Two weeks ago, I said that the Lakers were probably going to miss the playoffs. They must have heard me, since after that they reeled off four straight and to pull one game ahead in the loss column over the Utah Jazz, while a resurgent Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t able to pull the mediocre Dallas Mavericks into the mix.
Then on Friday, Kobe Bryant fully ruptured his Achilles tendon against Golden State, sidelining him at least until the beginning of next season—perhaps even until Christmas. Anyone who saw Kobe’s minutes in the games leading up to his injury saw at least something coming: Bryant played at least 40 minutes every game in April, including 47 minutes or more four times since March 30th.
Despite the loss of Bryant, the Lakers defeated a listless San Antonio Spurs team Sunday night thanks to 23 points from Steve Blake and 26 points and 17 rebounds from Dwight Howard. Howard practically backed down the Spurs’ Tim Duncan under the rim for an easy spin-dunk move early in the first quarter, and proceeded to have one of his more dominant games all season. Howard’s athleticism and the even ball distribution allowed the Lakers to overcome Pau Gasol’s horrific three-for-17 effort from the field.
Which led me to question: What is Kobe’s impact on the Lakers, really?
I know speaking of Kobe’s possibly detrimental effects to the offense right now would be tantamount to speaking ill of the dead, but humor me for a moment. The same question came up when Dwyane Wade was injured last season for the Heat, as people asked if the Heat were a better team without Wade.
You are never a better team without one of your top scorers; in Kobe’s case the Lakers are never a better team without him. However, they might be a more efficient offense. They might establish a team identity that, with Bryant, may have been impossible because of how Kobe dominates the ball.
Another thing that Laker Nation has been a little reluctant to recognize is that Kobe’s defense has completely disappeared with age. Kobe was never an above-average help defender. He was one of the game’s premier on-the-ball defenders in his prime, and that aspect of his game was the first to go with his diminished athleticism (or dunks like this).
Which is not to say we’re going to pine for the defensive prowess of Earl Clark and Jodie Meeks when Kobe returns next year, but you get the point. Kobe’s absence might do more good for the players who are on the court right now (I’m including Steve Nash, who might return Wednesday) in finding a rhythm offensively.
The Mamba himself admitted next season would be his swan song, but what of the Lakers beyond next season? Wouldn’t it be important for players like Dwight Howard to get situated and find a comfort zone in the offense; something that, despite his 17 points per game average, he hasn’t seemed able to do all season? Kobe’s absence could lead to players finding their niches in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and maybe, just maybe, making some noise in this year’s playoffs. I know.