Forget Kobe Bryant, isolations are the issue

January, 31, 2011
1/31/11
5:37
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
I've been enjoying the metric ton of fascinating reaction to last Friday's story about how Kobe Bryant is not the king of crunch time.

Plenty more to come on TrueHoop on this.

But what mattered most, to me, about that post, is that we have learned for the first time that the Lakers' offense, which is fantastic all game long, becomes average in crunch time. This team's fall-off in the crunch is far bigger than most.

At the same time, we know Bryant shoots more than anyone over that period, and doesn't make all that many. (Video will also show Bryant in crunch time, shooting over great defense, often double teams.)

I theorize all his shooting, and the team's declining offense, are related. And that the Lakers, for all their rings, could be even better if they'd keep moving the ball in crunch time like they do most of the game.

I was on the radio in L.A. for quite some time just now, and Mychal Thompson asked me who, on the Lakers, I'd give the ball to in crunch time instead of Bryant. My answer is that I'd still give it to Bryant, but with the knowledge that, great though he is, he would be better if he would run an offense designed to attack the defense where it is weakest, instead of where it's strongest. That might mean passing.

Of course, since that post was published, the Lakers lost to the Kings on Friday and the Celtics on Sunday, and down the stretch of both games Bryant missed a lot. Two games mean nothing when compared to the 15 years of data that drove Friday's conclusions. Anything could have happened in those two games, and none of it would have changed my view. (As ESPN Los Angeles' funny guy Brian Kamenetzky e-mailed me when the Lakers were down late to the Kings: "If Kobe hits a five-pointer to win tonight's game, you're gonna feel silly.")

But what happened late in those games that really may resonate is not that Bryant missed a bunch of shots. What mattered was that when the Lakers most needed points, they stopped passing, and instead isolated Bryant. Phil Jackson once wrote that that kind of play drove him crazy.

Say what you will about Bryant's abilities. I'd argue they're basically the best anywhere. But a steady diet of isolation plays is just about never efficient. The Lakers can do better.

The Lakers entered the final two minutes against the Kings down by five. From that point on, Bryant took six shots, missed five, and made two free throws. One of them was essentially meaningless, after the game was out of reach. But at no point did the Laker offense involve the kind of teamwork that makes the Lakers great.

And as for Sunday's game against Boston, consider what Rob Mahoney shows in video, and in words, on The New York Times' website:
Six straight possessions, and six straight isolations. Bryant’s disregard of his teammates is palpable in these clips, as he ignores open 3-point shooters, good post-up options and the entire triangle offense in his attempts to score on Ray Allen. It works a few times, but even those shot attempts are poorly selected. Those makes were bad shots before and after they found the net, and just because they ended in a bucket does not make them indicative of a prudent approach. For Los Angeles’s scoring and ball movement to come to a grinding halt simply to indulge Bryant is absurd. He may be one of the best players on the planet, but Bryant does himself -- and his team -- no favors in repeatedly trying to score in the most inefficient manner possible.

Henry Abbott | email

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