I have no idea how long Kobe Bryant will be out thanks to the injured left ankle that kept him in street clothes for Saturday's 99-82 streak-busting win over the Blazers in Portland. None. Not a clue. He could very well play Monday night against San Antonio. Maybe he sits a little longer, waiting until Wednesday's game in Utah, or perhaps he decides to shut 'er down until after the All-Star break.
Frankly, like a lot of people I was a little thrown he actually sat himself down in the first place. (Happy, because he needed it, just a little surprised he did.)
So what happens if Kobe misses time? What would the Lakers look like?
Between Saturday's win sans-24 and Friday's loss to a Nuggets team without Carmelo Anthony, it's pretty clear good teams can continue to succeed without star players.
Here are a few ways in which things change, and how the Lakers have to adjust:
Everyone who steps on the floor knows they'll have a larger role to play, because 22.4 shots will be spread to other players. If there's a reason the Lakers seemed a little more focused Saturday night, a little more engaged, that's a big one. Another is the understanding they can't rely on Kobe to Spackle over mistakes. Best not to screw up to begin with.
The high post becomes some of the most important territory on the floor. The Lakers lose their best backcourt facilitator, and therefore need to take advantage of the talents the other fellows provide. It starts with Pau Gasol, who showed a few times tonight how effectively he can create opportunities from at or around the elbow. Lamar Odom and Ron Artest can also do damage in any number of ways from that part of the floor. One great first quarter trip was capped with a Shannon Brown three off fantastic post-to-perimeter passing. They'll need more of it.
Saturday night, the Lakers held the Blazers to an incredible two offensive rebounds. Two, on 43 Portland misses. That the Blazers are short a pair of great rebounding centers and are now totally undersized doesn't diminish the feat. It can't possibly be like that every night, but limiting second chances becomes a huge defensive priority.
The tendency when a player goes down is to hope guys newly inserted into the rotation can thrive. Saturday night, it was Sasha Vujacic for Kobe, Josh Powell for Andrew Bynum, who only played 10 minutes after leaving with a hip injury. Really, it's the best players who need to come through. Artest led all scorers with 21 points. He ripped three critical triples in the final minute of the first half to help the Lakers to a six-point halftime lead and was also powerful inside, driving and working the post. Odom was spectacular, directing traffic, hauling down 22 rebounds and dishing six assists. Gasol wasn't great offensively, but still finished with 13/8/4. Derek Fisher was five-of-10, including a big corner three near the top of the third quarter. Those are the guys who have to step up.
When the best players play well, it makes the contributions of role players like Shannon Brown (19 points) more meaningful.
No Kobe means fewer isolations and 24-led high screens. The Lakers need to fill that void with smart cutting and crisp passing. Against the Blazers they managed 24 dimes on 41 field goals, a solid number on the road. Expect a lot more triangle, particularly when Jordan Farmar isn't on the floor, because while the Lakers have a wealth of great passers, they're short on dudes who create effectively off the dribble.
Odom will have more opportunities to drive. Left we know about. How's the right these days?
Without Bryant, Gasol needs to play more to contact. If the Lakers are going to generate points at the stripe- nobody shot more than three freebies on the night- Gasol must improve on his 5.3 free throws a game. While I think the "Ga-Soft!" talk is unfair and simplistic, there's no question Pau tends more towards the river, flowing around obstacles to a desired destination. A little more rhino (straight through) is needed.
It wasn't an issue against the Blazers, but while the Lakers have plenty of skill left on the roster, do they have a "go-to" guy? What happens when they need a bucket? Who takes the shot? How is it generated?
Defensively, expect less wandering. We spend a lot of time focused on how Kobe's finger impacts his shot, but not enough on how it prevents him from being as aggressive as he'd like as a man-on defender. That means more of Kobe Bryant, centerfielder. It's never been a habit I like. But with him out, the Lakers have to be totally dedicated to the team's defensive principles, since the combinations on the floor will have spent less time together.
I've long said the Lakers are a solid playoff team without Kobe Bryant. Not elite, but very good (I'm including a healthy Bynum in this equation). My guess is Kobe won't be out long, probably because he's driven to play, possibly because he wants to undercut the shelf-life of my work, but for however long it lasts the Lakers showed tonight they're still quite capable of playing good ball.
Best of all, some of the lessons- balance, aggressiveness, a willingness to play with confidence- are equally applicable when Kobe comes back (which, again, could be Monday for all I know). It's not a good thing for Kobe to be injured, but there's no reason it has to equal disaster.