TrueHoop: Kobe Bryant

The Fortunate 500: Don't hate -- motivate

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
2:00
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Bryant/AnthonyRobyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have both felt the cold sting of their #NBArank positions.
#NBArank isn't just a window into how all the league's players might stack up against one another. It's also motivational fuel for the athletes who feel slighted.

It's funny how players take umbrage about a score based on a collection of surveys. There's no one person to get angry at -- unless you subscribe to the belief that "ESPN" is a discrete individual.

Professional athletes are good at this, though. They're masters at taking dry, detached assessments and converting those into grievous insults that must be disproven. Write something that you think is a mostly positive assessment of an athlete and you're liable to get "I'll show you" where you might have expected "That was a balanced take on me." Getting to the top comes with a fair amount of pride and a gnawing need to prove oneself. As someone more defined by "laptop" than "the top," I'm often surprised by how reflexively athletes take negative information to heart.

Perhaps, per the rankings, there's just something so cold about a man listed as a number. It's tough, in a way, to see Kobe Bryant's entire career reduced to "25" in last year's NBA rank results. "Just a number" describes how people are treated in vast, impersonal systems. It seems as if a few NBA players strive to be more than just their allotted ranking number. Maybe they don't even have a specific goal. They would just like to shed the unflattering numerical definition of their talent.

Kobe Bryant appeared to include his "25" ranking in his Twitter handle. The vast majority of caterwauling over Kobe's ranking was done by fellow players and fans. Another way of defining those offended by Kobe's ranking is, "People who dismiss the importance of the Achilles tendon."

The Mamba didn't come out and prove all the #NBArank haters and doubters wrong. Unfortunately, Kobe's human, and his hasty return from a devastating injury resulted in uneven play and another injury.

Even other superstars aren't immune. In 2011, Carmelo Anthony saw himself outside the top 10 (at No. 12!) and took to social media to tell the world of his newfound motivation. (It didn't necessarily take. Melo has yo-yoed in #NBArank, falling to No. 17 in 2012 and rising to No. 15 in 2013.)

Ranking rancor went a bit better for Kent Bazemore, who wrote his 2012 #NBArank listing of "499" on his shoe. Thanks in part to a Summer League MVP performance Bazemore was able to move up 167 spots. He thanked the rankers for his progress, while expressing hope that he could prove us wrong once again.

Lavoy Allen was a temporary #NBArank motivation success story. After getting tagged with the dreaded rank of "500" in 2011, Allen helped the Sixers on a strong playoff run. Actually, I shouldn't say "temporary." Last year, Allen managed to finally escape what's become of the Sixers. That's a certain kind of success.

Jeremy Lin's trainer was yelling his 2011 #NBArank number ("467!") at Lin during workouts. Such tactics must have worked because Lin made the biggest jump of any player to 76 the next season. Oh, also Linsanity happened.

There might have been a correlation between that national phenomenon and the ranking boost. Last season, Lin slid back into a ranking of 106. It might be time for his trainer to revisit old routines.

All these players should be content to be in the top 500 and to simply be involved in the world's best basketball league. But if these guys were content with such a distinction, they wouldn't have gotten this far in the first place.


Anderson Varejao has been serving as something of a World Cup correspondent for the NBA in his native Brazil. In the following clip (transcribed below), he sits down with Kobe Bryant to discuss the Los Angeles Lakers guard's passion for soccer, his experience in Brazil and what he sees happening in the World Cup moving forward. To see what the NBA is doing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup follow #NBAINBRAZIL. To stay up to date with all the latest NBA news, follow @nbauk on twitter or visit facebook.com/nbauk.

Varejao: "Can you tell me a little bit about your passion for soccer? How did it grow [in Italy]?"

Bryant: “Well you know growing up in Italy from the age of 6 to 14, at the time Serie A - that was the best league in the world. All the best players were there; Maradona was there, Baggio was there, Van Basten was there. So when I was growing up that became a passion of mine so I was literally playing football every single day.”

Varejao: "So of course you want Italy to win the World Cup?"

Bryant: “Well, yeah. See, that's where I'm conflicted, because I root for the USA, right? But I'm always for Forza Azzurri, it's always there a little bit.”

Varejao: "What do you think about the Brazilian team?"

Bryant: “Passion, passion. Passion for their culture. Passion for their country and what their culture represents. And I think the world is missing out. The next 3-4 years are a great opportunity for the rest of the world to see what Brazil is all about and what their culture is all about, because I believe that passion can really inspire everybody else.”

Varejao: "Thanks about that. That's what I think about Brazil, too. So who do you think is going to win the World Cup?"

Bryant: “A couple of years ago I had Germany picked to win it, 'cause I felt like their young players were developing and everyone would be in their primes. Watching how Brazil has handled the pressure, particularly of the first match [a 3-1 win over Croatia], it's going to be hard to bet against them. I think we'll wind up seeing a Brazil vs. Argentina final and that's going to be an epic final.”

Why Mike D'Antoni ditched the Lakers

May, 1, 2014
May 1
1:41
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Amin Elhassan on what went wrong in L.A. and what's next for Mike D'Antoni.

Nice Guy Pau Gasol

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
10:50
AM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
Pau Gasol AP Photo/Damian DovarganesPau Gasol's tenure in L.A. appears all but over. Will we remember much beyond the cheery tweets?
Nobody lives in a perfect world, but Pau Gasol’s Twitter account sure tries to. The “social” sector of the Interwebs can be twisted fairy tale, a day-to-day life inhabited by trolls and court jesters. But virtually every day Gasol gallantly blasts out 140 characters of sunshine, both in Spanish and in English, with the preciousness of texts from mom:

• "Tonight against the Orlando Magic. We're ready to compete at our best effort and rack up a victory on our home floor! #GoLakers"

• "Today is #WorldWaterDay. Let's all take care of this vital natural resource for all of us."

• "The new trailer of the 4th season of @GameOfThrones is already out! Not long now for the season’s release! http://on.fb.me/1fFXrHK "

And that’s just a sampling from one week in March.

Gasol is one of the nice guys. All of his on-court kvetching amounts to nothing more than a rubbed head or two. He credits Magic Johnson's HIV diagnosis for inspiring him to become a doctor. In his “Lakers profile” -- one of the midgame entertainment reels broadcast on the Staples Center big board, in which guys like Nick Young talk about things like “spaghetti cake” -- Gasol describes himself in one word as “multifaceted.” Most superstar athletes become conditioned to look right through people; Kobe Bryant, for example, strides with purpose as if Aloe Blacc is his internal monologue. Gasol remains observant. On a recent trip to Staples Center my eyes happened to cross paths with Gasol’s, and to my surprise, he smiled back at me, a total stranger sort of creepily gawking at him. Dude is nice.

We yearn for any morsel of information on these guys’ personal lives, especially when the subject is something of an enigma uninterested in opening up. When some odd detail does trickle out, it tends to serve mostly as fodder to further the myth we’ve pieced together in our heads. Rajon Rondo is this great checkers player? He's a mad genius!

