"A lot of times they will stand around and watch him," D'Antoni said at the Lakers' shootaround Friday for a game against the Sacramento Kings. "We have been playing a certain way so we have to guard against that."
This wasn't much of a problem last season but there are new teammates that will need to acclimate to playing with Bryant within the system. Here is how it worked last season.
Jodie Meeks did a great job of moving without the ball when he was on the court with Bryant. It doesn't have to be running the baseline or coming off curls. Sometimes it's simply moving up into the passing sightlines in a very subtle way. Whenever Kobe got into the middle of the defense, Meeks was able to adjust to his position on the floor and made the defense pay.
Guys like Xavier Henry, Nick Young, and Wesley Johnson will have a chance to get these same looks in the corner if they're smart in how they subtly adjust to the defense. In this play, Kobe has caught the full attention of the defense, as he tends to do. Through a pick on one side of the floor, Kobe is able to attack the defense in the middle. Once he gets there, Meeks moves to the corner and gets the help of an off-ball screen by the man hanging around the baseline.
These plays are there for Kobe's choosing at any time. The movement by his teammates can shift the defense to get him easier shots all over, even in the post.
On this play, the defense gets sucked into moving with the offensive players on the perimeter as Bryant establishes position in the post on a smaller defender. Once Nash lobs the ball into the post, it's just footwork from Kobe to finish the rest of the play.
Can it save Steve Nash enough to make an impact?
One last thing to consider is Bryant handled the ball a lot last season when he was on the floor. Even when Nash was out there, Bryant seemed to be the point man to initiate. Nash had his lowest usage rate in 13 seasons during 2012-13 and Bryant still stayed above a 30.0 percent usage rate despite being in a system that was designed to move the ball around.
If you can use Nash as a shooter off the ball, you can possibly save him from some of the wear and tear that has plagued him in his two seasons with the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant knows how to play in this system and if his body allows him to continue to be the player we saw last season before the injury, it could be the boost the Lakers need to creep back into the top 10 in offense. If that happens and the attack is as consistent as it was last season on that end of the floor, could the Lakers sneak into the playoffs?
We'll begin seeing what Bryant has to say about that on Sunday.