Kobe Bryant made the All-Defensive second team last season.
Let that sink in a bit. The guy who has been dragging his leg around for three years, the man who had to have his knee drained several times a season, was selected by coaches as one of the four best defensive guards in the NBA. Coaches that are paid to know more about the NBA than you, but don’t appear to be watching the same game as you, voted him ahead of dozens of better perimeter defenders. A year before that, when he was hauling around a bum knee that even needed to be drained before playoff games, they voted him to the first team.
He’s not first team-anything on that end, and for good reason. For years the Lakers have needed Bryant to initiate their offense, whether he was working through the constraints of the triangle offense or without a helpful big man. The Lakers asked that he give, as coach Tex Winter once put it, “a lick and a promise” to the defensive end; because they so badly needed him to be the Hall of Fame giant he is on the offensive end.
This season is no different, at least on the offensive side of the ball. The Lakers have needed Bryant to carry the team, and in what might be the most impressive story of the NBA season he’s come through with possibly his finest and most efficient offensive season at age 34. He’s also bloody terrible at defense. The guy looks like Eddie Robinson out there at times while off the ball, and we mean both this guy and this guy. Over the last two games, though, Bryant has been charged with guarding point guards. Which means he’s forced to be on the ball for most of the possession, because point guards have the ball for most of a possession. And he’s done fantastic work; so much so that Laker studio analyst and former Bryant teammate Robert Horry didn’t mind giving Kobe a shot while at a Lakers function at the Staples Center on Wednesday. From Eric Pincus at the Los Angeles Times:
"[When] Kobe is on the weak side, he needs to start paying attention to where the ball is and not be flying around, thinking he's some stealth bomber where he can get steals nonstop," said Horry.
The Lakers (17-21) have struggled this season as a team to play defense, and Horry put a sizable share of the blame on Bryant.
"That's the only reason you won two games, you solved the problem," continued Horry, speaking of Bryant's move to covering point guards Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Jokes flew around the internet over the last four days as the Lakers declared Sunday’s game against Cleveland as the team’s first real game of the season, and their triumphant turn against Milwaukee as a follow-up, but that’s just fine. It’s been a strange season, to say the absolute least, with nothing seeming constant save for Bryant’s amazing play on the offensive end and terrible play (as even ardent Laker fans have noticed) on the defensive end.
Bryant was fantastic on Kyrie Irving on Sunday, though. And dogged to a ridiculous degree against Brandon Jennings on Tuesday, so much so that Jennings offered up this observation:
"It was probably the best defense somebody's ever played on me since I've been in the league."
I wouldn’t argue with that. The same tenacity that Bryant usually applies to getting his own shot on the other end worked against Jennings on the defensive side of things. It reminded of the late-season defensive run Bryant made during the 1999-00 campaign, his first year as a champion, one that saw him play startling and dominant defense at times.
Through the years, starting with the Lakers’ failed attempts at defending their title in 2003 and winning again in 2004, Kobe has fallen back. He’s turned his head. He’s left Manu Ginobili in a position to cut and then score. And though coaches continually vote him onto the All-Defensive Team, both the eye test and advanced metrics suggest that those coaches were giving him nearly a decade-long ceremonial honor.
It’s pretty simple – Kobe Bryant does his best when people are paying attention to him. It’s why he takes hero-ball shots that rarely go in at the end of games, and makes 30 percent of them when everyone else makes 25 percent of them. It’s why he gives himself nicknames and makes deliberate statements on Facebook and elaborate pronouncements on Twitter. He’s the NBA’s version of an only child. Warren Beatty’s quote about Madonna, about there being no point to her doing anything off camera, springs to mind.
Which is great! That’s why we reveled in the mess, the strange meta-meta-meta mess, that was “Kobe Doin’ Work.” It’s why he remains so fascinating. It’s why the future is so promising: Kobe Bryant, in an offensive year that might rank as his finest that was paired with a defensive year that ranked as his worst, may completely switch those two in the second half of 2012-13. He might let Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol carry things offensively, while he focuses on shutting down players that were still sucking their thumbs when Bryant entered the league. I’m giddy at the prospect.
Why did this take so long? Why was coach Mike D’Antoni such a weenie so meek in assessing his leader’s work on the defensive end? None of this matters right now. What counts are the Lakers’ final 44 games, the fact that they’ll have to win nearly 30 of them just to make the postseason, and the hope that Kobe Bryant keeps this up.
If he does, he’ll have earned that All-Defensive nod. Even if he did take the first 36 games off.