There’s no mystery to Gasol. He’s the oversharing Facebook friend you can’t bring yourself to cut out, posting pictures of that darling landscape and recommending a new goodread whether you like it or not. Gasol is willing to give up more of himself than virtually any other NBA player of his caliber, and that accessibility tramples all over the whole superstar-worshipping dynamic. It’s hard to create a legend around someone so human. And that’s a large part of what’s making it so hard to muster up anything beyond indifference as Gasol approaches what figures to be the end of his six-plus years with the Lakers.

Gasol is back to playing above-average ball amid the Lakers’ telenovela season. Though limited to 65 games or fewer for the fourth time in five seasons, he has capitalized on often being the lone adult watching over the Lakers’ day care, bouncing back from the worst season of his career with a mild yet respectable player efficiency rating of 19.5. Maybe it’s not the horn-grabbing, prove-the-doubters-wrong, Ewing Theory-ish performance some might have hoped for with Bryant sidelined -- he’s shooting under 50 percent from the field for just the third time in his 13-year career -- but it does suggest that Gasol can still be pretty damn good, even after 32,000 NBA minutes and thousands more in international competition.

But what should we make of pretty good? It’s the question it feels like we’ve been asking about Gasol, indirectly or otherwise, since he became prominent enough to ask it. He’s among the most skilled 7-footers ever, and the stretchy, finesse game he and others imported helped usher in pretty significant changes in the way NBA teams utilize their big men. But he’s no offensive juggernaut like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s the older, more popular, more successful Gasol brother, but he’s no defensive monster like Marc. He’s got those two titles, but, I mean, Kobe. Stuck in a sports world defined by greatness, and paired with a certain teammate more obsessed with it than anyone, “pretty good” basically reads as “also-ran.” And so we latch onto the only thing we have that makes him extraordinary among the ultra-competitive, ultra-athletic, ultra-stylish superhumans that dominate the game’s storyline: He’s super nice. But Future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol just isn’t as interesting as Nice Guy Pau Gasol.

This isn’t new, either. More of an update. The bulk of Gasol’s career has been defined by the idea that -- or at least the debate over whether -- his game is “soft.” When Gasol rose to prominence, NBA fans, and Lakers fans in particular, had grown accustomed to the big man as just that, both in physical stature and personality. But Gasol is more likely to baby hook or be in the right place for an offensive rebound than bash skulls and break out into rap. His deft touch from 10 feet out was misinterpreted as some phobia of MIXIN’ IT UP, his guard-like vision underappreciated in a world of Godzillas and Gameras. He was one of the five most efficient big men in the NBA in each of his first three full seasons with the Lakers, but it’s harder to appreciate those masterful drop steps to easy dunks when they don’t leave the basket stanchion shaking.

Since that fortuitous midseason deal that sent him to Los Angeles, Gasol has existed in a fishbowl where everything is filtered through the lens of Bryant -- his standards, his behavior -- and not showing the same public ferocity, outside of arguing calls, has always colored Gasol as lesser than. But those differences are ultimately what's made Gasol and Bryant such a good fit. Shaq’s dominance helped Kobe to that extra ring, and that matters, but Gasol's deference, both in personality and style of play, fit Bryant better than O’Neal ever did. Said Bryant about O’Neal in a recent profile in The New Yorker: “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy. You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through s---.” If O’Neal was an attention-seeking “clown,” as described in that profile, then Gasol was the efficient assistant Bryant's one-man act always needed. The relationship has incurred its bumps -- which involving Bryant hasn’t? -- but we’re now at the point where Bryant says things like, “If I could choose my brother,” it would be Gasol.

[+] EnlargePau Gasol
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiPau Gasol won two titles in L.A., but his Lakers run could end amid one of the franchise's worst seasons.
It’s that acceptance from Bryant that ultimately seems to have quelled concerns that often obscure Gasol's brilliance. Guys like Chris Bosh and Kevin Love stepping out to the 3-point line helped, and winning a title or two seems to have given him some Skull and Bones-type privileges in L.A., but Gasol now operates with the official Bryant seal of approval, which effectively works as a giant force field against derision from a certain swath of the public. Being likened to a swan isn't cool unless it’s Bryant making the comparison.

And so we’re left with ... what, exactly? Now that the context in which we've viewed him for so long doesn't really exist, we can see Gasol for what he really is. But at 33 and on the wrong side of his peak, what’s there to see isn’t much, relative to what was. Pretty good can’t carry a team of mercenaries and borderline pros into contention, clearly, or make all of those national TV games compelling, and so those 29, 12 and four nights just sink to the bottom of the news stack, his dust-ups with Mike D’Antoni become clouds of smoke in the most forgettable Lakers season in about a decade. The Celtics holding on to Rondo at the February trade deadline opened up a whole mess of new questions about his and the franchise’s future. The Lakers’ inability to move Gasol seemed to signal an end for which all parties had long since been prepared.

Now, after this recent spate of vertigo, it appears likely that his finale has, appropriately, already come and gone. Maybe Gasol will receive some sort of curtain call from his bench seat at one of the remaining four home games as the Lakers, with their loss total creeping closer and closer to 60, play out the string. Otherwise, all that appears to be left is that inevitable last thank-you tweet to fans, and maybe one more this summer to say goodbye.

What a nice guy, we’ll say. And that’ll be that.

Learning to love the moral victory in L.A.

December, 25, 2013
12/25/13
9:49
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The only thing achievers hate more than failing is being told that their failure isn't all that devastating relative to the norm. They want to shoot better than par on a friendly course and for people who enjoy constant success, life is a friendly course.

In the broader context of history, the Los Angeles Lakers are undeniably an achiever franchise. We can debate their exceptionalism, or whether they’ve deployed a sound investment strategy while building their current roster. What’s irrefutable is that the Lakers derive more value from mystique than any franchise in the NBA. Much of that value is largely symbolic, but a considerable amount of it is very real.

Mystique is built with championships, but maintaining that mystique comes with expense. When the Lakers reupped Kobe Bryant for two additional seasons at a sum of $48.5 million, they were vesting in mystique: The Lakers are the kind of organization that takes care of its legends.

It’s a short list of icons -- on average, one is born only about every 10 years. When their time is up, they’ll be honored with the best-produced farewell in sports, even if it defies good sense and costs a couple of seasons of contention. Let the aspirational franchises worry about something as transient as cap management; the Lakers are engaged in the long game of brand management.

Bryant on Wednesday performed his weekly media duties. He spoke in measured tone about the recovery process, the trials of being an observer on an afternoon like this and the desire to see younger guys like Nick Young appreciate the rigors of preparation and grow into more complete players.

Out on the floor, the depleted Lakers acquitted themselves nicely. They played possession for possession with the Miami Heat for 40 minutes and were within an arm’s distance during the closing possessions before falling 101-95. Even with a rusty Jordan Farmar returning to the lineup completely out of sorts, the Lakers cobbled together enough offense in their spread half court to compete and entertain.

