I believe it was when I saw Kobe passing for assists, clever assists at that, when I began to believe he’s changed as a player. Lakers fans might be a mite—but only a mite, really, it’s a regular season game—disturbed by losing to the Bulls yesterday, but they really shouldn’t be. Not if Kobe is passing for clever assists.
Contrary to popular belief, Kobe is by no means a complete or fulfilled player. Popular belief is typically only able to conceive of deficiencies on the part of basketball players as a failure of skill or a failure of hard work or failure of winner’s mentality. Kobe doesn’t really lack for any of these three qualities, and yet his deficiencies come not from his skill but from his wanting to play, to use the cliché, in the right way. That he has had a successful career is a testament to his own surpassing ability and the ability of Phil Jackson to keep his teammates from trying to kill him/each other. (Probably the biggest offender from the perspective of not passing the ball well enough is the sainted Derek Fisher. Every time Derek Fisher ignores Pau Gasol in the post, an angel weeps.)
Anyway, Kobe may or may not have changed recently, but he certainly looked the part against the Bulls. Kobe has always been a good passer—I’m fairly sure if he put his mind to it he could be a top quality point guard—but his assists have always tilted towards the obvious: the kickout to the open three-point shooter or the interior pass for the dunk. Kobe’s passing against the Bulls was clever and inventive—there were a couple of splits of double teams on pick-and-rolls, and it was beautiful to watch.
Kobe’s passing is probably the consequence of his slowing down as a scorer. He’s been more efficient this year than last, but it’s pretty early so far—he’s had three knee surgeries in three successive years, and everyone forgets how slow he was from the end of the regular season through the beginning to middle of the Lakers’ first round series against the Thunder (Kobe got his knee scoped in the middle of the series and thereafter looked much better). Then as now, the main engine of the Lakers’ success was the combination of Gasol, Bynum and Odom, who in tandem formed a matchup problem no other team in the league could confront.
The other news from the game was the Derrick Rose phenomenon. He’s unreal: he’s so good that he’s not good enough. I refer, of course, to his inability to draw fouls. He relies on his ability to glide around players, which is an excellent way to get open but not as great a way to draw fouls, which is the foundation of an efficient offense. (Well, that or a bonanza of three point shooting, which the Bulls are also missing). The consequence of this paradox is that the Bulls are so uneven offensively: there’s not a lot of other offensive options, and there’s specifically not enough shooting. Their offense drifts in and out, ugly at times and exhilarating at others; the problem is that the ugliness always sticks out foremost in any longtime Bulls’ fan’s mind, because the ugliness has categorized the team since the Scott Skiles years, and while the chattering class has always yammered on about the need for a low-post option, the arrival of Carlos Boozer has not as yet cured the problem. Yammering, it’s been further confirmed, is sometimes not entirely accurate.