In light of the Lakers’ upset win over the league-leading Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, both casual observers and sportswriters alike noticed how much better the Lakers’ offense and chemistry looked with Kobe Bryant taking a scheduled day off to rest his legs.
Carlos Boozer also moved to the second unit, allowing him to put up a team-high 18 points. But with Kobe laying bricks of late—shooting a combined 19-71 (26.8%) from the field in the 3 games since he passed Jordan in all-time scoring—could it actually be #24 that needs to be rotated out of the starting 5?
The NBA, due to its nature as a 5-on-5 game, is all about finding and exploiting matchups. This is why the pick-and-roll can be so devastating, and why good ball movement is so valuable to an offense: find the mismatch, get the ball there, score.
Sometimes, in an effort to create these mismatches, coaches will put a scorer (particularly one that needs the ball in his hands) on the second unit, not because he isn’t one of the five best players on the team, but because he can expand his role by being in control of the offense and take advantage of the (usually) weaker defensive skills of the role players guarding him. The Lakers did this before with Lamar Odom when Phil Jackson was the coach, and Dion Waiters with the Cavaliers is a great present-day example.
Father Time Stops for No One
There is no doubt that Kobe Bryant is still the best player on the Lakers. But at 36 years old, Bryant has lost a couple steps, and although his footwork is impeccable, he is expending more energy putting up lower percentage shots than before. As a player who uses up a high volume of possessions and also takes a lot of chances on defense, there’s a fair argument to be made that despite his skills, he detracts from, rather than adding to, a starting unit.
Bryant has averaged 33.5 min/game this season, and that’s likely 5-10 minutes too high for someone his age. Not only would moving to the second unit help cut down his workload, but it would also allow him to get easier looks on offense, which in turn would further reduce his fatigue.
Deploying Your Players Effectively
A coach’s job is to get the best out of the roster available, and part of that is identifying roles. Kobe has a knack for putting the ball in the basket (even if his recent performance doesn’t bear that out), but he is a volume scorer and can break the flow of an offense. If we take Kobe’s legacy out of the equation for a minute, we’re looking at a player that is contributing -0.2 Offensive Win Shares and +0.1 Defensive Win Shares to his team currently (per Basketball-Reference.com). These numbers could improve dramatically in a reduced role where Bryant doesn’t have to chase around hyper-talented 2-guards and doesn’t have to worry about keeping his teammates on the court as involved.
Furthermore, as the Lakers did previously with Odom, Kobe would join the starting unit late in the fourth quarter, when he has played fewer minutes than those around him and can take advantage of that extra freshness. Kobe has a reputation for being a closer, and the Lakers would be wise to continue looking to him in crunch situations. Since fatigue affects all aspects of a player’s game, giving Bryant the rest he needs early in the game will pay dividends for the Lakers late.