“I think we moved the ball well enough,” Pau Gasol said. Gasol grumbled a couple of weeks back that Mike D’Antoni’s offense wasn’t maximizing his talent, while D’Antoni responded that Gasol in the post is one of the least favorable bets on the table for these Lakers.

Following the game, Gasol was far from ecstatic, but he seemed reasonably satisfied with the offensive schemes. Asked if he got the ball where and when he likes it in the half court on Wednesday, Gasol hedged.

“Sometimes,” he said. “It’s going to happen that way. Sometimes you’re going to get it where you like it. Sometimes it’s not going to happen that way.”

Gasol, who finished with 13 points, 13 rebounds and three assists, was a focal point early down low in a big first quarter. The Lakers went to him five times over the first seven minutes -- a sampler platter of isolations against Chris Bosh on the left block, isolations farther out at the off-the-right elbow and a slip screen for an open foul-line jumper. The total yield over those five possessions was six points. Gasol would've liked to have seen more of it, but such is life.

“Didn’t go to it as much as we did in the first quarter, I guess, or the first half,” Gasol said. “We kind of went away from it a little bit.”

Gasol’s right. The Lakers moved the ball sufficiently well, despite moving away from Gasol. And when they didn’t, the team’s one-dribble bandits found decent looks. Though there wasn’t much pace to the offense, the Lakers still managed 36 attempts from beyond the arc, making 14 (38.9 percent). This is a recipe D’Antoni can live with: Placate Gasol early to pressure the defense, then expand the floor with the shooters.

So the Lakers acquitted themselves well on Christmas, unlike their big-market brethren earlier in the day across the country. A team with an average collection of talent put up a spirited challenge against the league’s reigning champions.

This is part of the life cycle for pro sports franchises -- even the merchants of mystique. There will be seasons when bad luck befalls a prestige team and the bar is set at playing .500 ball. When this happens, an organization, players and fan base can get sucked into a cycle of eternal kvetching that pollutes the whole experience.

Alternatively, they can do what the rest of the sports world learns to do: Embrace the team’s limitations, then get really excited when it overcomes them. The Lakers are a likable team playing an entertaining brand of basketball. They have no transcendent players, and they’re going to have trouble beating a trapping defense like Miami’s so long as they have no healthy ball-movers on the perimeter. The Lakers can’t control whether Bryant is healthy, but they can deliver a fun product that’s better than their individual parts.

D’Antoni’s comments on Monday suggesting disheartened fans find another team came across as imperious -- he conceded as much in apologies on Tuesday and again on Wednesday -- but there was a thoughtful context: These are good guys doing hard work in adverse conditions. And often they'll lose.

Glad you could join the rest of us, Lakers Nation.

10 Things To Know: Christmas games

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
4:36
PM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
"I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game.” -- Stan Van Gundy

Despite concern among the mustachioed and unmustachioed alike, the NBA's Christmas Day lineup has become a holiday unto itself.

With football occupying a large portion of the viewing public's attention as the calendar year winds down, the first month-plus of the basketball season tends to be more of a warm-up for most. Christmas Day, then, has become something of an unofficial start to the season for late arrivals over the past few years, and the league has welcomed all with open arms by providing a smorgasbord of premier, nationally televised matchups.

To prepare for the full slate at hand, here are 10 things to know about the 10 teams hitting the NBA hardwood on Dec. 25.


1. The Kobe-LeBron rivalry is over before it began

The puppets are always the first to know.
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In 2009, just before LeBron James officially established his MVP bona fides and Kobe Bryant proved himself on a championship stage without Shaquille O’Neal, their clash over the same rarefied air space defined the NBA. James’ Cavaliers and Bryant’s Lakers were emerging as the league’s controlling elite, and with the two seeming predestined to meet in the NBA Finals at some point in the near future, if only because we deserved such a matchup from the basketball gods, Nike launched an ad campaign featuring plush likenesses of the All-Star wings sharing the same apartment to capitalize on the momentum.

But arguing over excess chalk dust on their Muppetized loveseat likely will be the only important postseason meeting between the two in their careers. What at one point seemed an unavoidable collision course turned into two highly accessorized ships passing in the night. Their seven-year gap between human and basketball years simply led to unparalleled peaks, and now what we’re left with to show from all the debating, hyping and hoping, besides the residual effects from the careless rearing of poor Lil’ Dez, are two Christmas Day blowouts in favor of James’ team, in 2009 and 2010.

The appetite from the league at large, though, remains unsatisfied. Why else would Heat-Lakers be plopped on the schedule this offseason right in the middle of Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles injury, instead of, say, Heat-Pacers? If market size does indeed matter so much, why not choose the Los Angeles team contending for a title?

Given James and the Heat's otherworldly production and Bryant and the Lakers' current struggles, both physically and personnel-wise, the rivalry that figured to end as an all-timer will never be the same, even if what we got never seemed enough.


2. The master

Twenty-eight is old in basketball years, but Chris Paul has probably seemed that way for some time now. LeBron James is 28, too, but his mass appeal keeps him at the forefront of the youth culture, even amid all that family-man branding. Blake Griffin (24) and DeAndre Jordan (25) feel like they’re decades apart from their point guard. In his own way, the reserved Kevin Durant (25) does, too. There’s always been an extreme poise emanating from Paul, whether it’s assuming control of the offense by sheer food-chain protocol or wrangling his chubby-cheeked son in the Clippers’ locker room. Even at his flashiest, knifing through lanes with precision dribbling, it’s all about seizing complete control.
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Indeed, Paul can dazzle, but he’d rather pull it back and process a situation. While centers stretch out to the arc and coaches push the pace to Ferrari-like speeds, Paul is content in his Volvo, getting exactly where he needs to go without any complications.

But with a roster built to get up and down more so than in his previous two seasons in Los Angeles, Paul has had to soup things up a bit. After playing at the 25th-fastest pace in his first season and the 19th-fastest in his next, Paul’s Clippers now rank eighth, among the Houstons and the Denvers. That plus the added slack taken on after the injuries to J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes have led to a hit in his shooting numbers, which surely nags him, but he’s never been more efficient as a Clipper, and most of his other stats are up (rebounds, assists) or near highs (points) for his stint in L.A., too.

The proliferation and growing public consumption of analytics only deepen the appreciation for the decidedly old-school game manager. The passing data from the SportVU tracking system is a virtual shrine to his mastery of the position: He leads all others in assists per game, total assists, secondary assists (tied), assist opportunities, points created by assists and points created by assists per 48 minutes. There’s only one other category, passes per game, in which he ranks second.

What’s old is new again, or maybe it’s the other way around. But the Clippers are looking forward again after some early hiccups, and Paul is again on track to finally capitalize on the window he has in his prime years, however long it may last.


3. A pair of aces
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Each cut to the rim, each stroke on his wizardly mane, each up-and-under move to draw a foul will probably always sting a little back in Oklahoma. There's no replacing a James Harden, even if the kiddies being groomed in the second unit are beginning to look like important pieces in the Thunder's championship quest. But the two dynamic superstars still lurking on the wings certainly haven't slowed down in their sixth season together.

According to our friends at ESPN Stats & Info, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are currently the highest-scoring duo in the NBA for the third consecutive season, with 49.7 points per game between them. Only four other duos in league history have accomplished that for three straight seasons or more, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen the last to do so from 1989 to 1993 with an NBA-record four.


4. It’s gotta be the sleeves?

First, a few words from LeBron James on the shimmering, Y2K-influenced sleeved jersey each team will don for Wednesday’s five-game slate, via the Miami Herald’s Joe Goodman:
LeBron said in pregame that the Heat’s shooters “are already upset about” the Christmas jerseys.

LEBRON: "I can’t have my shooters out there worrying about some sleeves and not shooting the ball."

Shooters are a neurotic bunch. Ray Allen, the greatest long-range threat in history, is more programmed than any player at this point: He follows the same warm-up routine, eats the same pregame meal, shaves his head at the same time. He once told Jackie MacMullan that he has “borderline OCD.” Anything that alters that ritual could pose an issue, and imagined or not, those teeny compression sleeves present just enough foreign element to unravel what is largely a life of repetition for the modern pro basketball player.

The Warriors, then, would be among the teams most likely to feel such an effect. Golden State has built its brand around its deep shooting, and currently ranks second in the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage and among the league leaders in percentage of shots taken from 3.

But after serving as the lab rats for adidas’ grand sleeved experiment last season, the Warriors have sported white, home jerseys with the new look and shown no apparent ill effects from it. In the four games they’ve broken out the sleeves in 2013-14, the Warriors have shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3, which is right on par with their season averages of 46.2 and 40.2 (and among the more ridiculous stats ever published).


5. An exercise in sadness, Part A

Brooklyn knew it was operating without a net. You don't hand out draft picks like grocery-store coupons without feeling the pressure, the doubt of it all, even with all those barrels of cash to wipe your brow. And somehow, that self-awareness only makes the crash landing of the Nets' championship hopes, all the way down to fourth from the bottom in the putrid Eastern Conference, that much more gruesome.

Here's a look at all the grim and grisly carnage thus far.







6. Behold: The Sultan of Swag

At this point, Kobe Bryant’s snarling underbite is a tradition that ranks right up there with the more menacing characters of Christmas-season story time. The 17-year veteran has played in more Christmas Day games (15) than anyone else in NBA history and has accumulated the most career Christmas points (383). Really, what use is a Christmas ham these days without a dozen contested midrange J's to go with it?
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This year, though, your yuletide bombardiering will come not from the itchy trigger finger of Bryant, who is expected to miss five more weeks with a knee fracture, but courtesy of the “Swag Mamba,” Nick Young, who in his first season with his hometown Lakers enters the Christmas spotlight for just the second time.

The cockatooed sixth-year swingman certainly lacks the gravitas Bryant brings these days, but any game that prominently features Young, a smiley SoCal native with the O’Doul's version of Kobe’s skill set, is something of an impromptu field day -- all fun, all the time.
And with Bryant again aching, there’s been more Swag Time than ever: Young, whose shot selection ethos befits an “If it fits, I sits” cat, leads the Lakers in attempts (16.3) and points (21.3) in three games sans Bryant, and has even been given spot duty at the 1 for the point guard-depleted Lakers despite one of the very worst assist ratios among small forwards.

So, another LeBron-Kobe clash may not be in the offing, but these modern-day Lakers are a special kind of “Showtime” with the blissfully oblivious Young as their guiding force. Expect enjoyment, if not fierce competition, to ensue.


7. Welcome back, Dwight Howard

Anyone who has ever had to procure a postgame quote from Dwight Howard wouldn’t be surprised that the All-Star big man needed time to do anything, but 20 months and three teams after undergoing back surgery, the now-28-year-old center is beginning to look as close to his heyday as he may ever get.
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Smart people across the Interwebs have discussed the progressive tactics the Rockets’ offense has employed to great success, and amid the revolution, the back-to-the-basket big man Daryl Morey nabbed from the Lakers this past summer is having his best month offensively since April 2011, with 21.2 points on 62 percent shooting, 14.5 rebounds, 2 blocks, 60 percent free throw shooting (!) and 100 percent 3-point shooting (!!) in 35 minutes over 11 December games. The Rockets have five more games on the slate before the new year, but the only thing close to that since he wore out a FastPass at Disney World was a torrid eight-game April (20.9 points, 61.1 FG%, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 blocks) to push the Lakers into the playoffs.

Outside of PER, virtually all of his advanced numbers on the season are better than they have been since 2010-11, and while he’s no longer the pre-eminent rim protector in the league, he’s become a force again in the paint on both ends of the floor. It seems the four-out, one-in approach on which he thrived in Orlando and now is again (to a certain degree) in Houston is more to his liking than blowing off pick-and-rolls. A happy Dwight is indeed a productive Dwight.


8. An exercise in sadness, Part B

Need another downer while the yuletide joy is flowing?

Facing off against the Nets on Wednesday will be one of the few teams that can feel them in all their catatonic pain, the Chicago Bulls, who have wandered the earth aimlessly after losing Derrick Rose once again.






9. Melo has Durant’s number

It’s quite fitting, given this fever dream of a Knicks season, that Carmelo Anthony joins their Magna Carta-length list of question marks with a bum left ankle right before they need him most. The Knicks obviously rely on Anthony and his 26.3 points per game; his 28.9 usage rate is fourth-highest in the league; and he's one of the team's few major contributors with a plus/minus better than minus-1 on the season, per NBA.com/stats.
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But while Kevin Durant and the Thunder roll into Christmas Day as the most imposing challenge in the league right now, they present the Knicks with one of their best chances yet of obtaining a first big win of the season -- if Anthony is active.

Despite the Thunder’s dominance of late, in the 12 games Anthony has faced Durant over the past seven years, the elder Melo is 11-1, according to Elias, with the lone loss coming in double overtime when Anthony was still on the Nuggets and the Thunder didn’t yet exist. In those matchups, Anthony, currently the No. 2 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 30.2 points on 50.2 percent shooting, while Durant, currently the No. 1 scorer in the NBA, has averaged 26.8 points on 42.4 percent shooting. It should be noted, though, that Anthony has played Durant just once in the past two seasons.

Of course, all of that may not have mattered even if Melo were the pinnacle of physical health: The Knicks (9-18) are 0-8 against the Western Conference this season; the Thunder (22-5) are 7-1 against the Eastern Conference.


10. Pop or Scrooge?

Who said it: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich or Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 rendition of “A Christmas Carol”?

A.) “I want some nasty.”

B.) “You’ll want the whole day off, I suppose.”

C.) “Happy? I don’t know how to judge happy.”

D.) “We didn’t send mariachi bands or birthday cards or breakfast in bed.”

E.) “It’s all humbug, I tell you, humbug.”

Heeeere's Kobe!

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
4:43
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
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Kobe is back. Amin Elhassan discusses how he looks after two games and what's in store for the Lakers moving forward.

Kobe, Lakers figuring how it all will work

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
2:51
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- OK, so Kobe looked a little more like Kobe. The thing is, the Lakers look nothing like the Lakers -- whatever that is supposed to be these days.

Kobe Bryant scored 20 points Tuesday night, more than double the output in his season debut Sunday. He backed defenders down, worked them from side to side, even drove by one for a dunk. It couldn’t prevent the Lakers from losing to the Phoenix Suns, couldn’t keep them from dropping two games in as many tries since Kobe returned from that torn Achilles tendon, couldn’t stop from losing their way like a horse that wandered off the ranch.

The Lakers had found something that worked well enough to win six of their previous eight games. They spread the floor and fired in 3-pointers. They had roles and rotations.

As of Sunday, they had to change.

Kobe Bryant’s presence is too large for him to quietly slip in the room and take a seat in the back row. Coach Mike D’Antoni is trying to figure out which lineups work best around Kobe. In an extreme example of the shuffling, Robert Sacre went from starting in Sacramento on Friday to sitting with a DNP-Coach’s Decision by his name in the box score Tuesday. D’Antoni is throwing combinations that have never played together in NBA games before, and that newness is most evident on defense. The Lakers were particularly susceptible to breakdowns on the back end of the defense Tuesday night. That’s how the Suns could manage 56 points in the paint, and why the Suns won the game 114-108.

“It’s trying to figure out the best combination and trying to get through the period where guys are adjusting to each other,” D’Antoni said.

The players are adjusting to Bryant while Bryant adjusts to them -- and himself -- as he figures out how to manage his slower, ground-based attack. Two games in, he’s decided he wants to leave his ballhandling, initiating days in the past and operate closer to the basket. Oh, and set screens. Lots of them. If the detailed statistical data were available for all 1,241 of his NBA games, I’m sure this would be the highest number of screens he’d ever set.

“It’s part of the evolution,” Bryant said. “It’s figuring out what we have. How to adjust around that.”

But as the Laker offense becomes more concentrated in one region, it makes it easier for the opposing defense to cover them with less ground. It also brings another Laker below the free throw line, which makes it tougher for them to get back in transition defense.

Another issue for D’Antoni is that if he pairs the two Lakers who are most familiar with each other, Bryant and Pau Gasol, it makes the unit on the floor slower.

But the Lakers were never going to be about defense, regardless of who played. They’re not built that way, and D’Antoni doesn’t emphasize it. This week, though, there was a shift in the offense.

The Lakers had shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range this season, the No. 3 long-range accuracy in the league. They made 32 percent on Sunday and 26 percent Tuesday.

Jodie Meeks had made the most 3s on the team, but “tonight they ran me off,” he said.

He still made one of the most successful adjustments to playing with Bryant, actually taking over Bryant’s old role of attacking the basket. Before Tuesday, half of Meeks’ baskets had been 3-pointers, but against the Suns four of his five field goals came from inside the arc.

“I didn’t want to force up a lot of [3s],” Meeks said. “I saw the lane open and took it.”

The Suns, meanwhile, didn’t adjust. They’ve found something that works for them. It’s remarkable that it’s shaped up so early given that there’s a new coach with a team that traded its second through fifth top scorers from a year ago.

But the Suns let the 3-pointers fly, they convert fast-break opportunities and, most impressively, they get after the ball. That last attribute showed up with a 43-33 rebounding advantage Tuesday night.

It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had the Lakers kept it a little closer. The Suns were 1-4 in games decided by three points or fewer, and maybe Kobe could have prevailed in a possession-by-possession showdown. But the Suns didn’t let it happen.

The Morris twins combined for 18 points, five rebounds and three assists in the fourth quarter, and the Suns kept the Lakers at bay.

“That’s how we do!” Marcus Morris yelled as he ran back into the Suns’ locker room at Staples Center.

The Suns actually have a “how we do.” The Lakers don’t. At least not yet.

Kobe Bryant takes control of his final act

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
1:53
AM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
Kobe BryantAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesAfter eight months of recovery, Kobe Bryant returned for what may be his career's final stretch.
The final act of Kobe Bryant began with a Facebook link.

As the anticipation over his return to the court simmered, the means by which the news of his arrival would be announced became something of a hot topic among media types. With so many reporters, both locally and nationally, so closely following the daily machinations of his recovery from a torn left Achilles, could it really get past them all? Would he wait for a home game? Would his name just be there in the starting lineup one day, and that would be that?

The final word, of course, was always going to come from Bryant. Though a late adapter to social media, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar has taken to the technology’s unfiltered access like few other athletes. For a player who demands, sometimes ferociously, the ability to dictate the performance of his team, the chance to have full control over his message required little more than a natural embrace.

And so on Friday, at about 1 p.m. PT, a link was posted to Bryant’s Facebook page. There, a video could be found “exclusively” announcing his return, in a production that was decidedly Kobe.

An overly dramatic title. A slickly crafted one-scene of his No. 24 jersey being battered by the elements. A masculine score straight out of Westeros. With one 2-minute, 8-second video clip, Bryant turned a routine Sunday night game against the hapless Toronto Raptors into the spectacle of the 2013-14 season. And by broadcasting the news a full two days before the big event (and the day of another -- quickly forgotten -- Lakers game), he created a groundswell in Los Angeles that permeated through the weekend. They cooed over seeing him take the floor again at holiday parties Saturday night. They excitedly discussed his effect on the Lakers’ season at brunch the day of.

When Bryant finally arrived some 30 hours later, his feet dressed in a specialized version of his first Nike shoe, the Staples Center crowd couldn’t stand still through the national anthem, with at least one fan belting out "KOBE!" in between almost every breath of the day’s featured crooner. The usual starting lineup production was also specialized, with Bryant, the curtain call to the team’s introduction, coming out under darkness to the “Imperial March.” As Bryant toed the free-throw line toward the end of the Lakers’ 106-94 defeat, some even dared to muster an “M-V-P” chant.

This was a hero’s welcome. This was exactly the environment Bryant had taken great care to craft for the beginning of his end.

We all want to choose the way we go out, to decide the last image the world will have of us. No one desires to be remembered as sickly, clinging to the last threads of the person we used to be. Athletes spend decades crafting their legacies -- putting up all of those shots, lifting all of those weights -- and to go out on top, instead of with a whimper, well, that’s something special. In fact, clinical psychology studies have shown that when we think about experiences, we are more influenced by how the experience ends than by the experience as a whole.

Finishing his career with a title, like John Elway and others, appears unlikely for Bryant at this point; as long as he is the best player on the Lakers, Kobe will also be the best reason for another, much-needed superstar not to play for the Lakers. But by signing a two-year extension with the only franchise he has ever known, at a price that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA over the length of the agreement, Bryant has ensured that, for the next two-plus years, the Lakers will be built in his image, just like they were when he was at his best. He has procured the best possible lighting for his grand finale.

If the next 226 games do, indeed, mark the end, it will not be some dour funeral. Bryant’s mere presence on Sunday created a palpable energy -- in the arena and around the league -- that this fun, scrappy, speedy Lakers team could not create for the first 19 games of the season. He is a star of a rarefied air; for a certain percentage of basketball fans, he is the only reason to tune in. Even if this slower, still-recovering rendition of Bryant never rounds back into the grizzled gunslinger that preceded it for 17 seasons, those impassioned screams that echo through the arena after his every made field goal will serve as the second line for a must-see march into the sunset.

The hope, though, is that after watching the ball and his body move to different rhythms at times during a 9-point, 8-rebound, 8-turnover, 4-assist opening performance, Bryant’s production won’t stray too far from the experience -- not just yet. The reality of his return was never going to live up to the image crafted through all of the hype and anticipation, but to see an at-times sluggish Bryant struggling to adapt, to the game and to his new surroundings, certainly didn’t quell some of the natural fears that arise after a 35-year-old suffers a career-threatening injury.

“I’m still not sure what I can do,” said a generally optimistic and upbeat Bryant postgame.

But eight months of inaction, which Bryant joked he hadn’t experienced since he “was still in the womb,” has forced the notorious control freak to come to terms with uncertainty. Prior to the announcement of his return, Bryant told ESPNLA.com’s Dave McMenamin that his recovery also served as a process for self-assessment and self-discovery. “You’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again, every single day. I don’t know if I can,’” Bryant said. “You kind of have to dig deep and find things to keep going. It's a lot of searching, man. It’s a lot of searching.”

Now, after 17-plus years, he finds himself on the precipice of what most likely will be it. But after months of managing the unknown, Bryant made his first step toward his finale with structure of a storybook ending already in place.

Kobe Bryant cannot dictate his ultimate end. But before we come to bury him, he has ensured himself plenty of opportunities to be praised a few more times.

What is Kobe's farewell worth to L.A.?

November, 25, 2013
11/25/13
6:25
PM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz and Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
KobeJeff Gross/Getty ImagesCan you put a price on sentimental value? For the Lakers, it may be $48.5 million over two years.
Kobe Bryant is 35 years old and has yet to play this season because of surgery to repair a torn Achilles, a blow to any athlete at any age. And yet, on Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers signed the aging gunslinger to a two-year extension that will make him the highest-paid player in the NBA over that span.

So the question then becomes: Should the franchise’s and the fan base’s passion for their star player, and all the benefits that come with his return, be prioritized when it comes to team-building?


Justin Verrier: How much do you love Kobe Bryant? Your answer will likely be the biggest color stroke as you process the extension he just signed with the Lakers.

Bryant is one of the few players in all of sports with the star power to defy on-court production. There’s plenty of good and some bad that comes from his approach to the game. But the Lakers have a history unlike few other franchises in sports, and Kobe is one of the most popular athletes in an age with limitless avenues for media exposure. His signature may put a ceiling on this team moving forward, but having his statue outside of Staples Center next to Magic’s one day, or just being able to defend him with every fiber of your being, probably means a lot more to some than the actual wins.

But at what point does sentiment supersede rationality? While the Celtics, the NBA’s other beloved franchise, cut bait with their championship-winning stars this summer and looked toward the future, with this move, the Lakers appear stuck in the past.

Kobe is supposedly all about rings. Is keeping a player with as many as he has more important than sacrificing the chance to add to that total as long as he’s around?


Kevin Arnovitz: It depends on the probability of that chance. Say the Lakers let him walk this upcoming summer. What are the chances they can use the entirety of that space to build a contender for 2014-15 or 2015-16? Slim.

So the Lakers chose a different reality: the opportunity to orchestrate one of the most glorious, albeit expensive, farewell tours in NBA history. While they won’t come close to contending, there will be an electric buzz around Los Angeles for the final two seasons of “Kobe,” the kind of excitement that was generated back in the day when a Broadway smash was closing and the marquee above the theater read “Final Performances!” in bold letters.

There’s value in that, for the gate, for television ratings and for the overall value of the brand. I’m not suggesting it’s $48.5 million in value, but it’s much greater than zero.

Regarding the Lakers not sufficiently considering the future, are you suggesting they should let Kobe walk and commit themselves to a tank job?


Verrier: Not necessarily. And therein lies my biggest qualm with the deal. The front office successfully put the franchise in position to rebuild without having to go to such extreme measures. The Lakers threw together a patchwork lineup with a short lifespan, are now having some moderate success in a fun system, and were ready to reap the benefits this summer with their oodles of cap room. Even if it seemed unlikely that a superstar would join the party, at least they had hope for something better than what they are now.

But the Lakers cashed in all that potential -- perhaps the biggest lure for any fan, for any person -- for (broadly) two more years of their current construction. Which will be fun. Problem is: Why do they need to do that? Why do they need to bring back Kobe in the first place?

Context is important. You cut the Bucks some slack for shooting for the middle because of their ownership’s mandate. You understand why the Bobcats want to overpay an Al Jefferson.

But the Lakers have every advantage. They have money, they have location, they have legacy. And without Kobe, they would have been able to provide cornerstone free agents a blank slate. That may not guarantee a star’s signature, but it’s the best possible package any team can put together.

The only thing holding them back was sentiment. Should we not expect the most privileged franchises to shoot for more than serving as a vehicle for a star’s prolonged goodbye?


Arnovitz: Isn’t hope the ultimate sentiment? Because as you said, that’s all the Lakers would be getting in exchange for cutting ties with Bryant. They’d be banking on the notion that having two max slots would enable them to attract two max stars. There’s nothing in the marketplace to suggest that they’d lure that second star, and it looks as if they might have some trouble attracting the first. Mitch Kupchak almost certainly examined the free-agent landscape on the horizon and determined as much.

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Lakers’ producing the goodbye. I didn’t fully grasp this idea until I moved to Los Angeles, but the Lakers are engaged in a different project than most of the league. The vast majority of organizations are trying to build a mystique, but the Lakers already have one and they’re in the business of maintaining it. Doing so might mean they have to compensate an aging home-grown legend more money than he’s worth between the lines. That’s the premium a franchise pays when it wants to have control of the script and have events play out like a romance.

Do you believe that an elite group of teams in each sport is exceptional in this regard? That the Lakers are playing a different game because they’re a unique brand?


Verrier: It’s the Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems corollary -- life is certainly more complicated when you’re working with billions instead of millions. Which is where the Celtics comparison begins to fall apart. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett may be icons in Boston, but Bryant is a global star and tent pole for goliath American shoe and beverage companies. The franchises may have comparable track records on the court, but they are in different stratospheres in this plane.

But the importance of such a brand is hard to pin down these days. Warm climates and a big spotlight will likely always matter; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh didn’t take their talents to Lake Michigan. But Dwight Howard’s departure from L.A. this summer at least suggested that the Lakers’ ground can be only so high when players are dictating player movement.

Kupchak alluded to such a change this summer, when the “Stay” billboards were shooting up around the city. And yet, signing an injured 35-year-old at an old CBA-like price is in complete opposition to that conclusion. If the Lakers are still exceptional, it’s in no small part because they refuse to see themselves in any other way.

TrueHoop TV: Take your time, Kobe

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
1:04
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Three reasons Kobe Bryant should take his time returning from his Achilles injury.


Stats & Info: Opening Night in the NBA

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
12:40
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant and LeBron James both have records in their sights this season.
The NBA season tips off tonight with six teams in action, including the two favorites in the Eastern Conference and the first leg in the battle for Los Angeles supremacy between the Lakers and Clippers. We take a look at the numbers to know heading into the season.

LeBron and the Heat aim for 3-Peat
The two-time defending champion Miami Heat will try to become the first team to three-peat since the Lakers accomplished that feat 2000-02. Should Miami make it to The NBA Finals, it would be the first team to do so four straight times since the Boston Celtics from 1984-87.

LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are the only players to win the regular-season MVP award and an NBA Championship in consecutive seasons. James hopes to join Russell as the only player to accomplish that feat three straight times.

Even without another title, LeBron could join a short list with a third straight MVP award. Only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell have been named MVP three straight seasons.

James has won four MVP awards in the last five seasons. If he wins this year, he’d be the first player with five in a six-season span. He’d also join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan and Russell as the only players with five MVP awards.

Kobe closing in on Jordan
Kobe Bryant will miss the beginning of the season as he continues to recover from a torn Achilles, but he needs just 676 points to move past Jordan into third place on the all-time scoring list.

This will be Kobe’s 18th season in the NBA, all with the Lakers. Only John Stockton, who spent 19 seasons with the Utah Jazz, has played more seasons with a single franchise.

Rose returns to Chicago
Derrick Rose is back with the Chicago Bulls after missing all of last season. Rose last played on April 28, 2012, the first game in an eventual playoff series loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Rose averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 assists per game during the 2011-12 season. Chicago’s point guards have struggled in his absence.

Last season, the Bulls starting point guards averaged 9.7 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 39.5 percent from the field. All three marks were in the bottom quarter of the league.

Lots of personnel changes
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there were an NBA-record 13 head coaching changes in the offseason. Nine of those coaches will be making their NBA head-coaching debut.

There are 92 international players on NBA opening night rosters, a new record for the league. France has the highest representation with 10 players, and 27 of the 30 teams have at least one international player.

Kobe Bryant's No. 25 #NBARank and history

October, 20, 2013
10/20/13
6:32
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Portland Trail Blazers
Kevin Lee/NBAE/Getty Images
Projecting what Kobe Bryant can contribute in 2013-14 is guesswork, but the numbers aren't optimistic.

Our #NBArank project set off a firestorm this past week when Kobe Bryant was unveiled as our panel’s choice at No. 25.

The panel was asked to rate each player from 0 to 10, with the following guidelines: "Rate the overall level of play you PREDICT for each player for the upcoming NBA season. This includes both the quality and the quantity of his expected contributions, combined in one overall rating."

In other words, how much can we expect this player to contribute during the upcoming NBA season?

With that in mind, many voters on the #NBArank panel projected that, coming off surgery for a torn Achilles tendon, Bryant’s production in 2013-14 will fall off dramatically. We don’t know when Bryant will return to the court and, when he does, we have no idea how the injury will affect his performance.

Those questions inspired the team at Princeton Sports Analysts to investigate. PSA is a collective of Princeton undergrads who study advanced analytics, stats and the economics of sports. To get a better sense of how Bryant’s injury might affect his output this season, the gang at PSA turned to a paper published in March titled, “Performance Outcomes After Repair of Complete Achilles Tendon Ruptures in National Basketball Association Players.”

The study looked at 18 players who suffered the injury, and the findings were discouraging, as summarized by PSA:

Of those 18 players, 7 were never able to return to NBA action, 3 returned for just one season, and the remaining 8 would go on to play 2 or more seasons. And of those players that returned, their performance suffered drastically, especially in their first season. In their study of the 11 players that returned to the NBA, the players' PER (player efficiency rating), decreased by an average of 4.57 points. In the second, it decreased by 4.38 points.

... If you decreased his PER by the average reduction of 4.57 ... you’d find that Kobe would’ve ranked 49th in the league last year, some 24 spots higher than where ESPN has him in their NBA Rank. Kobe is an animal, but the stats indicate that the anger towards his NBA Rank of 25 is far from justified.


That’s a steep drop, and if we want a case study in the impact of an Achilles injury, Elton Brand provides a helpful example. In 2005-06, Brand ranked 6th in the league with a PER of 26.67. The following year, he dropped to 23.16, which was still good for 14th overall. That following summer, Brand suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon, missed all but eight games in 2007-08 and has never recorded a PER better than 18.5 since.

Bryant is a different caliber of ballplayer, the ultimate outlier -- in conditioning, preparation and intensity. It’s reasonable to assume Kobe will apply a unique level of focus into his rehabilitation so that, when the next study of NBA Achilles injuries is released, he’ll reside at the far end of the production axis on the scatterplot graph.

The PSA team also notes that age, something that’s been cited as working against the 35-year-old Bryant, wasn’t determined to be a factor in recovery, so talk of the challenges an older player faces coming back from an Achilles tear doesn’t conform to the data.

No. 25? Is Kobe Bryant underrated?

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
2:18
PM ET
By Ryan Feldman
ESPN Stats & Information
Archive
David Sherman/Getty ImagesKobe Bryant is entering his 18th NBA season.
Kobe Bryant was revealed as the 25th-best player in the NBA this season, according to ESPN.com’s #NBArank.

Are we really predicting that 24 players will be better than Kobe this season?

Even as he returns from a torn Achilles tendon, it’s difficult to fathom that Kobe will drop off that much.

Kobe is not the same as any other 35-year-old entering his 18th NBA season.

He’s coming off a season in which he had:

• His highest field goal percentage since 2008-09
• His highest 3-point percentage since 2009-10
• His most 3-pointers made since 2007-08
• His most rebounds per game since 2007-08
• The most assists per game and highest assist percentage of his career
• The highest effective field goal percentage of his career
• His highest true shooting percentage since 2007-08
• His most win shares since 2008-09

Kobe averaged 27.3 points per game last season, the second-highest scoring average by any player in NBA history who started the season at least 34 years old (Michael Jordan averaged 28.7 PPG in 1997-98).

Only twice in NBA history has a player averaged at least 24 points per game in a season in his 16th season or later: Kobe in 2011-12 (27.9 PPG) and Kobe again last season.

As you can see, we’re not dealing with a normal aging superstar. According to the numbers, age hasn't been a factor for Kobe.

He ranked third in the league in points per game last season. He has ranked in the top five in scoring average in each of the past 11 seasons.

It appears that Kobe hasn’t regressed as a scorer. Just look at the numbers to the right, and you can see that his numbers last season compare well to the previous four seasons.

Is it possible that Kobe is even better now than he was a few years ago? His scoring is comparable, and other aspects of his game have improved.

Kobe posted career highs in assists per game and assist percentage last season. Even if his scoring deteriorates, he has improved his ability to get his teammates involved.

Sure, nobody in his 18th season or later has averaged 21 points per game in a season, and only one player in his 18th season or later (Karl Malone) has even averaged 18 points per game in a season.

Sure, only two players in their age-35 season or older (Alex English and Karl Malone) have averaged 25 points per game in a season.

Sure, Kobe is coming off a torn Achilles tendon.

But we’re talking about a player who has done things that no other player has done at his age or with his mileage.

Kobe’s PER (player efficiency rating) last season was the highest by any player in NBA history in his 17th season or later.

Kobe has consistently remained one of the elite scorers in the NBA, and he did so even more efficiently last season than he had done in the previous few seasons.

Once Kobe returns after recovering from his Achilles injury, there’s little reason to think he won’t rank among the NBA’s elite again this season.

The expectation game

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
10:57
AM ET
Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
Archive
Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Kobe BryantAP Photo/Alex GallardoThe bar has been set much lower for the Lakers this season. They may be better off because of it.

No games can be won or lost in the offseason, but in the five months since being swept out of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, the Lakers have seemingly lost what has largely defined the franchise in its five decades in Los Angeles: the power of perception.

Among the NBA’s elite, the Lakers have the bluest blood. They are one of the few teams in all of sports expected to compete for a championship every season, and with their alluring location, deep pockets and rich legacy, they have the means to live up to such lofty standards: Since the 1976-77 season, the Lakers have missed the playoffs just twice and have more titles than first-round exits. In the summer of 2012, the team turned a very good center (Andrew Bynum) into the best one in the league (Dwight Howard), and pried away Steve Nash, the best player from a division rival, for draft picks. Long before the ensuing disastrous results, building a superteam out of almost nothing only reaffirmed its supposed infallibility. The rich got richer, and so on and so on.

But with Howard's rejection of their richer contract offer in free agency this summer in favor of a deal from the Houston Rockets, the Lakers not only lost their bridge to the future -- the player expected to take the handoff from Kobe Bryant and lead the franchise into the next generation -- they also conceded some of that cherished status. Cap-strapped and lacking any other alternatives, the Lakers very publicly courted Howard, going as far as to roll out "Stay" billboards with his likeness, which long-term fans largely found unbecoming. To see their efforts rebuffed, to the cruel delight of many, stripped away some of the shine that surrounds the club, and that new, confounding image was only further established when the team trotted out new additions like Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Jordan Farmar (on his second tour of duty) to a media throng that had thinned out considerably from last year’s much-anticipated preseason meet-and-greet. Old money bet on the wrong stock and took a big lost, and now it’s forced to try and make ends meet any way it can like every other team.

Even with oodles of cap room awaiting it next summer and the usual inherent advantages it has in attracting free agents, the prospects of a quick return to glory are far more muddled than usual. The last time the Lakers missed the postseason, in 2004-05, the player expected to bring them into the future was already in-house. But now that same player could be what stunts their ability to transition into a new era. Almost a decade later, Bryant is still the best player on the Lakers, but because of his demanding personality, affinity for taking shots and millstone salary, he is also the best reason for other superstars not to play for the Lakers, at least in the immediate.

For the first time in a long time, there are no easy answers in L.A. But that uncertainty is precisely what makes the Lakers so compelling this season.

Perhaps more than any other sport, the NBA can be rather predictable. Certainly, there are surprises -- first and foremost, last season’s Lakers debacle -- but elite players dictate so much of the league’s results that it’s fairly easy to pick out successes and failures: If you have a superstar, you often win big; if you do not have a superstar, you often do not win big. And unlike the NCAA tournament or the NFL playoffs, 82-game regular seasons and seven-game playoff series have a way of straining out any truly shocking circumstances; last year’s ESPN.com Summer Forecast, comprised of 100 voters, correctly predicted 13 of the eventual 16 participants in the playoffs. Barring injuries, we pretty much know what we’re getting into once the dust settles on free agency. The ballet of a LeBron James dunk is indeed beautiful, but the known is at the core of this league, and that is what makes it so ripe for the advanced analytics that have become so popular, particularly in the daily discussion mill.

For so long, the Lakers found comfort in this predictably. There will always be outside noise generated by their palace’s intrigue, but the only question of much consequence remained a constant: Will they win a title this season? This year’s Summer Forecast panel predicts a meager 36 wins and a 12th-place finish for the Lakers. And while Bryant, among others, may still expect championships, the conversations surrounding the team are much dourer. What kind of player will a 35-year-old Bryant be once he has recovered from a torn Achilles? Can a move back to center rejuvenate a 33-year-old Pau Gasol? What does a 39-year-old Steve Nash have left? Can they even make the playoff field? The baseline for success has indeed been lowered.

Even though the spare parts the Lakers picked up on the open market to plug their many holes probably won’t lead to a significantly better on-court product than last season’s 45-win team, there’s a certain freedom to playing when up is the only place to go in the expectation game. Particularly for a team coming off a season in which each game felt as if it meant everything.

With injuries, reported in-fighting, malaise and poor results, last season’s Lakers were quite the poisonous cocktail. But the tumult only exacerbates when you factor in the context they played under. It’s easy to write off preseason prognostications as silly, and perhaps there is some truth to that, but in those summer months we recalibrate our whole interpretation of the league. While the time to reflect helps us better understand the eight months of game action that just happened, it also resets our expectations for what is about to happen: that the Heat are a budding dynasty, that the Rockets are budding contenders in the West, that the Lakers are a budding crisis. None of this has happened, but if it doesn’t, it will seem incongruous based on the perceptions we spend crafting in the summer months. Without the context of the Summer of LeBron, the Heat’s 2011 NBA Finals loss doesn’t seem so devastating. Nor does the Lakers’ 2012-13 season feel like such a letdown without the immense anticipation that preceded it.

Asked on Saturday if last season was the most difficult of his career, Nash concurred: "It was, yeah. There were other difficult years in there, but it was difficult because it was the freshest [in my memory] and there were the most expectations."

The Lakers were unable to replace Howard in free agency, but their consolation prize is a good one: the benefit of doubt. Bryant and others can express championship aspirations, but if they do not achieve that goal, it will only reaffirm what we already perceived. Anything more, though, will surely feel that much sweeter, and that joy of overcoming expectations (see: every athlete Twitter account) is one this franchise has not had the privilege of in some time. The mood around the team has noticeably been lifted from last season, those around the team say, chief among them head coach Mike D'Antoni, who now gets a full training camp and the chance to run his preferred system with players that seem a better fit for it. Any type of success, particularly in the early stages of the 2013-14 season, will surely only build upon that.

That may not be enough to fulfill any championship expectations left over from years gone by, but anything can happen. And given the circumstances this franchise now finds itself in, the excitement brought about by the unknown is indeed something to look forward to.

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